Steve Mawhinney is the ultimate prodigal. After turning his back on God for years and becoming an alcoholic, his mother’s prayers drew him back and today he is a pastor. He spoke to David Littlewood.
It has been said that there is nothing the kingdom of darkness fears more than a praying mother. This certainly proved to be the case in the life of Steve Mawhinney. As a young man he turned his back on God in a big way, only to be restored after 17 years of backsliding through his mother’s faithful prayers.
It was no wonder, years later, as he watched her slip into eternity, that Steve knelt beside his mother’s bed in gratitude. “I thanked her that she had continued to love me, and to plead, pray, intercede and fast for me, even when my behaviour and lifestyle was getting worse instead of better. I told her the Lord had given me the best mother that a son could ever have.”
In fact, it was only through the prayers of his parents that Steve saw the light of day at all, the doctor previously having told his mother that she had ‘lost the baby and there was nothing he could do’.
However, after much fervent prayer from his parents and other godly people around them, a miracle occurred in the womb and Steve was safely delivered in November 1958. Even then, his birth was not without drama, as the umbilical chord had almost strangled him! Steve’s parents were missionaries to the Irish Republic and, growing up in a devoutly Christian home, he made a commitment to Christ at the age of eight.
Even as a young lad he was engaged with his parents in the work of God and says that he has ‘extremely happy memories’ of that period.
The slide into darkness and alcohol addiction began at the age of 14 when Steve began playing for the school rugby team. At 6’2” he was a natural shoe-in for a second row forward and loved the physicality of the game. However, with it came the after-match celebrations in the pub. Although this was totally alien to Steve’s upbringing, he was soon drawn into this world of drinking and smoking.
Asking himself why he took to drinking ‘like a duck to water’, Steve says that he believes it was a cover for his own shyness. Alcohol gave him ‘Dutch courage’ and a confidence he didn’t have naturally. Unfortunately, the drinking also got out of hand to the extent where Steve and a friend were actually suspended from school for arriving inebriated at the school play in the presence of the governors!
Finally, to the dismay of his parents, Steve told his father that he didn’t want to be the hypocrite any more – playing the devil all week and an angel on Sunday – and for the next 17 years he stopped attending church altogether.
Even more heartbreak was in store for Steve’s parents when, like the prodigal in Jesus’ parable, Steve suddenly left home at the tender age of just 17. Wanting to do his own thing, he sold what things he had and, instead of going to school that morning as his mother expected, he took the ferry to Holyhead and from there a train to London.
As he had told no one about his plan, the agonies his parents suffered when their son did not return home were indescribable.
But this was just the beginning of 17 years of constant, fervent prayer on the part of loving parents longing for their wayward son to return.
London being expensive, Steve soon found himself out of money and reduced to sleeping in hostels, all-night cafés, squats and other places too unspeakable to mention. He resorted to stealing bread and milk from doorsteps to feed himself as well as being a regular at homeless shelters.
However, in spite of their hunger, Steve recalls that he and his companions always seemed to find money for alcohol, surviving on a minimum amount of food so they could spend all day drinking. Living on the streets, he learned to fiddle unemployment benefits, signing on under different aliases at different employment exchanges, so raising money to fuel his drinking habit. However, Steve’s prodigal lifestyle received a severe shake-up when he was picked up by the police during an incident in London. This much needed shock to the system led him to see the dangers of the environment he was living in and to seek refuge with an aunt and uncle in Liverpool.
Grace of God
Although not Christians, his relatives treated him kindly, with his uncle obtaining Steve employment at the factory where he worked. After a number of short-term jobs Steve joined the Irish Prison Service in 1980, where his strong dependence on alcohol continued. Because of this, his lifestyle still tended to run out of control. He now says that it was only down to the grace of God and the prayers of his parents that he survived a number of close calls on his life from the Grim Reaper.During this period, however, Steve’s mother received a definite word from God that her wayward son would return to the fold. After that Steve began to feel an inner compulsion to attend a Christian meeting. He tried to fight it but the compulsion became too strong and so one Sunday he slipped in to the back of a church.
Here, the Spirit of God opened his eyes to his dire spiritual state. After a great spiritual struggle, in September 1989 Steve committed his life back to God.
So great was his joy in coming back to the Lord that he rushed off to tell his parents right away, even though it was by now two in the morning! Despite the rude awakening, his parents were thrilled and shared his joy.
Steve continued working in the prison service before sensing a call to the ministry. The sudden transformation in his life caused much amazement and comment among his fellow prison officers.
Married to Margaret with three children, Steve is now the associate pastor at Elim’s Tallaght Family Church near Dublin. He is also a qualified drugs and alcohol addiction counsellor. He regularly visits his old workplace of Mountjoy Prison and conducts Bible studies in the Tiglin (Teen Challenge) Rehab Centre.
Looking back, Steve says, “My life is living proof that God really does answer the prayers of his saints. No matter how far an individual goes from God, he can bring them back to himself and recommission them.
“And if the devil is trying to get your children, do what my mother did. Get before the throne of grace and don’t rest until the prodigal is returned to the fold.”