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How I left 'drink, debt, divorce and quiet despair'

Paul Cowley cares for former prisoners because he knows the care that works

“Drink, debt, divorce and quiet despair” is how Paul Cowley sums up his life before the age of 39, when a “strange thing happened” – he started to hear about God.

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Cowley was born in Manchester in 1955 and raised as an only child by parents who were functioning alcoholics. But by the age of 15, his unsettled home life led to him living on the streets. He got involved with crime, and went to prison for a while. Once he was released, he didn’t know what to do with his life. He ended up in the army for almost 17  years, all the while struggling through two divorces, and an addiction to alcohol.

“The strangest thing happened to me. Someone started talking to me about God.” – Paul Cowley

“I grew up an atheist; my parents were atheists. The school I went to had no religious education. In prison, I never met a chaplain and all those years in the army … I never met a padre. So up to the age of 39, I didn’t know about God.”

Then “the strangest thing happened to me. Someone started talking to me about God.” This friend took Cowley to Alpha, a course used around the world that introduces people to the basics of the Christian faith.

“I went on that course and I met with God and it was a bit of a shock and it had a massive effect on my life,” explains Cowley. “I started to slowly change with God’s help. I married my girlfriend at the time, got my son back into my life; I’ve got a daughter now who’s absolutely gorgeous.”

“I got involved in prison work because of my past.” – Paul Cowley

Paul then did three years of theology training, got ordained and started a number of initiatives including ‘Caring for Ex-offenders’. This assistance programme for former inmates now sits under the umbrella of the William Wilberforce Trust, established in 2011.

Named after the famous English politician and Christian who spearheaded movements during the 18th and 19 centuries to abolish slavery, the William Wilberforce Trust aims to positively assist the “transformation of society and the restoration of community”.

“I got involved in prison work because of my past,” says Cowley, who saw a need to offer prisoners and ex-offenders an opportunity to get their lives back on track, using Christ as the foundation.

“… the reoffending rate can be as low as 18 per cent.” – Paul Cowley

“In the UK, the reoffending rate in the prisons can be as high as 78 per cent. So, in two years, 78 per cent will re-offend and go back in.

“But the men and the women in the prisons who decide to come to a knowledge of Christ in the prison and they want to change… [they might] get in touch with [our] charity ‘Caring for Ex-offenders’. We meet them at the gate when they’re released and then take them to the local church…  We put mentors around them and we start looking to sort their lives out… and if they go through all that… than the reoffending rate can be as low as 18 per cent.”

Due to the ongoing success of the course, it’s sprung up in various countries including Australia. But for Paul, no matter where the William Wilberforce Foundation is established only one thing really matters: “As I get older and I see more stuff, if someone doesn’t make a sincere commitment to Christ and mean it, be prepared to make some sacrifices and maybe drop some people away that will influence them in a bad way, then whatever you put around them isn’t going to work.”

“It’s the faith; they’ve got to have a genuine commitment to faith.”

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