Ex-armed robber is now on a mission of hope
2012: A former Rugby League player, who became a drug dealer and armed robber, is now an ordained minister helping troubled young people find hope in life. Mike Wiltshire reports.
Speaking to a Norwich audience recently, Darrell Tunningley explained how his life had been totally transformed from a one of crime to becoming a Christian minister helping to lead a specialist education centre.
It is all a far cry from the days when he was shot and stabbed during a life of violence that left him full of anger and gripped by addiction.
Although Darrell grew up on a rough estate, he managed to become a Rugby League player at county level, but fell into drug addiction and drug-dealing.
He and a gang thought they had got away with an armed robbery in Yorkshire until armed police with sniffer dogs smashed their way into his home in a dawn raid.
Given five-and-a-half years in prison, Darrell, a natural leader, was frequently involved in fights - he threatened to "slap down" a Christian "muppet" who came to the prison welding shop to invite fellow prisoners to an Alpha discovery course.
Next day the Christian bravely came back, quickly saying "you get free coffee… and time off" to attend the course. So Darrell shouted to his prison mates: "Come on, lads, it's a skive – we're all going on Alpha!"
But Darrell was shocked when two retired nuns led the course - "it was less Age Concern, more like 'The Mummy Returns'," he recalls.
The prisoners gave the nuns a very hard time, "but they were like love bombs . . . I got hit by a love sledge-hammer," says Darrell, who realised, deep down, he was "dead on the inside."
The nuns, he said, "never stopped loving us." So Darrell prayed one night that God would remove all the anger and bitterness in his heart. Nothing happened immediately, but next morning when he reached for a cigarette and a spliff, he was violently sick. He threw his drugs out of the cell window.
Then, while shaving, he hardly recognised his own smiling face as a deep joy and peace flooded his heart. "I felt a million times 'higher' than anything I'd experienced from drugs!"
A local magistrate, who is also a pastor, later helped Darrell rebuild his self-esteem, even inviting him to assist with Alpha courses which today operate in 80 per cent of the UK's prisons.
In prison, reprisals by slapping, stabbing and scalding were not un-common, but Darrell, as a new believer, felt God reminding him, "You're not that way anymore".
Now happily married to Rebekah, also a Christian, with two lovely young children, Darrell is a free man with a clear mission: "Jesus is more important to me than the air I breathe," he says.
"In the past, I've overdosed so many times, but choosing Jesus is a win-win situation. This is the deal – give it a go!"
Darrell's remarkable story of a transformed life is told in the book, Unreacheable.
In Norwich, he was the guest speaker at a dinner of the local branch of the Full Gospel Business Men.
Pictured above are Darrell and Rebekah Tunningley with children Benjamin and Lydia-Grace.