Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The armed robber who’s giving something back

Photo credit: Darrell Tunningley

When I was in primary school, I was still playing shops with my plastic till. Slightly older than me, my brother Stephen was pretending he was He-Man. But if Darrell Tunningley had been there, I imagine he’d have been stealing my chewy hamburgers and coercing He-Man into a vicious battle disguised as his arch nemesis, Skeletor.

Because by the time he reached double-digits, Darrell was fast descending into a dangerous downward spiral. By the age of 11 he was boozing it up and dabbling with drugs. Before long he had graduated to stealing cars, selling narcotics and generally getting up to no good.

The arrests started during his teens and it was clearly only a matter of time before he’d be doing hard time. After committing an armed robbery and thinking he’d got away with it, the young criminal found himself in serious trouble. He was sentenced to a five-and-a-half year stint.

Prison life wasn’t too different form life on Knottingley’s Warwick Estate, where he’d grown up. Having built up a reputation for himself on the outside, no-one was going to mess with him on the inside. He was known for extreme violence, and anyone that crossed him was treated to a generous portion of it.

This is not the kind of guy you’d imagine going to an Alpha Course to learn about Christianity. But after dispatching one aggressive knockback to the guy that invited him, Darrell realised attending the course could actually be a handy skive. He dragged a few friends along and plonked himself in front of the two decrepit nuns in charge of the series.

Initially hostile, Darrell eventually realised there was something special about these women. Not only was he overwhelmed by their love and patience, he actually started to listen to what they were saying. He began to realise God wasn’t as irrelevant as he’d always thought and he suddenly felt he needed answers to the many questions he’d harboured over the years.

After pouring his heart out to this God he’d heard so much about one night in his cell, he expected some kind of lightning bolt revelation but nothing happened. He went to bed feeling rather disappointed.

But the next morning things were very different. Not only did he feel a strong aversion to the cigarettes he’d smoked and the drugs he’d taken for many years, he started to experience a feeling of intense euphoria. The prison chaplain explained to Darrell that Jesus had given him a completely clean slate; that his past had been dealt with and he had been forgiven. He instantly and openly renounced drugs and violence.

This opened him up to certain risks, but overcoming the dangers and difficulties with God’s help only strengthened the sense of peace and joy he was feeling. He rang his former accomplices and told them he was ‘out’. He and several inmates who had also become Christians knew they’d been handed a fresh start and weren’t about to waste it.

Darrell feels God instantly started intervening on his behalf. He was moved to another prison and downgraded from category A (maximum security) offender status to a category C, despite having two years left to serve. He was also asked to lead the prison’s Alpha Course.

The response was incredible and the chapel – which held 500 – was constantly packed. New drug units were opened to cater for the growing numbers of men that had given their lives to Jesus and decided to kick the habit.

Before he was released, Darrell was contacted by Mark Finch, a pastor at church and community centre Hope Corner in Runcorn. Against the better judgement of his Scouse friends, he felt Runcorn was where God wanted him to be. He now spends a good deal of time with the local youth; the next generation of potential drug dealers and armed robbers.

Convinced he would already be dead if his life hadn’t changed so dramatically, Darrell feels hugely privileged to have been given a second chance in life. Not only is he a husband and father, he is now able to show youngsters like himself what it really means to be a man.

Read more about Darrell’s incredible turnaround and work at Hope Corner in the next edition of Sorted magazine, and in Darrell’s book, Unreachable.

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