Bobby Mathieson has intense eyes and speaks earnestly, the words pouring out of his mouth almost as quickly as he is formulating them.
During our interview, which takes place in the very large and modern building that houses the congregation of Bangor Elim Church, he says many things, but perhaps the sentence that stands out most for me is: “I thank God that He put me in prison.”
When he was 20 years old, Bobby was one of a group of men involved in a loyalist paramilitary organisation sentenced to life imprisonment for serious offences - including murder.
He was released in 1994, after serving 14 years, and was basically a broken man when he came out.
The UVF - which he joined when he was 18 - held a kind of ‘welcome home’ event for him when he returned to his native east Belfast, but Bobby was impassive and full of fear. Scarred by the emotional effects of drug use in prison, coupled with the torment of intense guilt over what he had done as well as a conviction that he was “condemned by God and on my way to Hell”, he was practically falling apart.
Fast forward 18 years and now, at 52, he is finally living out God’s plan for his life, as a leader in Bangor Elim, and working with young people and prisoners.
“I was in a pile of dirt on the floor; I couldn’t go on,” smiles the father-of-five, who now lives in Bangor with his wife Alison.
“Jesus picked me up and said, ‘are you finished with your life?’, and I said ‘yes’, and He said, ‘well, I can use you now.’
“I had given up on life and He changed my life, and all the glory has to go to Him because it’s nothing to do with me.”
Born in east Belfast, Bobby later moved with his family to the Highfield area close to the Shankill, where he attended Sunday School and enjoyed playing football with his friends, including those from the predominantly nationalist Ballymurphy area.
Then “overnight it all changed”, he recalls, adding how he could remember a constant army presence in the area, as the Troubles began, and eventually, he “started running along with the crowd” - and that included the wrong sort of people.
“You were seeing the worst of life in general,” he says.
“Certain things that shaped the way I thought. My mum moved us out of Highfield to get us out of the Troubles. We moved to Dundonald and there I got into my football.”
Indeed, the sport ‘ran’ in the Mathieson family; Bobby’s brother Andy had played for Glentoran FC, Bobby, meanwhile, signed for south Belfast based club Linfield, and began travelling with the club on various trips. He even had a trial for Sheffield United.
“I was about 16 or 17 by then,” he says.
“By this stage I was running about the streets, getting involved in different things, like running about in gangs, collecting for bonfires, joining bands and stuff. I was just brought up in the ‘Protestant ways’ to be a ‘Prod.’
“I started getting unsettled at Linfield and I wanted to get a transfer to Glentoran. While waiting to sign for the Glens, I ended up joining a team in east Belfast that my cousin ran.
“Then I started running about with the boys in the football team and they were all in the organisations, so...I got roped into joining. There were people on the TV shouting about the IRA destroying our country, generals in the bar were saying we need to defend Ulster, and I was saying that I was a boxer, a fighter. All these people I was running about with now were my mates and I decided to fight - I thought I was doing right to fight against the IRA.
“And so I joined the UVF when I was 18 and got into every kind of thing you could think of.”
Because he was into boxing as well as football, it became commonplace for the young Bobby to get into fights regularly with people in the bars he frequented.
He worked as a joiner, and worked hard, but found himself imitating the behaviour of those friends of his who were not employed.
“I was running about with people who didn’t work and moves were being made to make money; I was in those circles, so you get caught up doing the same thing. After two years running about, I was arrested at 20.
“Six of us were charged and there were 10 murder charges along with hundreds of others for shootings, robberies and every thing you could think of.
“When we got charged, I don’t believe there was remorse because in our eyes, we defended Ulster and were fighting for our country, and that was the way our mentality was.”
Bobby was sent to Crumlin Road jail initially, where he spent two years awaiting trial. He was then transferred to the Maze. “I didn’t feel anything, to be honest,” he admits, when I ask him how he felt about being sent to prison at such a young age.
“There was a certain feeling that you were all together and there was unity there; it was just like another part of your life, honestly I didn’t feel it was that hard. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than myself really, it was just selfishness.”
Life on the wings for Bobby began to resemble the way he had been living before. “We were drinking and partying down there,” he reveals. “But about nine years in, my mind started going all over the place.”
Bobby felt that his conscience was telling him how worthless he was, and showing him all the things he had done in his life that were wrong.
“My mind was telling me that I was a scumbag and a piece of dirt and that nobody wanted anything to do with me,” he says, emphasising his intense paranoia.
“I heard the word ‘repent’ spoken in my ear.” Each week there would be church sermons which inmates could attend, and Bobby recalls how the message of one preacher - the Free Presbyterian minister Reverend David McIlveen - had a powerful impact on him.
“He said ‘I have a wonderful life and if there is no God I’ve lost nothing. But if there is a God, you’ve lost everything.’”
Bobby believed that he was being judged and condemned by God; finally, he had a breakdown and had to me referred to the prison’s psychiatric ward.
He says: “My head was away with it - I was afraid of people, of medication, I was afraid of everything. I did start reading the Bible in the psychiatric ward, it was as if I was trying to read myself back to God.
“I was in the psychiatric ward for two years and a woman from Whitewell sent me letters of comfort, telling me that I could be saved. This started me thinking: why is a Christian woman writing to me if I’m lost, maybe I’m not lost...yet my mind was telling me, ‘you’re lost, you can’t be saved.’
Bobby started getting better with the help of medication and when he returned to the wings, he attended meetings with Christians there.
“They were very good to me, and one guy spoke the word of God over me and kept telling me I wasn’t lost and was going to be saved,” he says.
For him, it was finally the beginning of the end.