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Betrayal, addiction and prison are in past for Mark

After years of betrayal, addiction and prison, former Big Issue seller and now Norwich Salvation Army member Mark Parkinson tells Rosemary Dawson about his new life.

From alcohol and drug addictions to prison and homelessness, life has been a constant struggle for Mark Parkinson.
His difficulties started early. At the age of 18 months, he was taken from his home in Wisbech by his mother and a man he grew up thinking was his father. They took him to Cornwall.
“Although my real dad tried to find me, I didn’t meet him again for 39 years,” says Mark. “I was too young to remember him. This other man told me that he was my father and abused me. My mum wasn’t on the scene much as they split up fairly quickly. He also told me she had died, which wasn’t true.
“I started running away from home when I was ten. I was put into care and foster homes, and ran away from all of them. I hated living in Cornwall, and at 15 I hitched a lift to London. It was winter, and the only clothes I had were what I was wearing – shorts, T-shirt and trainers.”
Mark stole food to survive. “One day, a policeman saw me coming out of a garage with a load of pies and stopped me. The garage man knew I had taken them – I’d been in there before – but didn’t press charges, which was nice of him.
“By 16, I was well into drugs and alcohol. I soon got into trouble with the law for petty crime to support my habits, and had several stays at young offender institutions.
“I was living with the Jesus Army community in Northampton when I got a phone call from a woman saying she was my mother.
“I thought: ‘That can’t be right, she’s dead.’ Eventually, she managed to convince me of her identity. I still don’t know how she found me.
“As if that wasn’t enough of a shock, she also told me that my real surname was Parkinson, not the name I had grown up with. Being told that, at 21, turned my life upside down. It gave me some trouble getting my surname changed on my benefits ID papers, but knowing my real name meant a lot to me.
“I’m ashamed to say that I also stole money from my mother. But years later, when I was selling The Big Issue in Norwich, I paid her back, every penny. We don’t keep in regular contact. She has another family now, and I complicate things.
“In Bristol, I got involved with some travellers who promised me a home and a job. That didn’t happen, but when I tried to leave, they threatened to throw me through a window if I didn’t stay with them. Eventually, I escaped back onto the streets.”
Mark says that he has been in and out of prison, but during his last sentence – five and a half years for burglary – his life began to change.
“I decided I’d had enough of this kind of life, and I prayed: ‘God, if you’re there, help me to do something about it all and get free from drugs.’ I believe that was the start of my new life as a Christian.
“I managed to get off the drugs, but I wasn’t ready to give up drink at that point. Alcohol kept me warm on the streets and numbed my mind. I didn’t break that habit till I was released from prison. I’ve been clear for three years now.
“I asked the Lord to show me where I should go, and ended up in Bedford for a while selling The Big Issue. I’d been a seller since 1996, and always did this when I went somewhere new. It helped my confidence, gave me a purpose and kept me sober – even though I’ve often been spat on and sworn at.
“After living in St Albans and Ipswich, I decided to go to Norwich. Even though I’d spent time in the prison there, it seemed like a good city. So I walked the 45 miles from Ipswich and started selling The Big Issue in the city centre.
“The other place I looked for when I went somewhere new was The Salvation Army. They always believed in me and what I said. My background has made me very suspicious of new people, and I’m wary about who to trust. I’ve been let down so many times, but never by them.”
One Sunday, Mark heard a group of Salvation Army members holding a street service. He kept thinking about what he’d heard, and the next morning he committed his life to God again. “This time,” he says, “I was really determined to turn my life around.
“I was sleeping in a shop doorway when Major Barry Willson tapped me on the shoulder. He co-ordinates volunteers on the Army’s soup run in Norwich, which happens every day of the year.
“He invited me down to their soup kitchen, but I told him I was afraid I’d be tempted by the smell of alcohol from other rough sleepers. So he sent an email round to all the volunteers, telling them where I was, and from then on someone brought me sandwiches and hot drinks every night.
“Two volunteers – Mark and Sarah Byrne – came several times. They had become Salvation Army members in recent months. I was interested in what they had to say.
“We met again one wet Wednesday night and chatted for a couple of hours. They managed to get me a room in someone’s house, which was fine, but it didn’t last long. The chap was arrested soon afterwards for growing cannabis in his back garden, so I was back on the streets.
“Then they invited me to spend Christmas with them, and, several visits later, actually offered me a room in their house. They have four children, and it was a big step on both sides. I’ve lived there for two years now, and they have “adopted” me as one of the family.

“They also managed to trace my real father, who lives in Chatteris, and we were able to meet for the first time in 40 years. We’re still getting to know each other, but are in regular contact and go fishing together. There’s a lot he doesn’t understand about my former life, but he’s pleased that I have managed to turn myself around and overcome my addictions.”

Although he has overcome his alcohol addiction, Mark is aware how easy it would be to start drinking again and so is careful to avoid temptation.
“If, for instance, we go out for a meal and the atmosphere is heavy with the smell of alcohol, I don’t go in. We just go somewhere else. Christmas can be difficult. I won’t eat Christmas cake, pudding or mince pies, because the fruit is usually soaked in it. It’s not worth the risk.”

After moving in with Mark and Sarah, Mark started attending worship meetings regularly at a Salvation Army church in Norwich. So what were his first impressions?
“I’d been to several meetings before at different places, mainly because I knew I could get a hot drink there. Some churches are a bit snooty if you turn up and are a bit smelly, but the Army welcomes people from all walks of life.
“The church at Norwich was a lot bigger than any I’d been to before, and the first couple of times weren’t so easy. I still don’t really like new places or new people. But everyone was friendly and welcoming, and I soon began to feel comfortable. Everyone is supportive. It’s like the family I never had.
“Last December, I became a ‘proper’ member, wearing Salvation Army uniform. It meant a lot to me that my dad was there to see me, along with all my adoptive family. I never thought it would happen to me.”
Mark now works part-time as a care assistant at the Army’s day-care centre and helps provide a weekly hot meal for people experiencing homelessness. He also takes his turn on the same soup run that brought him into contact with the people who offered him a home and – for the first time – gave him the opportunity of sharing a family life.
“I believe God sent Mark and Sarah to me at the right time, and I can’t thank them enough for taking me into their home and having faith in me.”
This article is reproduced courtesy of The War Cry.
Pictured above is Mark Parkinson, who is now a member of The Salvation Army in Norwich, enjoys a chat with Big Issue seller Jimmy (left). Picture by Michael Grimshaw.

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