Chatting to Darren at Neal Street Espresso – our social enterprise coffee shop in Covent Garden, London – you immediately notice his warm, sunny attitude and huge love for people. However, life hasn’t always been easy for him.
Having had a tough time growing up, Darren spent 30 years in and out of prison, until Jesus turned his life around. And what a transformation it’s been! Today, Darren uses his story to help others whilst serving coffee from Neal Street.
‘I grew up in East London in what can only be described as a very dysfunctional family. My dad died when I was very young, and my mum was an alcoholic who struggled with depression. So, from a young age my siblings and I were split up and I had to care for my mum. Desperate to find some sense of belonging and figure out who I was, I quickly found myself involved with gangs and from there things escalated, and I started getting involved in crime.
‘In my twenties, I found myself arrested on really serious charges and was sent to prison for 20 years. Whilst there, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my life and thinking about God. I had always believed in Jesus but hadn’t fully given my life to him because I knew that once I did, I couldn’t go back.
‘In my cell one day, I found myself thinking ‘I know God is good. I want to be good’, and right there and then, I knew I wasn’t alone and that I was loved by Jesus. I was so encouraged that I couldn’t help sharing what had happened with others. When I was released, I tried doing everything I could to care for my wife, kids and grandkids to make up for lost time. But I couldn’t shake the guilt of what I’d put them through and to try and escape this I ended up falling back into my old ways, which led to me being back in prison just five years later facing another long sentence.
‘Back in a cell, I wrestled with how at age 50 I could be back in prison. I sat thinking to myself ‘Where will I end up if things don’t change? How can I get out of this cycle?’ I had an amazing wife, kids and home and still it wasn’t enough for me to change my ways and stay out of prison.
‘As I started thinking about my faith, I knew I hadn’t committed to it seriously over the years. But there and then, I got down on my knees and fully gave my life to Jesus almost 30 years after I first experienced God in my cell!
‘In that moment all the heaviness, guilt and shame lifted off me. It was like I’d been carrying around a rucksack full of the behaviours that I’d learnt as a child to protect myself, and all of a sudden the weight of these had been taken off me and they were completely gone. I felt so free and full of hope for the future, and passionate to share my story and help other ex offenders find new life in Jesus! Leaving prison wasn’t easy but I was determined to live the life Jesus wanted for me. Friends at my church told me about The Message and the work they do with ex-offenders giving them jobs, training and discipleship as they look to leave their old lives behind.
‘Through this I got the chance to join the team at Neal Street Espresso – The Message’s speciality coffee shop here in London. And I love it!
‘Every day my faith is not only growing, but God is using my story to help others. For example, later this week I’m meeting up with someone I used to know from my gang days who’s seen such a transformation in my life that he wants to change the direction of his life too. I’m excited to tell him about Jesus, pray with him and see what God does! No conversation is wasted, and God can use every opportunity. I can’t wait to see how God will use me in the future to share his love with those around me.’
Find out more about Neal Street Espresso and our enterprise work at nealstreetespresso.com