The charity founder on mediating between Jamaican gang leaders, facing criticism from fellow Christians, and why the Bible is full of wisdom on mental health

You might know Patrick Regan OBE as the youth worker who founded and led XLP, a Christian charity working to prevent crime among young people in inner-city London. You might know him for his mental-health advocacy through his more recent venture, Kintsugi Hope. But I don’t think he’s a charity CEO or a mental-health specialist. He’s an evangelist.

There’s little that’s typical about Regan. Most evangelists don’t talk much about doubt. Regan does. “Out of all the people you’ve interviewed, I’ve probably got more questions than most,” he tells me. “I don’t get a lot of it.” But Regan’s passion to make God known among the most vulnerable becomes more evident the longer you spend time with him. In the course of our conversation, I realise that he’s on a constant mission to take the Christian message to the places where its least heard – whether among Jamaican gangs or corporate board rooms. 

We’re speaking at Ashburnham Place, a Christian conference centre in Sussex where Regan has come to lead a retreat. He’s a talented speaker, never short of a fascinating anecdote and adept at delivering deep spiritual truth with helpings of humour. His book Honesty over Silence (SPCK) was groundbreaking for many, giving permission for Christians to be vulnerable and open up about their pain. And Patrick doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk (see his answer to my first question). 

Regan is increasingly applying his hard-won wisdom outside the walls of the Church through his latest venture, Brighter Days. I never imagined that talking about mental health could open up gospel opportunities. But then again, I’m not Patrick Regan. 


How are you?

To be honest, life has been bumpy. My dad is going through a cancer journey, which doesn’t look great in terms of prognosis. Knowing how to process that is hard. I’m grateful to be here at Ashburnham and have space to reflect… 

Thank you for your honesty. Sometimes there’s an unhealthy culture in the Church, where the perception is that people who write books and speak on stages have got life sorted! Part of your ministry seems to be dismantling that stereotype. 

Yeah, I think honesty breeds more honesty. When someone’s real with you, you feel like you can be real with them. I don’t think you have to overshare, but being authentic doesn’t hurt anyone.

Tell me about your early life and how you became a Christian.

I grew up in Essex and went to church for as long as I can remember. I was probably there three times every Sunday. Christianity was very comfortable. 

When I was 16, I went to a place called Cardboard City, which was underneath Waterloo Bridge, and there were hundreds of homeless people there. I sat down with nine homeless guys. One of them had begged enough money to get a hamburger and they were passing it around and each person was taking a bite out of it. 

I remember saying that night: “God, I just want to see the world the way you see it. I don’t want to play it safe.” From that moment everything changed. A lot of people say they feel God at big worship events and on top of mountains. I’ve never felt God so close as when I was with a bunch of homeless guys sharing a hamburger. 

Why was that moment so significant?

It was a challenge to my values. But I’ve definitely been through other moments! 

When we moved to Peckham, we lived down the road from where Damilola Taylor was killed. A bottle was put into his leg in a stairwell and he bled to death. Damilola used to do the same walk home as I did. I remember thinking: I want to make a difference in the areas of knife crime, educational failure and poverty. 

Les Isaac, who founded Street Pastors, suggested I went to Trenchtown in Jamaica. It’s where Bob Marley grew up. The first time I was there, from the January to June, 600 people were shot. I remember going down this road called Bullet Alley and there were gun marks all over the buildings. A 15-year-old pregnant girl and her three-year-old twins were all shot there. 

I felt God saying it was time to let go. I’m like: I’m a founder, don’t be stupid…we don’t let go!

I thought: This is the most heartbreaking, depressing place. Then I met Miss Lorna Stanley, who had started a school there. She had gang leaders put a gun to her head and say: “Give us money, we’ll protect you.” And she told me: “I looked those gunmen in the face and I said: ‘Who do you think you are? Jesus?’” 


Miss Lorna decided that the kids were going to make banners for peace and march around the most violent places in the community. That evening, we were going to do a peace concert. Les Isaac turned to me and said: “You white boys, you don’t tend to come to Trenchtown. You go to your nice conferences, you speak at your nice Christian events. They are totally blown away that you’re here. They want to hear what you have to say.” 

As I stood on that stage, I remembered the old Sunday school trick. I got my £5 note out and said: “Who wants this?” Everyone’s hands go up. Then I screwed it up, ripped it, put it on the dusty floor and stamped on it. “Who wants it now?” and, of course, everyone’s hands go up. So I said: “I’m here to tell you that I believe every single one of you is made in the image of God. And the reason you still want this note is because it’s still worth five quid. Even though it’s been broken and damaged, it still has value. If you’d let me, I’d love to pray for you.” 

So many people came forward, it was incredible. People were crying in the middle of the streets. When I got off the stage, Les said: “The atmosphere has changed. An hour ago, this place was as tense as you can get.” 

I decided: I want to keep going back to those places. I don’t want to do the conventional places. That’s always been my heart.

During this time you launched XLP, a youth charity aimed creating positive futures for young people living in London’s estates. What were the initiatives you ran?

One of my favourite projects was when we approached MTV, who did this show called Pimp My Ride, where they’d take a clapped-out old vehicle and turn it into something crazy, like a car with a jacuzzi in it. We had this idea: “If we give you a police riot van, would you turn it into a mobile recording studio and give it back to us?” We expected them to say: “No!” They got nervous, because we were Christians, but they agreed. They said: “We’re not giving this to you because you’re Christians. We’re giving it to you because we think you’re the best at what you do.” It was brilliant. So instead of kids wanting to avoid a police riot van, they wanted to get in one! 

But it was a beautiful mess. For every success story, if I’m honest, there were five or six that weren’t. 

Yes, and a lot of the issues you were combatting – knife crime, youth violence – have arguably got worse in the years since. That must be hard.

Yeah, it is really hard. I think the challenge is that, as Christians, we can easily get overwhelmed. I keep saying to my team that Chinese proverb: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Hope is always there. For every awful act, there are outrageous acts of love, kindness and justice that will never hit the headlines. We have to hold it in balance. Walter Bruggeman, one of my favourite theologians, said that to be prophetic, you need to evoke grief at what is lost, but create amazement at what is possible.

You’d founded a thriving charity in XLP. Why leave?

It made no sense whatsoever. I’d spent ages getting to where I was. The [then] Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited us, and we were in and out of Number 10 [Downing Street]. But I felt God saying it was time to let it go. I’m like: I’m a founder, don’t be stupid…we don’t let go! But I felt really convicted that it was time to move on.

I’d always struggled with anxiety. Then I went through what I describe as my ‘Tetris moment’ – when the blocks are falling out of the sky quicker and quicker and quicker. My kids got really sick, my wife nearly died giving birth. And I was like: God, what is going on? 

I started feeling a bit disingenuous. I was having pictures [taken] with the prime minister – the showreel looked amazing – but behind the scenes I was broken. If I’m honest with you, I was just working too hard. 

Then I got diagnosed with this degenerative knee condition. I had metal screwed into my bones, and pins through my leg. I started to unravel. It was a really dark time. I came across the Japanese artform of Kintsugi and it spoke to me – the idea of repairing something but putting gold in the glue and so, instead of hiding the cracks, it becomes more beautiful for being broken. Our scars are not there to be ashamed of. Jesus in his resurrected body had scars. Could all of this help someone else? Could my mess become my message? (Without sounding too cheesy!) 


You describe yourself as an ‘activist’, so it must have been hard to have months not working while you recovered from surgery?

It was a huge shift. I felt guilty that I was struggling with my mental health. I had Christians come up to me and say: “Are you praying enough?”, “Is there some hidden sin in your life?” 


Yes, people said that. 

When I was in King’s College Hospital, I was in a really bad way. The chaplain said: “How are you doing?” I said: “I can’t pray, I can’t do anything.” I thought God must love me, because that’s what the Bible says. But I wasn’t sure he liked me very much. 

Honesty breeds honesty. When someone’s real with you, you feel like you can be real with them

The chaplain said: “I’ll give you a bit of advice. Don’t pray.” I wasn’t expecting that! She said: “You’ve got so many drugs going through your body. You haven’t slept for days. Let me pray, and let other people pray. We’ll carry you for a bit.” It was the most liberating thing. 

You went on to start Kintsugi Hope, which helps churches support people’s wellbeing. What does an emotionally healthy Church look like?

What a question! I don’t know. But the Bible is full of wellbeing advice. It’s just written in a completely different way. You won’t see “mental health” in the Bible, but you’ll see shalom [commonly translated: peace] all over it.  

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in 30 years of doing this work? 

I’ve learned I can’t fix anything. I’m not the saviour. Only Jesus can do that. 

Yes, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking everything is down to us. 

And we’ve got this narrative – I think a lot of our worship songs back this up – that: “Anything is possible. There are no limits. You can do anything you want, if you put your mind to it.” The classic motivational speech. Actually, that’s just not true. It’s a recipe for disaster. We are limited…

But what about Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”? 


The thing is, I’m limited. I can’t understand Excel spreadsheets for the life of me. And, and to be honest, I don’t want to! 

Just to clarify, you aren’t saying the verse is rubbish, just the interpretation. 

Yes, it’s a great verse!

So what does it mean? 

It’s about what God is calling you to do. It isn’t saying: “There are no limitations.” People use that verse to say you can do anything you want. But as my pastor used to say: “If you’re gonna give that verse to anyone in this church, write it on the back of a very large cheque!”


Your latest venture Brighter Days sees you speaking both to Christian and mainstream audiences about wellbeing. How did that come about? 

About a year ago, I was looking at all my books and I thought: Wow! I haven’t got one book here that I would give to one of my non-Christian friends! I have some really in-your-face evangelistic books but, hand on heart, I don’t think I’d give them away. 

My wife always says: “Don’t moan unless you’re willing to do something about it.” So I wrote Brighter Days (SPCK). It’s bite-sized with short stories, illustrations and tools that have helped me. It could be given to anyone. It does have spiritual content in it, because I believe health is mental, physical and spiritual. 

I was sat in a leaders’ meeting, talking about who’s going to speak at which seminar at one of these big festivals, and there were so many Christian speakers wanting to speak. I felt like we were all competing for the same space. So I was praying and saying: “God, what would it look like to take the message into the marketplace?” I want to be in places where the majority of people listening to me aren’t Christians. 

I often talk about resilience, and the three things that raise my resilience are family, faith and friends. And that starts a conversation. I’ve done it at local authorities, in businesses. I even got asked to speak on a cruise, which was really suffering for Jesus! 

We’ve gone into prisons, homeless shelters and other places which can’t afford to pay. I’m not going to ignore the Church, because I love the Church. But I’m out there, and that’s an important place for me to be. 

Whenever anyone straddles two worlds, they risk being misunderstood. Has that been a challenge?

Yes, on both sides. I went into a school to do wellbeing training and [could] tell this one guy was very cynical. He’d probably googled me and realised I was from a church background! But, by the end of the session, he was in tears because he was so moved. 

On the other hand, I’ve had Christians telling me that because I’m not mentioning Jesus all the time, maybe I’m releasing demons into the atmosphere. I was like: “Thanks for that encouragement” [laughs]. 

Whenever you speak, you have to be respectful of the context. Jesus was the master communicator, and he communicated in stories. And they weren’t neatly tied up at the end. People went away thinking: I wonder what that means. 

The other thing is, I don’t know if I’ve got this right or not. I’m giving it a go and waiting to see what happens.  



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To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 8pm on Saturday 11 May, or download ‘The Profile’ podcast