I grew up as part of quite a poor family in South Manchester. My mum was an alcoholic, and would spend most of the family’s money on drink. Neither of my parents worked, apart from the occasional cash in hand jobs that my dad would find.
When I was 10 my mum committed suicide. Then my dad moved his new girlfriend in who was a heroin addict. My house went from being filled with alcoholics to crack and heroin addicts. There were people coming round regularly to sell her drugs, and we would constantly be on the phone to crisis teams from mental health.
I went from being a well behaved young lad to one who was quite angry. I was getting sent home from school, I was fighting and I started stealing. I stole from everyone, even my own family. It was at this point my dad started getting tired of me. I had quite a big fight with one of my brothers, and he kicked me out, leaving me to fend for myself on the streets.
I moved into a youth hostel in Manchester and got introduced to harder drugs. Pills, coke, speed, I thought I was just enjoying myself, but really I was just trying to escape. Eventually it just got too much.
Somehow I managed to get a place on a university course, in East London, but I used the bursaries and loans to fund my habit. I was there for 8 months, before I moved to Leeds and did the same thing there.
Now I was homeless in Leeds, and I was a physical and emotional wreck.
I managed to get a place in Halifax, but had to walk there from Leeds with all the bags that I had. It took me six and a half hours, crying most of the way. When I arrived I sat, looked up to the ceiling, and just started sobbing. I did not have a belief or faith in God, and I did not address it as a prayer, but in essence that is what it was, I cried out. “Help I can’t do anymore.”
I went to a foodbank in Halifax, and on the tick list where they ask do you want pasta, rice, tea or coffee, one of the options was prayer, so I ticked that, and they prayed with me and told me about a Church called Saturday Gathering. I went along that evening, only for something to eat really, but they started telling me about this man who died on a cross, the nativity stories that I heard growing up, that he had power for me. They started telling me all these words like ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ that I can have, things I wanted, so with the capacity that I had, the best way I knew how I set to follow Jesus.
It looked messy at times, three steps forward, twenty back, and this went on for a long time. I had expected a Damascus road experience, when in reality I would have to fight for my faith.
In 2014, my pastor took me to a rehab called Teen Challenge. They put in some key disciplines and did some good study there and I had a real and powerful encounter with God, but it brought up a lot of pain from my childhood and I started to prod and think about these scars, trying to deal with it. I just upped and left.
I moved to Lancashire and started going to church on a Sunday, but there was no real substance to my faith. I had met God, but I was not equipped to follow him.
I had just done four months clean in Teen Challenge, but now I started to slip back into old patterns, starting with the weed and the coke. One of my friends came and stayed with me, bringing with him some of his friends. They were big lads, and they put a cannabis farm in my house. 72 plants, probably worth about 50 grand.
At the same time my vicar wanted me to go through some sort of Church of England training and I had to confess, “Look, there’s a big cannabis farm in my house”, and he said, “If you love Jesus, and if you want to live for him, you’re going to have to leave, you’ll have to give up everything and go”. So I did. I gave up everything. I was literally left with the clothes on my back, and a change of clothes in my bag.
I managed to get into an emergency hostel, but it was not safe for me in Manchester, partly because I had reported the people I was living with to the police, but also because of my own drug use.
So I came to Leeds where I found Lighthouse, a fresh expression of church which reaches out to vulnerable members of society and met Jon Swales. I went up to him and said, “I don’t want to, but I feel God’s calling me to be a leader of some sorts. I’ve given up everything, there are no more old friends, there are no links to the past, I need to live for God now”. Jon, being a decent theologian and having a platform for me to grow in leadership just poured out into me.
Since then I have started doing an internship with St George’s Church, I have become one of the pastors at Lighthouse and I am exploring ordination.
Part of the process of moving into leadership, for me, was having to step out from being one of the people that access a service, to leading it. Things like not smoking helped with that, just setting yourself apart. You get a bit of stick for it, but you have to set your stall out from day one as ‘I’m for God, I’m not one of the boys’.
Integrity is something I have had to practice and use in leadership when I have tried to follow Jesus, and I have not had integrity, it has not worked. When I was shown that it brought me, not just to a place of discipleship, but leadership.
One of the big things that has been a struggle is how middle class, not just St George’s is, but the Church of England as a whole, and I have really had to work to overcome that barrier. A lot of people doing the internship are from student backgrounds, for them, lighthouse is cross culture, whereas for me that is my stomping ground. I recently preached at an Anglican church in Hyde Park and for me, that is the more difficult place to be because I feel there are barriers in relating to people. It is like we speak a different language. A lot of the barriers I feel might be on my side, because I am more aware of my inadequacies, like my lack of education or the way I dress. Sometimes I come to prayer meetings in joggers. They like it that I am being myself, but it can create a barrier. I don’t know if sometimes, part of being working class is that there seems to be a pride to it. It is like patriotism, we are very proud of our roots. I maybe play up to that a little bit, because it is really easy to forget where you have come from and who you are, but also I realise it can hold me back in church leadership.
Another struggle is around relapse thoughts. Whenever I get thoughts to go back to my old life or I need pastoral support I feel, sometimes, they do not always understand or relate to what I am going through.
One of the things that has helped is having one on one support from different clergy. I am being mentored by four different people, but I am just trying to gain as much as I can. I think having a life of rejection and being marginalised, making sure that I am included is something that has been done well. Instead of saying ‘Just go and preach at lighthouse, just go and serve there’, which I love, they have actually said, ‘let’s make him versatile to both worlds’. Things like that have made me think there is more to me than my testimony. I am not just being given a shot to tick a criteria box or to get some funding but I actually see that people want to invest in me.
But I also bring some strengths to ministry. My testimony is definitely one of them. In reality, middle class people are just as broken as the rest of us, but I feel like I am more willing to be vulnerable with my brokenness than a lot of people in my church. A lot of people here want to achieve and be competitive with each other, whereas I can come and admit my flaws. I am not trying to achieve anything, I am just grateful to be at the table. So, I think, there is a humility to my leadership.
I also think it can help that I never had some of the Sunday school teachings that others had. They can be great, but, they can also hinder you in learning new ideas and new theology. I do not have any theological baggage holding me back, I can approach the text as an adult.
Jon has been giving me Bible studies and even though I have not had the best education, I have been hungry for it. Anything you lack in intellect can be made up for in enthusiasm and interest in the topic. My lack of education has mainly been because of opportunity and environment, so anything that I am missing, I can make up for. I have come to the church, I have poured out my heart and said, ‘can you fill this with opportunity and knowledge’, and they have been more than glad to do it.
I used to think the reason that there were not many people like me in the church was because they were not wanted, but now I am finding that if more people from our background were willing to step up, there are people willing to pour into you.
James Hossein is now an intern at St George’s Church, one of the pastors at Lighthouse West Yorkshire, and exploring ordination. He has been clean for 18 months.
Lighthouse West Yorkshire is a fresh expression of church and registered Leeds-based charity which reaches out to those who are battered and bruised by the storms of life. Many have multiple and complex needs, including homelessness, addiction issues, criminal backgrounds, poverty and crisis in mental health. Their Sunday Service is from 12:30pm until 2:30pm in St George’s Crypt.
Rev. Jon Swales is Lighthouse Mission Priest and also teaches OT at St Hild, Leeds School of Theology.