No Bull: Michael Roberts’ Story of Redemption

This story originally appeared in the April, 2011 issue of Downhome.

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Michael Roberts’ face is a canvas of pain.

Almost his entire body is draped in ink, from faces and flames to skulls and swastikas. Individually, he says, his tattoos are meaningless. Collectively, they once offered a mask to his misery — a means of therapy for a life of crime, abuse and violence.

Roberts takes a slow measured drag of a du Maurier cigarette, standing at his doorstep in the bitter winter cold. They’re one of his only guilty pleasures left after more than two decades of drug and alcohol abuse. Known as “Bull” in his younger days, the Trepassey, N.L. native is tired from walking up the stairs — his 6’4″, nearly 500-pound frame makes it challenging. As he smokes, he offhandedly describes how the nose and scalp are the most painful spots to get inked.

He is frequently asked what various tattoos mean to him.

“Nothing,” he states bluntly. “It was all pure pain therapy, man…just another way to cope.”
Barely a foot into his GTA home and it’s easy to see how Roberts now copes. The words of John 3:16 hang like a sentry above the entranceway to his modest basement apartment: “For God so loved the world,” it reads, “that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Those words are especially meaningful to Roberts, who has gone from hardened criminal and gang member to born-again Christian after finding God while he lay broken and bruised on a hotel floor. Now an award-winning author, Roberts’ story is the type that defies belief.

Born in a small fishing community into a life of abuse, he suffered daily beatings at the hands of his father and molestation by his older brother and friends, and later his babysitter. From an early age, he was taught that drugs held the answers to his problems: At eight, he was diagnosed with ADHD due to behavioural problems, and was prescribed Ritalin. He soon moved onto solvents, marijuana and a myriad of pills.

“My dad would beat me down and my brother would come in as the comforter and molest me,” he says. “By the time I left home I was a full-blown drug addict, snorting gas just to deal with the physical and sexual abuse.”

His memories, like the tattoos sprawled across his body, are fragmented. He can’t say how many times he’s been to jail or mental institutions. He can’t pinpoint the first time he got high, or the age at which his molestation began.

But some memories are still vivid, like losing his best friend at an early age to a house fire.

“I’ve been dealing with death my whole life,” he says. “I buried my first friend in grade six.”

The abuse Roberts endured domestically carried over into his school life. A sickly child, he was bullied by his peers. Abuse had become second nature by this point — it was all he knew.

“It got to the point where I was getting beaten so much I just didn’t care anymore,” he says. “I craved the beatings.”

Roberts never retaliated because he was afraid of his father’s punishment if he got in trouble. By grade 7, he reached his breaking point. After a verbal altercation with his chemistry teacher over a detention slip, Roberts says his teacher shoulder-checked him.

In response, he broke his teacher’s jaw.

Knowing a severe beating awaited him at home, he decided to hit the streets. Between homelessness, foster homes and shelters, Roberts’ life quickly spiralled out of control.

As a teen, he transformed from victim to victimizer. When he wasn’t engaging in petty crime or senseless violence, he was in court or jail. He once had 13 assault charges laid against him in one day. He frequently tried to kill himself.

“It was so easy to hate,” Roberts recalls, the distant look in his eyes showing he still grapples with his emotions. “I didn’t even know what love was; no remorse, no feelings… nothing.”

By 16, he was labelled a sociopath and deemed criminally insane. He was placed in a mental institution, where he experienced further rape and abuse.

Over the years, Roberts tried to reshape his life by moving out west with a girlfriend and working a number of menial, low-pay jobs. But the allure of quick cash proved hard to resist.

“I grew up on the streets,” Roberts says. “I always kept going back to it because when all else failed, it’s what I knew.”

Roberts’ possessions were as bare as his emotions. He grew tired of having nothing. He joined a white supremacist gang and delved deep into a life of organized crime. He quickly advanced in the ranks with his strength and endurance skills. He became extremely wealthy from drug and gun trafficking, and was soon one of Canada’s most wanted criminals. Roberts had money, power and respect among his peers, but his life would soon crumble around him.

He ended his relationship with his girlfriend to protect her from his associates, and soon after, Roberts and more than a dozen others from his gang were arrested in an undercover sting. But things would come to a head when Roberts was betrayed by his closest friends.

One day at his farm, a large group of Roberts’ fellow gang members came to visit. He thought nothing of it, as they frequently came by to hang out. But this time was different. Roberts was brutally beaten and left with a fractured skull, broken bones, and severe damage to his spine. One of his associates had called a hit on him to assume control of the gang.

Roberts’ own crew had left him for dead.

A neighbour had witnessed it all and transported an unconscious Roberts to the hospital. Staff bandaged him up and once he was able to stand on his own, he was asked to leave. The hospital was uncomfortable with his gang-affiliated associates lingering around, so Roberts moved his recovery to a hotel.

It was in that hotel room that Roberts found himself at death’s doorstep. While stumbling to the washroom, with no one to help him in his injured and drugged state, Roberts collapsed. His broken bones left him unable to move. There he lay for hours in excruciating pain, sure his life was over.

After a lifetime of numbing his emotions with drugs and violence, Roberts started crying. He had had enough. He begged God to help him.

“I never felt love in my life, but when I reached out to God and asked for just that much love before I died, he hasn’t stopped pouring it out,” Roberts says. “My heart just opened right up.”

For Roberts, it was all part of God’s divine plan: the life of abuse, his crimes, his near-death experience. When Roberts speaks about God, you can feel the conviction in his voice. This is a man who has been to hell and back — and now has his sights set firmly on heaven.

“I could never go back to the way I was. Even if I did, I could never, ever, deny God,” he says. “I wouldn’t have a story to tell if it wasn’t for God.”

Today Roberts is a different man. He no longer sleeps with a gun; instead, he reads the bible before bed. He’s not a racist anymore; he has friends of all colours and attends a Middle-Eastern church. He doesn’t mute his emotions with alcohol, drugs, or body modification; instead he writes, or prays. He no longer hoards weapons in fear of his enemies; he collects stamps.

Following his recovery, Roberts discovered Evangelical Christianity through a friend and now dedicates his life to God and helping street kids. He lives in the Greater Toronto Area and speaks at churches, schools and shelters to youth about the dangers of street life and the power of faith.

Roberts loves talking to kids. Beforehand, he’s nervous as hell — afterward, he compares the feeling to “kicking Satan in the nuts”. And while he’s there to try and help steer them in the right direction, in reality, the opportunity to share his life experience is also therapeutic for him.

“I just love it because they listen,” he says. “They do a lot more for me than I could ever do for them. It’s like total medicine.”

Apart from the talks, Roberts packs and distributes survival kits for street kids and writes a Christian prison newsletter entitled “Behind the Walls” that goes out to 700 convicts monthly. He’s also an award-winning author; his autobiography, The Tender Heart of a Beast, won the general readership award at the Word Guild’s 2010 Canadian Christian Writing Awards.

Roberts still battles with shells from his past. His health, to be generous, is problematic. He struggles with his weight, has diabetes, and his heart is in bad condition. But some old habits die hard — he still smokes, drinks coffee, and keeps a questionable diet. Cigarette packs and McDonald’s wrappers litter his table, juxtaposed with plaques on the wall that read “Faith” and “Hope”.

Despite his shortcomings, he has progressed significantly; following a life of drug abuse, he’s been sober for two-and-a-half years. He’s still dealing with his temper, and tries extra hard not to curse.

But today Roberts no longer holds a heart full of hate. He still has a lot to forgive, including his own sins and those committed against him. He has tried to make amends with his family, with no luck; his mother doesn’t want to see him, and his siblings, who are mixed race, want nothing to do with him.

Regardless, Roberts is not alone. He’s close with his pastor and has many friends from church groups and various youth initiatives he’s involved in. And despite his health problems, he’s hopeful for the future. And he holds no doubt as to who is responsible for his hope.

“When I was laying there on that hotel floor, bag of broken bones, I know there was something in that room with me, holding me,” he says. “Who knows what it was…I choose to believe it was God.”

 

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Comments

  1. Mike Crisolago says:

    Awesome story Omar. Michael’s tale is a really inspirational one. Great job!

  2. I have known Mike closely for almost 2 years now. He is one of the most real people I’ve ever had the honour of ministering to. He’s far from perfect and knows it! Me too! The best is yet to come Mike!

  3. well life is amussing and we both know were it gets you i thank you for your honesty and personal remorse let it be a thing of the past my friend and i am still your friend live strong and true

  4. Omar,you had done great story on Mike I loved your writing,you are gifted,just wonder if it is possible to get in touch with you as I need some menoring with my book,ect contact me if you wish at my email .Thanks again for great inspirational story.Ivan

  5. chris jeffrey says:

    Hi Mike , i have just finished listening to u r testimony at SAUBLE BEACH CHURCH, i wanted to go to see u, but screwed up the dates anyway my freind showe3d up today with ur testimony and my mom and my girlfreind and i listened to it and we were all touched by ur honesty and ur willingness to share all of the story not just the good,and i wanted to write u right away to tell u,i to have an awful past not unlike ur’s but just a female version and i also hit rock bottom for the hundreth time ,and i also reached out to GOD and was shocked to have him answer me,i always knew he was there but thought he was for everyone else not me,anyway to my surprise and amazment he started dealing with me in such ways it was impossable to beleive it was anyone but GOD, anyway to make a long story short,i too am on the other side of the healing and living a clean GOD filled JESUS loving life and am loving it,i have the love and understanding from my mother who i call mammajoy,for what she brings into my life,this was not always the case,but i am happy to say it is now.I would love to talk to u and share some of my story and hear some more of ur’s,if u would like.BLESSINGS CHRISTINE

  6. I saw your story on 100 Huntley street this morning, and was touched. I think about how only jesus can “touch” us like that. God is so good! I also think about the scriptures where it says that as christ followers we will still go through trials and tribulations- but god will never leave us of forsake us.
    God bless you Micheal!!

  7. mark swanson says:

    After watching Micheal Bull Roberts story i have felt compelled to reach out to him.
    Every once in awhile we are reminded how lives can over lap. Even though our lives are very different we both have similar stories.
    In fact Mr Roberts may know my name, I too was once a Skin Head and In fact we may of had some associates in common. My claim to fame is that I assaulted a retired broadcaster Keith Rutherford, which has labelled me as on of Canada`s most notorious Skin Heads.
    That was a life time ago! What touched me about your story was when our so called brothers turned on you, i can relate so well.
    My point is; Michael you are on the right path! I don`t know you and I`m a few years older than you, but I am so proud of you, because I truly understand how hard of a path you are on because i too have lived it.
    I hope this message is passed on to you, i would really like to talk with you or even meet you.
    Please feel free to contact me. Stay strong brother i be leave in you.

  8. MICHAEL BULL ROBERTS says:

    HEY THANKS FOLKS THESE MESSAGES WERE JUST PASSED TO ME BY OMAR I AM GRATEFULL FOR THE ENCOURAGEMENT AND NICE WORDS…IF ANY OF YOU WANT TO CONNECT I CAN BE FOUND ON FACEBOOK AS WELL AS BY EMAIL BULLROBERTS@GMAIL.COM GOD BLESS YOU FOLKS AND THANKS OMAR

  9. Travis Bruce says:

    Just got back from hearing his story. Just wow. Loved it. You can tell when his life flipped he started to believe fully

  10. Karen streets says:

    Mike this is Karen your old friend cab driver. Well I don’t have anything to do with the boys for a long time. Zane Pete’s son is being adopted by Lena. But I am in Hamilton Ontario until July 2 and would love to see you. I am not that healthy some days I have arthritis fibermalgia diabetic high blood pressure and some days I have to use a cane. I am visting a old friend and we found each other through fb. I am fulfilling one of my dreams seeing Niagara Falls been there once since I been here and going one more time. When I can walk good I use a cane at times. My pride has been taken and I have been single since the last time you saw me. Hope you reply to me or just give me a call 5877846759. Think about you lots and glad you found life love ya even if you don’t want to talk to me you will always be a true friend

  11. Ellen Roberts says:

    I heard you this morning at our son’s Lifepoint Church in Oshawa. I watched our teen grandchildren as you told your story. We spoke of it over lunch and your message had a huge impact on them. Thank you for your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable. May God be with you as you face health issues/tests. May he give you his peace and healing..
    Thank you Ellen Roberts (no relation that I am aware of – I would be very glad to claim you! )
    /

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