A LISBURN man who turned away from a life as a paramilitary and is now serving as a minister in Canada has delivered a powerful message about redemption and peace at an event in Nipawin in his adopted country.
The Rev John McGregor, who lived in Derriaghy, took the theme From Bullets to Bibles' for the breakfast meeting, when he spoke about the dramatic change God made in his life.
A former member of a paramilitary group in Northern Ireland Mr McGregor, the executive director of the Canadian Revival Fellowship, spoke about his conversion from a terrorist to a gospel evangelist.
Mr McGregor, who has fond memories of growing up in Lisburn and his first job working in the old Lisburn Herald, said his story was certainly not unique in Northern Ireland
"It's a story about Jesus and about the grace of God," he said. "I promised the Lord long ago that I will gladly share the story about what He did in my life.
"I grew up in an environment where we were always told it's us and them and you can't trust them," he continued. "That kind of thing goes on all over the world, not just in Ireland."
He grew up in church, but got distant from church life during his teenage years. As a result of a bullying incident at school when he was 15 years old, he decided nobody would pick on him again.
"I started to live with my fists up and I'd make excuses to get into fights," he said. "I was convinced on the inside that the only way you could get respected and accepted is if you were tougher than anybody else."
He quickly developed a reputation and it was not long before he was invited to join a paramilitary group. As a result, he swore an oath to the organisation - with his hands on a Bible and a gun on top of it - that he would die before leaving it.
"You think that you'd found an answer because when some big fellow wanted to punch me out or pick on me I could reach back into my waistband and take out a .38 Special and just stick it right under his nose," he told the audience. "And it was always interesting to see the immediate attitude adjustment. All of a sudden they wanted to be my friend."
According to Mr McGregor the changes in his life started at work, where he was an apprentice printer. Another apprentice, who was the same age, was always talking about Jesus.
"I thought I had courage because I had a gun, but he really had courage because he had Jesus. And he had no fear of what people thought about him," he continued. "There was not a day at work for two full years that he did not talk to me about Jesus and I hated him. But out of all the people that I've known I'm so thankful for him."
After his colleague told him that he was on the wrong side of God's law, he vowed to get back at him.
"I decided that day 'I'm going to fix him'," he recalled. "He's always talking about the Bible, so I'm going to read the Bible and one day when he opens his big mouth at work I'm just going to paste him to the wall and I'll say that's not what the Bible says."
Mr McGregor started to read the Bible from Genesis, at least a chapter a day. "I'd read the Bible at night and then I'd clean and reload my gun and put it under the pillow," he said.
At the age of 19 he experienced a decisive moment one night after he read from Matthew 19:16-26 about the rich man coming to Jesus to ask what he should do to get eternal life.
"I had tried to change my ways, but the violence always bubbled out and I knew I couldn't change myself," he said. "That night in that little bedroom I realised the only thing I could do was throw myself on the mercy of God."
He went to the police and after two years they determined there was no point in prosecuting him. He also apologised to people for hurting them and he told his commander that he is leaving the paramilitary group. For the six years that he stayed in Northern Ireland after that, he continued to receive death threats from them. Sometimes he found a bullet taped to his front door or a note under his car's wipers to warn him that there might be a bomb underneath his vehicle.
"Terrorism is all about intimidation and fear, it's about the control of people," he said. "But when we surrender the control of our life to God, He is in charge."
On September 12, 1975 Mr McGregor's best friend, who also gave his life to God and turned away from terrorism, was shot twice in his head inside his home while his wife and two young sons looked on. He died 20 minutes later as the ambulance arrived. A few months later, on January 25, 1976, Mr McGregor and his wife landed as immigrants in Edmonton, Alberta.
He has settled now in Canada and is the Executive Director of the Canadian Revival Fellowship, whose mission is to assist 'God's people to restore their spiritual passion, however he still has family in Lisburn and said he will always remember the town he grew up in with fondness.
He concluded by saying: At this time of year so many people have no peace, life has been hard and difficuite, often unfair. Anyone can have peace in the heart regardless of the circumstances, peace is a gift from God that comes through the forgiveness of sin. God does not play favourites, if we come to Him He will forgive and save, He will grant His peace. That is my prayer for all in Northern Ireland."