Paul Winter: from a life of crime to love of the pulpit

Paul Winter
Paul Winter

During one of the lowest, darkest points in his life, Paul Winter was living in a house in Lurgan that had “cages along the back of the door” and specially installed bullet proof windows.

A self-confessed alcohol and drug addict, who had been in and out of prison most of his life, for paramilitary related activity and other offences, he admits, when I probe him as to what was running through his mind back then: “I wasn’t thinking anything. I don’t know how I lived like that.”

Today, 48-year-old Paul is a changed man; married to long-term partner and fellow born again Christian Stephanie, he has a total of seven children and three grandchildren, and is heavily involved in the life and work of his local church, Emmanuel Church in Lurgan, the same church which led him to faith on January 2, 2002.

He has never felt happier or healthier, and admits that there is no place in his life now for alcohol or drugs.

“There’s nothing else, there’s only God,” he smiles.

Born and raised in east Belfast, Paul grew up with and had his whole outlook on life coloured by the Troubles.

“We moved out to Ballybeen in the early 70s; there was a lot of stuff going on then, places were being bombed, and it was the height of the Troubles. You couldn’t go into Belfast without getting searched.”

Paul had a solid upbringing, but admits that he “rebelled against everything.”

His parents were decent, moralistic people: “My mum was a Sunday School teacher, my father was a good, honest, hard-working man, and we were brought up the right way - the Protestant way, I suppose.

“But I was always fighting, I was always getting myself into trouble. Couldn’t keep away from it. And I couldn’t blame it on anyone else, it was just me, it was just the way I lived my life.

Whilst growing up in Ballybeen, Paul fell in with the wrong crowd, and continued to get himself “into trouble with my own people.”

He relates: “I was in and out of prison. I was up to my neck in the Troubles, which brought me to Sandy Row. I had got out of prison and met a girl, my first wife.”

The couple married and had a son, but Paul admits that he “was never there to be a dad to him.”

“All I was interested in was myself and having a good time. I ended up in the thick of of things worse than before, and mixed up in drink, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, everything and anything that was going, just to numb whatever I was out getting up to.

“So I thought it was time to move on again.”

In 1993 he moved to Lurgan, where he got a job, found a flat, and even met a new partner.

“Mum and dad thought their son might eventually have got himself sorted out,” he says with a wry smile.

“But soon I started burning the candle at both ends. I started making money elsewhere. I was working and partying the bit out, and it just became worse. I was mixed up in the thick of things, living in a top flat, and soon became the only one living in the block of flats. They ended up calling the place the Bronx.

“I was getting lifted all the time, police were at my house all the time, I was in and out of all different relationships. Then I met a girl a lot younger than myself - Stephanie. She stuck by me through everything, through the good times and the bad times.”

He adds: “I was going in and out of prison - my life was a complete mess. There had been attempts on my life both whilst I was living in the Sandy Row area and in Lurgan.

“Stephanie and I had a wee girl, Ashley, and that still didn’t calm me down. I ended up in Barlinnie Prison in Scotland. I missed the child taking her first steps.

“But I think I was starting to become more aware of God at this time. I remember being in Maghaberry prison and having an experience with God, God telling me that I was to ‘tell Kenny that there was much to do and not much time to do it’. I couldn’t work this out.”

When Paul got out of prison and returned home, his life began to fall apart again.

“My relationship with my girlfriend wasn’t going too well and I was out on bail on pretty serious charges. I decided to do a runner. I went to Manchester where I was put up with people I had met in Barlinnie.

“I thought I was on the run from the police, but I was really on the run from God. As the pastor would say, the hounds of Heaven were after me. I went down to Liverpool, then decided it was time to come back and get it all sorted out.”

Paul returned to his parents’ house to stay with them, when one day, his father asked him if he knew any of the people mentioned on a news story breaking on Teletext.

It was Stephanie, the mother of his child. She had been arrested in Dover for carrying half a million pounds’ worth of drugs.

But Paul went to see her in prison, and the pair began to patch up their relationship. They moved into a house in Lurgan. Paul continued to abuse substances, and said that each time he was under the influence he found himself “talking to Stephanie about God.”

It’s clear that the Lord was very much present in his thoughts, and he believes that this was down to the constant prayers over the years by his mother, ever fearful that his lifestyle would lead him to his death, ever hopeful that it was not too late for him to turn things around.

“My mother prayed for me for 36 years - there were buckets of tears shed for me in Ballybeen Mission Hall,” he says.

“My mum didn’t know whether I was coming home, whether she was going to read about me in the news, whether she would be standing over my grave - I was coming home with staples in my head, with black eyes.”

In the winter of 2001, there was a knock at Paul’s door.

“There was this guy standing there. He had a name badge on and he said to me, ‘I’ve got the wrong name badge on but my name’s Kenny Emerson.’”

It transpired that Kenny was involved in Emmanuel Church in Lurgan, where his brother Phil was pastor. He began quizzing Paul on the kinds of work he felt churches should be involved in and so on, and Paul engaged with him, half serious, half joking, telling him he would personally like to attend “one of those churches where they all stand with their hands in the air.”

Kenny responded by inviting him along to Emmanuel, and sure enough, Paul went along, after God reminded him of the message He had given him in prison all those years ago about a man named Kenny.

“I went to church the following Sunday. I had been doing a wee bit of drinking with a man, but told him that I wasn’t taking any drink that afternoon.”

Despite his best intentions, Paul had “a couple of drinks” and when he and his friend crowded into the small church, which was then based at premises in Union Street, they unfortunately fell foul to a fit of the giggles.

“We were making a bit of a ruckus - it was nerves,” he says. “The following week Kenny came round to my house and sat down with me. We had a good chat and he asked me if he could pray for me.

“The following Sunday came and I went to church, and the following Sunday came and I went to church - sometimes with a bit of drink in me, sometimes not.

“Coming up to Christmas 2001 I said to Kenny’s brother Paul, ‘I need to get saved.’

“He told me to come back on January 2. He never expected me to come, and at 10am they were opening up the shutters and there I came, dandering up the road.

“We had a chat and at 20 past 10 on January 2, 2002, I gave my life to Christ. Every year at 20 past 10 I phone up Phil and Kenny and say, ‘do you remember what you were doing seven years ago etc.’”

Four months later, Paul and Stephanie got married. On Easter Sunday of 2002, Paul was baptised.