Former National Front leader tells conversion story as Leeds church for the most vulnerable celebrates 1st birthday

On its first birthday, a new Christian community for addicts, ex offenders and the homeless is celebrating a year of growth and dramatically changed lives - including that of Tony White* who used to lead National Front demonstrations in Bradford and Leeds.

St George’s Crypt has looked after the practical needs of the homeless for over 80 years, but the curate (and others) at St George’s Church also wanted to develop a Christian community for those on the margins. So ‘The Lighthouse Network’ was formed and will celebrate its first anniversary in January.

Jon says, “Many of the people we see don’t feel comfortable in a regular church service so we’ve set up a separate Sunday gathering as well as a mid-week drop-in and bible study. Around  40 men and women come on a Sunday and we’ve built a safe community where people who have little reason to trust others have established firm friendships. We have a hot meal and many want to share their story of finding a faith that’s helped them move away from addiction and crime.” 

Jon adds, “The team spends time on the streets and in the parks looking for the most broken; letting them know that there is hope and a community waiting for them. We get to pray for people in prison, in court, the tough pubs in Leeds and with girls working in the sex industry.

“We also work with the police, hospitals and prisons, and we send people to Christian rehabilitation centres which often take people that secular agencies won’t.  And, because they sign off benefits when they’re there, I estimate that we’ve saved taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds”.

But, Jon says, the road for these men and women is rarely an easy one: “Most come in crisis and even though they encounter the love of God, their lives can still be stormy. It can be exhausting supporting them through their particular struggles, such as violence and addiction – sometimes it’s 3 steps forward and 2.9 steps back. But we’re called ‘The Lighthouse Network’ because we believe Jesus provides a light in the storms of life and direction when we feel like all hope is lost.”

*Tony’s story
When I’m surrounded by people with one arm raised, it’s no longer a neo-Nazi salute but people praying for me.
Tony White (on left and right of photos above) used to lead National Front demonstrations in Bradford and Leeds. He became radicalised after his father had been severely beaten up in Halifax by a Hamas group because of satirical sculptures he’d made of Saddam Hussein.  

He says, “I’d had a lot of loss in my life and I walked into a church because I couldn’t stop crying. I felt out of control and kept praying ‘God help me’, but I picked up a bible and had a light bulb moment. I’ve been given hope, joy and peace, and after joining a couple of Alpha courses I’ve gone on learning from there”. He’s now a regular attender at Lighthouse and says, “The people here are genuine and get what we’re going through, and now when I’m surrounded by people with one arm raised, it’s not a neo-Nazi salute but because they’re praying for me”.

A sculptor himself, Tony now makes clutch crosses out of resin for the church to sell.

The Lightwork Network team also includes Chaplain to St George’s Crypt,  Roger Quick, Clare Newton from Leeds City Mission, Jimmy Laurence, a trainee vicar, and interns Millie Holmes and Hannah Robb.

Sunday Services
The Sunday service is very informal and there’s a high level of participation. Hannah says, “After lunch we begin with a song; often ‘Amazing Grace’ and James Taylor’s, ‘You’ve Got a Friend’. The words, “When you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand”, particularly resonate as many have been let down by people. Sometimes someone might add a new verse to a hymn from their own experience. Many have often been close to death and have friends who’ve died through addiction, so when we share what we’re thankful for we often hear ‘I’m thankful that I’m alive’. But one of the favourite features is Roger’s story times; he writes dramatic monologues from the perspective of a bible character such as the Lost Son.”

St George’s Church Christmas Day service will be broadcast live on BBC1 at 10am.

(PHOTOS – L-R: L-R: Tony White, Mark and Revd Jon Swales; John, Mark & Tony White; Steffan Moss looking at the Christmas star in St George’s)


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