At 27, Jonny Richmond appears fearless. He’s just got married, moved to Devon and started as Director of Kingsbridge Youth for Christ. When I sit down with him, he’s buzzing about God. Yet candid about his journey: there was the day he blew all his money on drugs and spent the week high and hungry, for starters.
Jonny is remarkably relaxed, for a man who recently made three life-changing decisions. Dressed in a simple black t-shirt and jogging bottoms, he’s every bit the modern gym guy. I’m curious what drove a local lad from Rugby with a degree in Arabic and German to head south. “When I saw the advert for the role, I thought there was no way I could be a Director,” he replies honestly. “But, I’ve learnt over the years that following Jesus means saying ‘yes’ to everything He asks of you.”
Fun and Flashing Lights
Brought up by Christian parents, Jonny tells me he “always knew about God”. An inquisitive but shy boy, he loved Sunday school but when Jonny reached high school, he was picked on. Shell-shocked, he resolved to do everything he could to fit in, including “pushing God aside” at school. He got into running and hitting the gym hard and when he lost weight, he became popular. “Before long,” Jonny continues, “I was going out with friends instead of going to Church and faith stopped being part of my everyday life”.
Even after God spoke to him at 17 about working with young people, Jonny went his own way. He set about enjoying friends, fun and all the pleasure he could at university in Leeds. Partying, drinking and doing drugs, he sums up his attitude back then by a phrase he and his friends would say: ‘You can’t spell Leeds without LSD and 2 E’s’. “I was like a kid at Alton Towers,” he reveals, acting out a child mesmerised by the flashing lights and desperate to go on every ride. But it wasn’t to last.
The Turning Point
“The thing is,” he pauses. “After 3 or 4 years, you graduate.” His friends moved home and got jobs but Jonny didn’t want to. “I’d neglected my relationship with my parents and was addicted to drugs and the gym,” he admits. That brought Jonny to his lowest point – walking into the job centre on a Monday, picking up £50 and smoking it that evening. “I spent the rest of the week high and hungry,” he declares, with a look of shame etched on his face.
22, Lonely and angry at how things had turned out, Jonny heard God speak to him. He said: “If you want your life back, you have to come back to me.” Jonny swallowed his pride, acknowledged his brokenness and let God run his life. He also called the Mum he had been ignoring, who came and picked him up the next day. That was 4 years ago.
Instead of smoking weed and getting validation through how he looked, Jonny began volunteering at church. Jonny never imagined he’d be a youth worker, let alone a centre Director. But after 2 years with the “amazingly gifted, faithful and hard-working” team at Rugby Youth for Christ, God called Jonny to lead Kingsbridge Youth for Christ in Devon.
A Fresh Challenge
Stepping into an established rural Youth for Christ centre, has been “like being passed a well-oiled machine” for Jonny. And he credits the volunteers’ prayerful support with helping him settle in. Anji Chant pioneered Kingsbridge Youth for Christ (originally Spirtitulized) over 20 years ago. The centre supports, encourages and reaches out to the area’s youth through projects and initiatives. When Jonny visited this summer’s carnival, he witnessed first- hand how well-known the centre and its “iconic” bus are locally.
Jonny now works with around 40 young people on a regular basis in the small town but God is opening doors for a much wider reach. Kingsbridge has a great high school, he says, that have invited the team in to deliver engaging sessions on life as a Christian and mentoring this coming year. “The school pulls kids from around the wealthy South Hams area,” he adds. “Most pupils achieve top grades and have a bright future ahead of them but not everyone is so fortunate.”
The Message Jonny Brings
For this second group, family breakdown, poor self-worth, self-image problems and a lack of direction are common, as is taking drugs at an early age. “That’s where we come in,” Jonny says beaming. “Whatever young people’s situations, I know the only way they’re going to change is through Jesus. If I’d kept listening to myself, I would not be half- way along this journey. Only by listening to what God says about me and to me, have I been able to do it. That’s the message I have for them.”
He is also working to bridge the gap between church and the community. “We’re starting a youth club in the basement of a local church that has a gaming hub, chill out area, pool and table tennis,” he says barely coming up for air. The idea is to “create family” and will see young people sit and eat together, according to Jonny.
The Bridge to the King
Jonny’s heart for Kingsbridge Youth for Christ is to see young people meet Jesus and commit to Him. “I love the name because I think it’s prophetic. It’s the bridge to the King!” he enthuses. Another big part for Jonny is discipling and releasing young leaders. He’s a visionary and, as such, is praying for God to send young workers to Kingsbridge because: “I feel we are at a tipping point. I think there’s a massive harvest on the horizon, so we need workers.”
Returning to my initial question, I remark how courageous this man of integrity is for taking such massive steps into the unknown. He’s instantly uncomfortable. “There’s an element of that,” Jonny says reluctantly. “But coming to Kingsbridge never felt like I was taking a risk. There have been real difficulties but when you know who God is and you’ve seen Him work before, you feel energised to go into the challenge He is calling you to.”
By Tim Adams