Vince Wemyss grew up in a small town where there wasn’t much to do except get into trouble. At secondary school he got into glue sniffing and left with no qualifications, barely remembering the last couple of years he was there. At 17 a friend invited him to see a band at a local venue.
“He didn’t mention they were Christian and told me to give it a chance. I was there wearing punk gear and stood out like a sore thumb,” says Vince. “I couldn’t stand the music to be honest, but the guy did an altar call to ‘know Jesus’ at the end. I thought, this is a bold claim – he’s either mad or there’s something in it.” Vince stood alone at the front expecting more people to join but it was just him. By the end of the prayer, he had an overwhelming sense of love and forgiveness and was completely convinced that God was real. “It was a huge moment of repentance and a dramatic conversion – outside of my day job in a factory, every moment of my time was spent serving in the local church.”
Fast forward a decade and having picked up his education, Vince enrolled at university for a degree in Biblical Studies. But there he began to lose his way. “It had the opposite effect to what you might imagine – I was hanging around with the wrong crowd and gradually drifted from God. I started to find Christians a bit nauseous.”
Not knowing what else to do with his degree, Vince became an R.E teacher for 14 years. But during this time he started to live a dual life, “I was being professional during the day but drinking myself into a stupor every night. Everything began to unravel: I had a breakdown, my wife and daughter left, I lost my house and I had a serious attempt to end my life.” Vince moved back to his home town in search of familiarity but his life was hurtling out of control. “By this point I was drinking a bottle of vodka a day.” Heavily inebriated and following an altercation, Vince was arrested for arson and sentenced to 30 months in prison.
“On the prison bus I started to pray. At that point it was just a cry for help, but in prison I repented for everything I’d done and most of all for neglecting God.” As his faith reignited and with support from the chaplaincy, Vince began to see gospel opportunities within the confines of the prison. He started speaking in the chapel and facilitating prisoner-led prayer groups and bible studies. “I didn’t just survive it but God used me and some people got saved,” says Vince. “When I left, I promised God two things: firstly, that I wouldn’t go back to prison and secondly that I would join a church.”
Vince moved to Portsmouth and visited Harbour Church. “I said to the Lord, I’ll be honest with the first person I come across. I’ll tell them my story and if they can’t cope, I’ll move on.” Unbeknownst to Vince, the first person he met was the vicar. “His response was: ‘Fantastic, you’re really welcome – we’ve just started a ministry to prisons and would love you to get involved.’” Vince met with others who had a vision for the ministry and before long he broke his first promise to God by going into the nearest prison to give his testimony, eventually participating in and leading an Alpha course.
Vince began to meet regularly with Christian mentor, Roger Vann. The two became good friends and shared their experiences of prison and prison leaver issues. Through a link with Above Bar Church in Southampton, Roger had the opportunity to train some of the congregation as mentors for prison leavers. Vince was able to give insight, understanding the mindset of someone leaving prison. It grew into a further vision for the Solent area, and the formation of New Foundations Community Chaplaincy.
Vince recently attended Stewardship’s Support Raising Training and there realised the importance of having a supportive team, not just financially but for encouragement and prayer too. “It can feel lonely because the work I do is so confidential, I’m speaking to very broken people and wading through pretty dark stuff. It’s a slow process of witness, love, acceptance and not judging.”
What Vince longs to see is a Church that loves the most marginalised in society. “Look at what Jesus valued – giving sight to the blind and freedom to the captives. Half of the reason why people end up in prison is because they don’t have the belonging and accountability of a loving community and relationships, so it’s important they find that when they’re released.”
Vince describes the events of the last couple of years as a series of opportunities. “I’ve got an urgency now after wasting years of my life in self-destruction. I’ve just got to be full on for Jesus. I can’t do lukewarm.”
Pray that God would raise up Christians to mentor and support prison leavers in their localities; providing love, support and community.
Connect your church with its local prison and commit to pray regularly for those ministering to prisoners and prison leavers. Look into donating laptops, tablets and phones that are essential for communication and application forms, as many leave prison with nothing.