|A Teenage John Coulter|
How on earth did I make a career journey when, from the age of 12, I was totally convinced God was calling me into the Presbyterian ministry to a situation where I turned my back on this vocation and became a reporter?
The simple answer - the persecution I endured as a preacher’s kid; the route was much more complicated.
That career in journalism also included the path of being a lecturer in media and journalism, where I have enjoyed some of the most memorable days of my years thus far in the media.
I have taught many wonderful students who have known instinctively they wanted to be journalists from an early age. But not me. To say I always wanted to be a reporter from my primary school days would be a lie. In reality, I stumbled into the media in my late teens by accident.
After becoming a ‘born again’ Christian at the age of 12 in January 1972, I felt certain I would be following in my dad’s footsteps - the late Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE - and an evangelical vocation as a mainstream Presbyterian minister beckoned.
But as I moved through my teens, life as a minister’s son became ever more challenging - and painful. Maybe it was God’s way of telling me that the Presbyterian ministry was not for me. Like the Biblical Old Testament prophet Jonah, I ignored the warning signs.
It did not deter me when, as a young Christian, a Presbyterian elder who was my Sunday school teacher, made an example of me by punching me in the face, reducing me to tears in front of my peers just because we were having a bit of a giggle in his class.
Whilst no action was taken against that elder in the Seventies, imagine what would be unleashed today if a Presbyterian elder punched a young person in front of witnesses in a Sunday school?
Similarly, in my later teens, I also ignored the warning signals when I was given a severe kicking in the church hall one Sunday morning. The reason for that assault was simple - I was the minister’s son.
I also ignored all the verbal abuse; the constant criticism over my dress sense and musical tastes. I kept telling myself that things would get better when I entered higher education and began studying for the Presbyterian ministry.
But they didn’t. While my sixth form teenage years at Ballymena Academy were the most enjoyable, that same period in the north east Ulster Bible Belt was a nightmare.
It was a real challenge to my youthful Christian faith. At prayer meetings and church services, we would remember the plight of persecuted Christians in foreign lands.
But I wanted to speak up and add - “and don’t forget the plight of victims being persecuted by Christians here in the Bible Belt!” Common sense prevailed as did the fear of another punch in the face from a Presbyterian elder, so I remained silent!
Then came the fateful day in December 1977 when all notions of wanting to be in the Presbyterian ministry were dumped. We had just returned to the Manse following a family wedding to find sick graffiti written on a poster and pinned to the front gate. It was basically a ‘get out’ warning.
That was the final straw. Aged 18, ‘I cannot take any more persecution from Christians,’ I told God. The Presbyterian ministry was a ‘no go’ career.
The problem was by then, I was six months away from sitting my final A levels and had applied to courses at university which would eventually lead me to Union Theological College, the training home for wannabe Presbyterian ministers.
The constant Christian persecution had also taken its toll on me mentally, physically, spiritually and especially academically. I felt as if my life was spiralling out of control.
Mentally, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown with only Valium keeping me together; physically, I felt like vomiting every time I entered a church as I was constantly looking over my shoulder; spiritually, I kept asking - even pleading with - God as to when this Christian persecution would cease; academically, my mock A levels of January 1978 were a total disaster.
When folk asked me what career I wanted to pursue, I started answering in the negative: “Well I’ll tell you one thing, it won’t be a Presbyterian minister” was a standard response. But what did I want to do? No answer.
One of the coping mechanisms - apart from the anti-depressants prescribed by my GP - that I used to personally deal with the persecution from Christians in the north east Ulster Bible Belt in the late Seventies was to give my persecutors silly nicknames.
While my parents did what they could to shield me from Christian persecutors, they could not protect me all the time. But in the safety of the Presbyterian Manse, I could ‘let off steam’ by referring to these persecutors by their ridiculous monikers.
One lady in the Christian community was particularly vociferous in her criticism of me as a minister’s son and earned the moniker ‘Sour Puss’. She loved nothing better than to mouth off at me in front of her Christian companions.
In early 1978, I went to an evening religious function, pondering how I would rescue my grades following those disastrous mock A levels.
As I entered the building, out came Sour Puss with her mates. My immediate reaction was: “Oh no, here we go again; another slabbering from Sour Puss!” But her response on seeing me was radically different. “Hello John, how are you?” She beamed in a loud, friendly voice.
You did not need a doctorate in clinical psychology to know this was a ‘put on’. Why was Sour Puss being so friendly when for months I had endured her persecution?
If there’s one observation about the north east Ulster Bible Belt, indeed any Bible Belt, its that gossip travels faster than gospel. I inquired of one of the few fellow Christians I could 100 per cent trust at that time why Sour Puss was being so friendly.
The answer came swiftly. Someone called a ‘journalist’ had wanted to interview my dad about life as a rural Presbyterian minister; Sour Puss had heard about the interview and was afraid my dad might name her as one of my Christian persecutors, perhaps branding her as a modern day Pharisee!
Dad would never have sunk to that level. He knew that; I knew that, but clearly Sour Puss didn’t! Whatever this ‘journalist’ was, my Christian persecutors were afraid of it.
I made a simple mathematical deduction as a result of that evening. If a journalist is what they are afraid of, then a journalist I will become! For me, journalism was not a chosen career since primary school days, but had become a most welcome port in the raging storms of teenage life.
My decision had an almost instantaneous impact on certain Christian persecutors as if it was like the armour of God detailed in the New Testament book of Ephesians. It was as if I had been handed a Sword of Damocles.
A few days after meeting George Taylor, my excellent history teacher and careers advisor at Ballymena Academy, to totally change my university choices towards journalism, I had another face to face encounter with a different Christian persecutor I named The Poisoned Dwarf.
In a sarcastic tone, he challenged me: “What do you want to be?” He expected I would say ‘Presbyterian minister’ and I’m sure he had a few choice observations to make about me as a cleric.
My answer stumped him: “I want to be a journalist and I want to write for the Sunday World!” Flabbergasted by the response, and with a look of shock on his face, The Poisoned Dwarf physically backed away from me!
I’ve spent 42 years in journalism - including a period as East Antrim Correspondent for the Sunday World - where I’ve covered many contentious events, and written and broadcast in a controversial manner.
To critics of my writing and broadcasting, I simply say - blame Sour Puss for getting me into journalism!
To any Christian persecutors who still want to criticise me for being a minister’s son, I simply say - in the Seventies, you had a field day with me as a wee BB boy and wiped the floor verbally with me on many’s an occasion.
But now, I’ll be ready for you; just look at how Jesus Christ dealt with the money changers in the Temple! That’s my spiritual inspiration and my faith is unshaken.
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com