How a gun-slinging jail bird became a coat-toting court chaplain

Meet Kevin Lawler, the Salvation Army Chaplain who volunteers at the same court where he was sentenced to prison for supplying illegal firearms. 

Apr 23, 2024, updated Apr 26, 2024
Kevin Lawler pictured outside the Southport Courthouse. (Image: Supplied).

Kevin Lawler pictured outside the Southport Courthouse. (Image: Supplied).

Kevin Lawler was born in Sydney in the 1970s, though his family moved to Marsden, Logan City when he was in early primary school. Though they lived in what Lawler called “a pretty rough part of town,” he maintained he had a happy childhood with a loving family. 

Both of Lawler’s parents were members of the Salvation Army, his mother in particular was very involved in the church.  

“Although I was raised in a Christian family, I personally had no interest in God or The Salvation Army,” he said. 

Lawler attended Marsden State High School, where he recalls beginning to experiment with drugs in his late teens. Upon graduating Lawler worked as computer aided drafter for an electrical engineering company for eight years. During this period he became engaged to a young woman who attended the same Salvation Army church as his mother. 

“She convinced me to go with her, and as you can imagine, mum was quite pleased at this.”

However the relationship was tragically cut short when Lawler’s fiance died by suicide. This was the third in a series of traumatic deaths that had impacted Lawler’s life, including the loss of his father from cancer. 

“I didn’t know how to deal with it all, I had been present at all three moments of death and there was heaps of unresolved trauma around those incidents,” he said. “My church family was fantastic and were a great support, though my faith was in its infancy, and my relationship with Christ was not an intimate one, and so I didn’t find closure, peace or resolution, and as so many of us do, I buried my pain deep down. This would be the beginning of a long-standing trend of running away from pain and responsibility in my life”

  Lawler later married another woman from his church and became the director of his own electrical engineering company. 

“It went well for a while,” he recalled. “We were making good money. I would eat out with my wife several times a week, I had a boat, a bike, a Porsche. Life was good, and I was on top of the world. Because this is what brings us happiness right?”

Then Lawler’s business partner died in a drunk driving accident and the company was lost in a hostile takeover. His attempt at a small start up failed and his wife and he divorced.  

“I couldn’t hold down a job, I couldn’t provide, I had no purpose, and I lost my self-worth,” he said. “My world fell apart. I lost my faith and I left the church.”

Lawler fell heavily into drugs and crime. He spent 10 years involved in the criminal scene, collecting debts, cooking amphetamines, and supplying firearms. During this period he was often homeless, alternating between couch surfing, sleeping in his car and staying in motels.  

“I didn’t care what happened to me,” he said. “I was reliable and I had a good sense of loyalty and so I did really well. I felt like I was somebody again. I had a sense of self-worth, I had a purpose. Well, that’s what I told myself anyway.” 

At 40 years of age, Lawler was arrested for the supplying of illegal firearms as part of the major undercover police operation Lima Rotor. He was taken to the Southport Watch House and this, he says, is where God stepped in.  

“In the cells, I thought that I should contact Mum to let her know that I was still alive and in jail,” he said. “But my phone was held as evidence and I couldn’t remember her number and so I was unable to contact her.

“I knew mum was a Salvo, so I asked to speak to the Salvo chaplain. A few days later, the officers came and took me out of my cell and put me into a little room barely wide enough for one person. It had a metal stool bolted to the floor, with a thick glass panel and a metal grate to speak through.”

I sat on the stool and waited, then in walked Major Kay Nelson, court chaplain, and sat on the other side of the glass. I asked her if she would tell mom where I was.

She told me she would deliver the message, and then she prayed for me.”

Lawler was held on remand in the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre for nine months, then released on bail for the remainder of his court case which took three years to complete. During this time he attended The Salvation Army Gold Coast Temple and participated in their Positive Lifestyle Program. At the conclusion of his case he was sentenced to four years imprisonment.

“As I stood before the court, and the sentence was handed down, my mother and sister were in the courtroom crying. I turned to them, smiled and said ’it’s okay this is good’. You see, I felt complete peace. I felt such relief that this was the first step towards putting it all behind me and starting a new life. I felt free, even though I had been sentenced to prison.”

Upon his release, Lawler became a qualified chaplain, completing the Salvation Army Theology Program and a diploma of chaplaincy, and began volunteering at the  Southport Magistrates Court – the very court where he himself was sentenced.

As part of his work with Salvation Army Gold Coast community engagement, Lawler started ‘The Coat Tree Project’, in which warm coats donated by Salvos Stores are hung on trees for homeless people to take. According to Lawler the project gives away approximately 300 coats each winter, in addition to free sleeping bags and footwear donated by Hannay Lawyers. 

“My work at Southport Magistrates Court is immensely rewarding,” said Lawler. “I  provide support for those passing through the court system, giving me the unique opportunity to address the underlying issues behind the offending behaviours. I come alongside these people and journey with them as we explore together, ways of working on the issues in their lives.

“There are no losers, just people with stories.”


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