John Pridmore, author of From Gangland to Promised Land, grew up in London's east end, and turned to crime at an early age. At 10, his parents divorced. He began stealing at 13, was placed in a youth detention centre at 15 and was in prison by 19.
He worked in organized crime, craving what he believed really mattered - power, money and women - until one day he thought he had killed a man. The experience had a lasting effect on him.
"I had a big conversion to Catholicism," said Pridmore.
Pridmore will tell his story of crime, suffering and conversion at several speaking engagements in Toronto in late September.
Likening his story to the parable of the prodigal son, Pridmore has told it in at least 18 countries. Hope and redemption are at the core of the message he imparts, and it seems to resonate with different cultures.
"It shows that no matter how lost you become or how mixed up you become, there's always a way back to God's heart," he said.
Pridmore also uses the example of growing up dyslexic and not knowing about dyslexia, a disorder that makes it difficult to read or interpret words and symbols. He was told that he was stupid because he couldn't read or write. But since he's opened his heart to God, he has become a bestselling author.
"When you're labelled with something, you might think it's true, but when you open your heart to God, he shows you how many gifts and talents you really have. That's what I try to share with the people I meet," Pridmore said.
Freedom and forgiveness are also key to his message. He says the steps to freedom start with continually opening your heart to God and what he calls us to be.
"And having that love for your neighbour and that love and acceptance for yourself. . . . I'm still discovering that I'm a lot freer than I've ever been," said Pridmore.
"Most people get hurt in their life. Learning to forgive the people that have hurt you, learning to let go of that pain and let go of that hurt as well, is something I had to do. And probably the hardest person that I had to forgive was myself," he said.
"I can't change the past. I have to leave that to God's mercy, but I can certainly change my future and make it something beautiful for God's mercy, in Mother Teresa's words."
He also advocates volunteering and giving back to the community.
"I worked with Mother Teresa, had the honour of meeting her and to be honest, she had a major effect on me that through giving we receive. The more I've learned to give, the more I've received."
Youth can start giving back, he said, by befriending the kid at school who doesn't have friends, visiting their grandparents who may be lonely or volunteering to help feed the homeless.
Giving back to the community is "the greatest joy I've ever found," said Pridmore, who can't thank God enough.
"Now when I go to bed at night, I'm not thinking of all the people I've hurt, but I'm thinking of the people I've helped."