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'I left my old self at the door'

After heavy drinking had put Michael Welch 'in a bad place', a warm welcome at The Salvation Army helped him turn his life around

I was met with kindness and a hot meal

THREE women – Nikki, Hazel and Jean – were instrumental in changing the life of Michael Welch when he was sleeping rough and drinking heavily. Their kindness gave him hope for a better future, and introduced him to faith.

When he was only seven years old, Michael’s happy family life was thrown into disarray by the death of his mother. It left him and his brother being raised by their heavy-drinking father – which was to have an effect on Michael in the future.

On leaving school, Michael worked in scrap metal before embarking on a two-year apprenticeship as a crane driver.

‘That turned me from a boy into a man,’ he reflects. ‘I saw some horrific accidents, and had some bad injuries myself, including broken fingers and toes.’

Michael left his job after a bad experience that could have ended in disaster. ‘I had to lift a crowbar to a load of burning metal, which came down on top of me,’ he says. ‘I could feel the heat coming up and flames licking through my protective clothing, but I couldn’t escape from the guard rail. No one came to help me. I had all the right equipment, but was nearly a goner. For my own safety and peace of mind, I had to get away from the Midlands.

‘I started drinking vodka to forget that experience. I did some temporary jobs before moving to Duxford airbase to work for a small security company. The work wasn’t hard and it was very quiet. Unfortunately I lost that job through my drinking, which had a bad effect on me and twisted my mind. If I had been better informed about its effects, I think I would have coped better, but there was no one to tell me to stop what I was doing to myself. As well as my father’s heavy drinking, my brother had died from drink when he was 30.’

After losing his job, Michael slept rough in Norwich. ‘It was my birthday, and I’d lost my sense of self-worth. Then I met Nikki at a soup run and she invited me to The Salvation Army’s Arc (Advice and Refreshment Centre), where I was met with kindness, a hot meal and a change of clothes.

‘But drinking had put me in a bad place, and I later ended up in prison with a 14-month sentence for assault. There I met a wonderful Salvation Army prison chaplain called Hazel, who gave me hope for a better future. I didn’t know then that she was also Nikki’s mum! She helped me feel the need to change my life. She gave me the right word at the right time.

‘Prison changed me. I wasn’t “the big man” now, just someone who had been dropped in at the deep end of life.

‘After my release, I went back to the Arc to thank them for helping me, and while I was there someone prayed with me. This opened my awareness of God, so I decided to go along to a service at the Salvation Army church.’

But deciding to attend a service was one thing; going into it was another.

‘I could see that The Salvation Army was a place of kindness, but I didn’t know how to react to it. I was afraid to go in, so Jean – a member of the welcome team – suggested that I sit in the porch and watch the service on the television monitor. I did that for two weeks and started to get a sense of belonging. I felt myself being drawn in and noticed a change inside me.

‘Jean assured me it was OK for me to go into the meeting. She told me to “leave my old self at the door”. So I did. Everyone was really friendly and welcoming.

‘Back at the Arc, someone gave me a book of prayers. I sat reading it on a bench in the cemetery, and saw this verse: “Come to me with your ears wide open, and you will find life.” The wind started blowing in the long grass and revealed a wooden cross on one of the graves. My body started to tingle, and when I left the cemetery I was a different person. I know now that God’s Spirit had come to me.

‘I did some voluntary gardening and an IT course while I was waiting to sign on. Now I have a new life, a new home, a new job and new friends. I am truly reformed – I don’t want to drink or fall back into my old ways. I’m in touch with humanity again.’

Michael became a uniformed member of The Salvation Army a few weeks ago. ‘I try to help other rough sleepers at the Arc not to make the same mistakes I did. I’ve been to drink awareness courses, and I want to be accountable for my actions – to know that what I do stands for something. I’ve got my sense of self-worth back. I’m a different person inside.’

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