Features Walthamstow

Walthamstow’s Illustrated Priest

Alan Moss from St Mary’s Church Walthamstow on his unusual journey to faith
By Victoria Munro

Alan Moss (credit: Penny Dampier)
Alan Moss (credit: Penny Dampier)

With tattoos all the way from his fingers to his neck, Walthamstow’s “illustrated priest” Alan Moss doesn’t strike many as a typical vicar. “The tattoos do throw people off,” he admits, adding: “I’m pretty sure people always think I’m just a bloke who mugged a vicar for his shirt.”

Alan’s ink, which he estimates took 60 to 70 hours in total, tells the story of his circuitous road to faith – a journey that includes a suicide attempt in his teens and six months dealing drugs. Raised by a staunchly atheist father, who viewed Christianity as “all nonsense”, he never even set foot in a church until the age of 13 and didn’t consider himself Christian until a decade later.

Even today, at age 40, Alan is more comfortable doing youth work on the Attlee Terrace estate than he is in St Mary’s Church Walthamstow, insisting he is not “an institution kind of guy”. In addition to handing out hot chocolate to hundreds of young people every Monday, he is pushing for better resources on local estates to show working-class young people like the boy he once was that “they are not forgotten about”.

Alan outside the Attlee Terrace Estate (Credit: Penny Dampier)

He said: “I don’t consider myself to be religious, I’d say I have faith. I’m in the Church of England but that doesn’t mean I sign up to everything they preach. Being on the estate makes more sense for me, I want people to discover their faith where they are.”

Alan first visited church after a chance encounter with a youth worker on the streets of Romford, who came across him and a friend “out causing trouble… nicking calendars and fountain pens”.

Having struggled with bullying so severe he had to move schools, meeting friendly young people at the church’s youth group made a big impression, which was compounded after he woke up from a suicide attempt not long after.

Terrified of starting his new school after being spat on and fought at his last, Alan said: “I threw a load of tablets down my neck and all I remember is waking up about two to three weeks later. My mum had found me in a pool of blood, apparently I died twice. The thing I remember is the church, after I’d only known them for a week, had sent me a little card with prayers and thoughts they’d had about me.”

He was never fully able to return to school, leaving with only three GCSEs, but kept visiting the church “on a fairly regular basis”, although mostly because he “really fancied the girls”.

Thanks to the trade skills and work ethic instilled in him from a young age, he was able to support himself as a welder and metal worker, moving into a shared house with friends at the age of 18. However, tragedy soon struck again when his grandmother, who he says essentially raised him, took her life with an overdose.

“I had already started to ease away from the church but that knocked me off completely and I stopped going,” he recalls, “I started to party a lot more and experiment with drugs, our house was essentially the party house for the best part of 18 months.”

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A few years later, Alan met his now-wife and then-landlord’s girlfriend Sarah, a meeting he compares to “two car wrecks coming together” and which – unsurprisingly – saw him thrown out. A man he knew was willing to house him but expected payment in the form of helping him deal drugs, kicking off a six-month criminal career that Alan says “almost destroyed [his] life” and saw him narrowly escape jail after the house was raided while he was out.

By the time he escaped this dark period and moved in with Sarah, he hadn’t visited the church for years. However, when she began struggling with nightmares, the first stories he reached for to calm her down were Bible stories that he “didn’t even know [he] knew”.

Outside St Mary’s Walthamstow (credit: Penny Dampier)

He said: “I had always told her I had a history with the local church and one day might pop back in and, after that, I got up one week and decided to go. I hadn’t seen these people in five or six years and we hadn’t parted on good terms so I was expecting the cold shoulder but instead they welcomed us.”

After that, Alan only got more involved with the church and youth work, although despite feeling a call to priesthood he “kept putting off” getting ordained until 2018, fearing both that he was not academic enough and that priesthood was a “middle class game”. His tattoos, a metaphorical chronicle of this journey that starts with a depiction of the Big Bang on his chest, followed last year as soon as lockdown began to ease.

Alan describes a meticulous patchwork of scenes and quotes from the Bible spreading down both arms, onto his back and up his neck. While the inclusion of a reference to the prodigal son has obvious parallels to his life, he also sees himself in a depiction of Saint Michael slaying the dragon and a scene from Genesis, where Jacob wrestles an angel.

He explained: “I’m still wrestling with my faith and wondering what if I’m wasting my life with the vicar thing. It helps to see that even people thousands of years ago were wrestling with these same things.”

The about-to-be-slain dragon on his back, meanwhile, represents “that voice saying ‘go off and do the drugs’”, which never quite leaves him. Alan is keen to emphasise that Christianity, as he understands it, doesn’t ask for perfection but loves people as they are, adding that St Mary’s Church welcomes everyone, regardless of sexuality, gender, race or background.

As for his tattoos, he plans to get even more, covering his legs and the rest of his torso, as soon as he’s able to save up the money.

Alan can be found online on Twitter and Youtube

To see more of Penny Dampier’s photography, visit her website here

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