04 June 2006

The power of prayer

Sunday Life

Ex-UVF man's speaks of his hopes for peace and of the time he shared a stage with Sinn Fein delegates

By Karen Ireland
04 June 2006

AN EX-UVF terrorist - who once stood on the platform at a Sinn Fein annual conference - spoke last night of his hopes of seeing Protestants and Catholics united at a prayer service at Stormont today.

David 'Packie' Hamilton - who served 11 years for terrorist offences - told Sunday Life: "As a known, leading loyalist terrorist, who once found himself in the middle of a republican Ard Fheis, I know how powerful prayer can be and how it can unite people."

Up to 17,000 people are expected to converge on the Stormont Estate in Belfast today for the Global Day of Prayer.

Hamilton (50) - now minister of his own church in Stockport, outside Manchester - recalled the moment, several years after his release from jail, when he came face-to-face with republican prisoners from his H-Block past.

He said: "I was at a prayer meeting in Dublin when I looked out the window and saw loads of cars and people approaching the building we were in.

"I couldn't believe it when I spotted Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness arriving.

"As I watched the comings-and-goings, I recognised several leading paramilitary men who had been in prison at the same time as me and I was petrified.

"I thought, 'If these IRA men saw me, they would kill me'. Imagine me, a Prod and former UVF man in the middle of them at their conference in Dublin!"

Added Hamilton: "I panicked. I did the only thing I knew how to - I prayed and asked God to protect me and keep me safe.

"I walked out of the room we were in and came face-to-face with a one-time commander of the IRA.

"I didn't know what else to do, so I shook his hand and told him I was in the same building praying for their conference and for peace.

"He knew who I was, but extended his hand, too, telling me that, just because I was a Protestant, didn't make me all bad.

"Then he went in and told Gerry Adams about me being there and the next thing I knew I was on the platform.

"It turns out Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness knew all about me as they had read about me in a newspaper in the car on the way down to Dublin.

"There was an interview with a former IRA man who I had once given a lift to in my car - he called me 'The Prod who lead him to God.'

"In my mind, God kept me safe that day - just like he had so many other times. I was once shot at three times - the fourth time, when the gun was put to my head, the trigger jammed.

"It was one night in prison, when I started to think about that time and the many others when I should have been killed - or, worse still, killed someone else by my actions - that I started thinking about God for the first time in my life.

"When I was released from prison that time, unlike all the others before, I vowed not to have anything to do with my old connections again and to try to put my life in some sort of order.

"That's what I have been doing for the past 26 years - and I have seen so many changes in Northern Ireland and believe that it's days like this, when people in the province and indeed the world unite, that we will see change."

On leaving jail for the last time, Hamilton studied at Bible College before taking up evangelical ministry roles around the world.

He also married his second wife, Sharon. The couple have three children - Adam (21), Jonathan (18), April Joy (11) and also have grown-up children, Louise (30) and David (29) from previous relationships.

Said Hamilton: "It was difficult at the start - getting used to a new life and people torturing me to re-join gangs. It was stressful for the whole family.

"Sharon lost a baby during a time when there were many attempts on my life. It was after this that we decided to make a fresh start and I took up a post in Wales."

In addition to his ministry work, he has worked with drug-addicts and written a book, A Cause Worth Living For, about his jail conversion.

He is now in the middle of writing a follow-up - A Cause Worth Dying For - which charts his life since prison.

"Do I have regrets about my past life and the things I was involved in? Of course I do.

"I spent years agonising and breaking my heart over what I had done, but finally I just had to work it all through with God and seek his forgiveness.

"You can't let your past hold you back."

• Global Day of Prayer, Stormont Estate, Belfast, 3pm-5.30pm.

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