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No Turning Back - A story from Aberfan

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

In 2016 we remembered 50 years since the terrible tragedy in Aberfan, South Wales, where hundreds of tons of coal waste and soil came crashing down onto a small village. The effects were terrible: 116 children and 28 adults were killed, and a community was ripped apart by the devastation. As showed to us by the many programmes aired during the remembrance occasions, that devastation continues today in the lives of so many who witnessed those events. We are thankful to one of the survivors, Gareth Davies, who has agreed to share his story with us.

Could you tell us a little about that terrible day back in 1966 – were you in Pantglas school at the time?

To be honest, I have very little memory of the day itself. I was five and had just started school, but I do recall a very loud noise and have some ‘postcard-type’ images in my mind of things which happened. My mother tells a story of how I was excited at seeing police cars and ambulances as we hadn’t really seen them before and how inappropriate this was.

I can imagine as a young child that this would have been a confusing time. What were the effects of the disaster on you?

Our house was damaged, so in the immediate aftermath, we had to live in a makeshift caravan park for some months, but it was the effect over the following years that stand out. I grew up conscious of the fact that I didn’t really have many friends as so many were either killed or had moved away. I had a loving family, but I disliked Aberfan and pretty much everything about it and longed to be able to move away. I felt that there was a mixture of anger and sadness around the village but that it was never expressed. I found that confusing and unwelcome.

I can’t remember ever having a single conversation about the Disaster with either family or friends until last year. Everyone seemed to put it away and get on with what was left of their lives. The first real conversation I had with my mother was last year, around the 50th anniversary! This was the first time I learned what my mother had gone through on that day. I recorded all the programmes that were on TV about it last October, but I still haven’t watched them! I suppose that says something about me, I just don’t know what.

In the early 90’s I was contacted by a PhD researcher who was looking into the effects of PTSD on survivors of Aberfan, specifically looking at incidences of divorce, alcohol abuse and drug abuse. It’s obvious that the disaster has affected many people, I was able to improve her statistics on all counts.

Although Aberfan has influenced you, it seems that it hasn’t defined you. You’ve gone on to live a full life?

It’s been a rollercoaster of experiences both positive and negative. All of them shaped me to become what I am today. I wouldn’t have changed any of it… not even the bad bits.

Aberfan was obviously difficult and then the death of my father – killed in a car crash on his way home after dropping me off for my first day at university – was very tough. I had a business go bust, had to tell all the employees, deal with debts and all the repercussions of that. But I survived and learnt a lot of lessons.

But I’ve also had a fabulous and varied career: as well as a failure, I’d run businesses that had been successful and then got a great job which I was really good at; I had the respect of my colleagues and clients and I earned good money. We weren’t rich, but we could buy what we wanted and we enjoyed this freedom.

Do you mind if I ask you how you coped with some of the negatives?

I had always been something of a pragmatist. I had a logical approach to things and tended to sort out my own problems. Even when major things happened in my life I managed to sort out most of the practical issues. Having said that, they were difficult to do and I confess that the scars remained for years afterwards. In some cases, they are still there, but time and changes in my life have given them a less prominent position in my mind.

People talk today about ‘coping mechanisms’. I didn’t know of the terminology at the time, but it seems I did devise my own. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a healthy one. When my father died, I turned to drink; when my marriage failed I turned to drink; when my business went bust… drink. I think you get the pattern. I had always been very self-sufficient, and everyone probably thought I was dealing with things well. But I’m not sure I did on a personal level. I may not have ever tipped over the edge into full-blown alcoholism, but I drank… a lot! I also used what are often called recreational drugs, though I found nothing particularly recreational about them.

Was God part of your thinking during this time?

My only real experience of a church in my adult life, until recently, was as a student. I had a really tough time when my father died, and I thought I might find some comfort in a church. I went along on a Sunday morning and got some pretty cold stares but no conversation or engagement from anyone. I don’t suppose that I looked particularly inviting but I can’t imagine that happening in Penuel or any other chapel I’ve been to recently. But, that was it for me! ‘Never again!’ That’s probably when I began to construct my position as an atheist. I became very clear in my thinking – I was an atheist, was proud of it and could back up my belief with all the arguments.

I was so judgemental about Christians – I feel terrible about it now – but frankly I thought they were a bit weird. Gullible and lacking in the ability to reason things out for themselves. I think I thought that if I could just have a good argument with them then they would snap out of it!

You say that you’ve been to church recently? Why?

After 17 years of working as a businessman I decided that I’d had enough and retired early. We’d moved to Pembrokeshire a few years earlier, so I spent my time pottering around the house and garden, looking after our dogs and chickens and indulging my hobbies of riding bikes, both with and without engines. Life couldn’t really get any better, but it was all about ME! My life as an atheist was wonderful!

Then, around three years ago my wife, Vanessa, had a health scare. Lots of tests all pointed to the Big C and on the day that she was getting the final, conclusive results they had already booked an appointment with a surgeon – it was pretty obvious what they thought.

But the tests were clear. There was no cancer. Vanessa was overjoyed, but there was something more… she knew that she’d been healed by the power of prayer – her mother and aunt had been praying, as had many of her friends. Vanessa was a Christian but hadn’t practised her faith for many years, but she knew God’s hand was in this. She came home and began to look for a chapel in which to worship. She found Penuel in Roch, Pembrokeshire, just a few miles from our home and was made to feel really welcome on the first visit. This had nothing to do with me, the atheist, but after a while, Vanessa asked me if I’d go with her one day, just to meet her friends.

So, you just followed her and became a Christian, turning your back on your atheistic beliefs?

No way, I was right. I knew it! Why would I change? I had it all! I was happy and didn’t believe in God. I went with Vanessa and it was the first time I’d ever listened to a sermon. I don’t know why I did, but I did, and went back to listen to another one. Penuel has visiting pastors from around the area so I heard different people with different styles and enjoyed much of it. We sang hymns, but I only joined in half-heartedly.

Everyone reading will have guessed by now that you have become a Christian – what caused this dramatic change?

The honest answer is that I had no choice! I didn’t have a vision or hear God’s voice or anything like that but what happened in my life was no less dramatic to me.

One day I was half-heartedly singing a hymn in church – we were singing ‘To God be the glory!’ The second verse mentions ‘the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives’, but I couldn’t sing the words; I was fighting back tears. Now, I’m not a man given to tearful outbursts, but I just couldn’t sing these words!

Why not?

During that song I realised that it could apply to me! Not just that I was a vile offender and had broken God’s law, but that salvation could be mine too. I realised God could save me, I was not that bad a person, but I had lived by my own rules. I still thought of myself as an atheist, but it was becoming clear that that was no longer the case. I have often said that becoming a Christian was an unwelcome experience and, at that time it was! I had always been so confident about my position and had rehearsed every justification of it so many times. This experience made me realise that I was losing this battle as an atheist.

I then heard one of the stories Jesus told, basically saying it is never too late to turn to Him, whatever your life has been like before. Therefore, it wasn’t too late for me, even me, someone who had denied the very existence of God for all his adult life! I therefore trusted Jesus and accepted God’s unconditional forgiveness.

Did you find this easy and has it changed you?

I found it quite difficult for a while to accept what had happened to me! My old, rational self still had all the atheist arguments in his head. I began to read a few books and realised that I wasn’t the only one who’d had to overcome these arguments. The answer was there; not in detail and not to every question, but the bigger answer, the overall answer.

Yes, I have changed. Not just my beliefs, but me; I have changed. God has changed me! The way I think, the things I say and do… everything. But I’m still me and still have my friends and hobbies but I no longer feel that I do anything just for me.

I’m no longer retired – I now help run a charity. Tir Dewi operates a freephone Helpline and Support Service for farmers in crisis in West Wales. It is part financed by the Church in Wales from a legacy which it received and was started by the former Bishop of St David’s and Rev Canon Eileen Davies. I am the sole employee and we have a team of volunteers who visit farmers and work with them to get through their many problems. Some of our farmers are really struggling, and mental health issues and even suicide are ever present in our conversations.

So how would you react to somebody who would say that you have stopped thinking rationally about things and turned your back on the evidence against God?

Oh, that is SUCH a good question! I would point to the rationality of faith in God – the historical proof of the Bible and all that has followed it. A big turning point for me was when I attended a talk about the Bible and how it was written – by over 40 people across continents over 1,500 years and yet it tells one full and complete story. And all of that with no email or mobile phones; not even a postal service! Try that today and see what mess we would make!

But then I would ask, ‘What evidence do we have against God?’ There IS no evidence against God.

The problem is that atheists (me included) base their observations and arguments on the starting premise that God doesn’t exist then construct their arguments to support this conclusion. Nothing and no-one has ever proven that God doesn’t exist and never could. Even many scientists now agree that science can’t disprove God, but history tells us that He does exist – we have recorded and verified accounts in history.

There is one other piece of evidence that I would point at – me! How can you explain what has happened to me, to my life and how I now live it?

So, to answer the question, what would I say to them? Sit down and listen. Hear the story. Marvel at the news. Then, ask for Jesus to come and prove to you that it’s all true!

Thanks for sharing with us a little about your story and your life. Is there anything you’d like to say before we finish?

I guess I would just say that I know, for certain, with no doubt whatsoever that God has had His hand on me since the first day. He knew I was coming to Him and He was waiting for the time that He had set. He just took care of me along the way. I was happy as an atheist, but I don’t ever remember using the word ‘Joy’. Now I use it all the time and I thank God daily for all He does for me.

First published in Ask Magazine August 2018

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