Some came out of curiosity. Others wanted to be inspired. Still many of the 450 people who attended the Drayton Reformed Church on September 30th to hear Michael “Bull” Roberts speak, didn’t quite know what to expect.
Roberts, an award winning writer, artist and motivational speaker who heads up Tender Heart Ministries in the Greater Toronto area, was eager to share his story with residents of Drayton and the surrounding area. A packed audience listened attentively as Roberts sat on a solitary seat in the centre of the stage, clutching a water bottle.
Roberts, a former gang leader, drug lord and enforcer, held nothing back as he shared both the unspeakable horrors and the amazing victories in his life. The rapt audience, all eyes upon the 6’4”, 400 pound speaker, didn’t budge as he described in detail, his journey into a seedy world of crime, deception and power-mongering.
Before Michael Bull Roberts had agreed to speak at the Drayton Reformed Church, he had no idea where it was.
“I had never been to Drayton before September 30th,” Roberts said. “As a matter of fact I’d never heard of [this community] and had no idea where to find it when I agreed to come.”
But Roberts enjoyed the adventure and with some help from his good friend and driver, Dave Attreal, they made it to Mapleton Township and some helpful locals pointed out their destination.
Fifteen minutes prior to when Roberts was ready to speak, the auditorium held about 40 people. “I was thinking,” said Roberts, “that I brought too many books and paintings with me.” But, Roberts, never concerned about numbers, was not deterred and was eager to speak to whoever was willing to listen.
Roberts stepped out for a short while to meet with Dave Kabbes, the MC for the evening, along with some others to prepare for the presentation. When Roberts walked up on stage, he was taken aback by the filled pews.
“When I looked out I knew I wanted to give them all [that] my heart had to offer, Roberts said. “I was so honoured that so many people from such a small area came to hear what I had to say.”
Sandy Banks, Drayton resident, admitted that she was initially put off when she saw Michael Bull Roberts’ picture on a poster that her son had shown her. Yet, she was intrigued to find out what this head to toe, tattooed Roberts had to say to small town residents.
“He was pretty humble for a large giant of a man and when he spoke his voice was soft and gentle,” said Banks. Her heart broke as she listened to Roberts relay events from his life. “I had tears in my eyes [hearing about] the horrible abuse he suffered as a child.”
Roberts was raised in a strict, military family and for years, endured physical abuse at the hand of his father. He soon became the target of bullies and experienced both physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by his peers. As he got older his internalized anger began presenting itself in poor behaviour in school. His cries for help initially went unheeded until a guidance counsellor stepped in and the young Roberts was removed from the home and shifted into foster care. He became bitter and the seething anger and lack of any love or affection sent him to the brink.
Roberts emphasizes that he doesn’t like to dwell on the past nor does he share his story for any kind of shock value, but he is adamant that he does what he does so that he can reach out to marginalized youth and encourage them to find a better way to a more fruitful life.
“I have already travelled those dark dusty roads.” Roberts said. “The hate, hurt and destruction taught me to be stronger, but it also made me into a beast so now I’m telling others the saga so that they don’t have to waste their time on those same roads.”
Many were moved by the frankness of Roberts’ words. Darlene Hauser of Drayton said, “It was an incredible story.” She pointed to the despair and desperation that must have riddled Roberts’ life because of his horrendous childhood experiences and the poor choices he had made over the years.
“I think many of the high schools should consider Michael speaking as his story could make a real difference to someone’s life,” Hauser said, contemplating Roberts’ emphasis on the effects of bullying.
Roberts is the first to admit that although his poor choices led him to the street, there were many times when he tasted the power and lived high and mighty for a while from the avails of drug deals and corruption. But he was never truly happy. He soon went from bad to worse and found himself poverty stricken and on the streets. Michael would do anything he was asked to earn a buck. He would hook up with people he thought were friends, but he soon discovered that survival at any cost was the code.
Hauser shook her head remembering the part when Roberts shared how he was brutalized by his own gang members and left for dead.
Even hospitals were reluctant to admit him for any length of time for fear of gang retaliation. Alone in the world, Roberts signed himself into a seedy motel and faced his demons. With broken bones, a broken heart and a crushed spirit, Michael finally realized the void in his life. He cried out, begging God to show him ‘one inch of love.’ It was then that a transformation took place. Roberts had never before realized the power of love and how it is strongly connected to faith.
“I had shivers when he said he felt that he was dying,” Hauser said, “and again when he asked God if He would show him what love really was.”
Barb Donkersgood of Moorefield, felt compelled to listen to Roberts speak after reading an article in the local paper.
“When I hear of someone else’s triumph from trials, it encourages me,” Donkersgood said. She was amazed how he spoke from his heart. “He was being his raw self and I admire him for being so brutally honest.”
At the end of the evening there was an opportunity for people to meet and shake hands with ‘the Bull.’ Roberts took the time to talk with people face to face and listen to some of their stories.
“The response to my two hour presentation was nothing [like] I expected,” Roberts explained. “People stayed to talk and shake my hand. Nobody showed any hate or anger towards me, in fact I got warm, whole-hearted handshakes from everybody; the kind of handshake where they look you in the eye.”
Roberts was truly moved by the hospitality and encouragement he felt from everyone he encountered that evening. As he contemplated his visit to small town Drayton, he felt accepted.
“It was as if people were telling me that I don’t have to be ashamed anymore; that I’m on the right path. That evening I felt, for the first time, that not only was I forgiven by God, but now I actually was forgiven by people – by the world I live in. Many times people shake my hand and say thanks for coming but it just seems polite and ends there. This time, in Drayton, it felt so real to me. With every handshake I was healing inside.”
Kabbes, in his opening remarks, was mindful of the many different people in attendance and as he opened the evening in prayer he made mention of how he hoped that everyone would leave with a message of hope and encouragement.
“I like the fact that he doesn’t care what the world thinks, he only cares what God thinks,” Kabbes said, after Roberts spoke. “That was a good reminder for me.”
Kabbes indicated that even smaller communities have problems. “It is good for a town like ours to realize what is out there.”
Drayton resident, Diane Smith, who rushed back from a Blue Jay’s game in Toronto, just to hear Roberts speak, was not disappointed. “My daughter, Jessica, even did a book report on Roberts’ award winning book – A Tender Heart of a Beast after I bought a signed copy,” Smith said. “And she got an A!”
A portion from 12 year old Jessica’s book report reads:
…God can do any kind of miracle at any time. Miracles also always happen; just sometimes they are hard to notice or see. I liked the book because it is a true story about hope and never giving up – like how Michael…never lost hope and never gave up for what he now believes in…
It seems that ‘the Bull’ continues to impact hearts across the nation. He spends a lot of time connecting with people. He receives 4000 -7000 emails and Facebook messages a month from youth and from people who just want to talk to someone who understands. Some of those emails are now coming from the Drayton area.
Roberts’ story is told through his artwork which will soon be on view at the Studio Factor in Drayton. He is presently working on a second book and has some ideas for a children’s book series on bullying and self-worth. Roberts donates fifty percent of the profits from any of his book and art sales to his own Tender Heart Ministries.
Tender Heart Ministry helps vulnerable youth in downtown Toronto and Roberts now dedicates his life helping to save young people from the clutches of evil that once distorted his own life. His compassion for others is demonstrated by a fiery desire to speak about his journey with others and to minister to the downtrodden and underprivileged.
Barb Donkersgood summed it up best as she attempted to define Michael Bull Roberts: “Michael Bull Roberts is a man with a gut-wrenching, abusive past that turned him into a violent beast [but then he was] transformed into a loving, passionate soul who touches other hurting souls. True beauty at its finest – tattoos and all.”