From Hatred to Love: How God Transformed a Brutal Australian Gang Leader

George Palmer’s heart was running away inside his chest. Every word out of Billy Graham’s mouth was like a drop of fuel on the fire that was raging in his soul. He had positioned himself on the grass in front of the stage at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne, Australia, with thousands of others who had come to hear the evangelist. 

George was not interested in what Mr. Graham had to say. He, along with the other nine members of his gang, had come to the stadium March 15, 1959, on a radically different mission. In his hand, under his clothing, was a zip gun he had made, using the lathe at his apprentice job at Victorian Railways. He had made 10 guns. Each member of his gang had one—and they were ready to fire. 

He eyed the crowd until he saw his cohorts. They were all close enough to see George when he gave the signal. They would all fire at once, and Billy Graham would die, silencing one of the greatest voices the world had ever known for this so-called God that George hated. 

It was a dream come true for George, a chance to make a statement to God in front of the whole world.

If God was love, like Graham proclaimed, He would not have taken George’s dad 10 years earlier, when George was 7 ½, his brother was 4 and their infant brother was just 5 weeks old.   

Sept. 29, 1949 was forever etched in George’s memory. That was the day his mom came home from the hospital and told him that his dad had died of a heart attack. He would never see his father again.

George ran to the upper paddock on the farm, where his dad had just planted 100 cherry trees, and screamed at God: “You’ve got no right to take my dad! I need him, and now he won’t be here for Christmas. And because of that, I hate you. With all my heart, I hate you.”

The anger he felt at that moment swallowed his heart and enslaved his mind. It drove everything he did, every waking moment. When a schoolmate walked up to him not long after his dad’s death and called him a dwarf, George, merely 8, and indeed small for his age, turned around and knocked the boy’s front teeth out. He was sent immediately to the headmaster’s office. That became his daily ritual, whether he was in public school or private. His mom tried both, and things only got worse with each move. 

“I just wanted to hurt people, and things,” George said. “We had a Bendix washing machine, and our cat had given birth to a litter of kittens. I put the baby kittens in the washing machine, filled it with water and watched them going ’round and ’round until they drowned.” 

After technical college, George became an apprentice at Victorian Railways, starting out as an electrical fitter. He struck up a friendship with two of his co-workers and soon learned they were members of a gang. Before long, he was their leader.  

They were 10 teenagers, and they were merciless, doing all kinds of horrible things that George, now 76, tries to push from his memory. Things like capturing the leader of a rival gang, holding his right hand to the ground and driving a car backward and forward over it five times.

George (right) with his brothers, Trevor (left) and Russell (center).
Photograph: Courtesy of George Palme

In early 1959, when George heard that Billy Graham was coming to Melbourne Cricket Ground, he saw it as an opportunity for vengeance. 

“I didn’t know much about Billy Graham, but we heard that he was an evangelist, and that was all I needed to hear,” he said. “We went to the Crusade with the aim of killing him because he stood for everything I hated.” 

It didn’t occur to George or the other boys that they could be hanged for murder, or that in a crowd of more than 100,000 someone else might get caught in the gunfire. All George thought about was the hate and anger he felt. Why would all these people come here, anyway? he thought. Why would they believe these lies about a loving God? Utter contempt consumed him, until he heard a quiet voice.

“What are you doing here, George?” 

He looked around. No one at the cricket ground knew his name except his gang buddies, and they were sitting farther away. The question came a second time, and a third. 

“George,” the voice seemed to say. “I didn’t take your dad to hurt you or your mom. I took your dad because he was a very sick man. I would never, ever do anything to hurt you because I love you too much.”

Deep inside, something broke wide open. Tears gushed from his eyes and poured down his face until he could barely see. All night long, scenes from his life had played in his mind. When Billy Graham gave the invitation, instead of signaling his guys to shoot, George ran forward to ask for forgiveness of his sins. His gang buddies were not far behind him. 

“Nine of the 10 of us were converted that night,” he says. “It was amazing.”

The next day, George felt God leading him to go apologize to the leader of the rival gang, whose hand he had run over with the car. For the first time in his life, he was afraid. 

“That guy will kill me if I go there,” he told the Lord. But after a long talk, the two men parted as friends. 

The second day, he felt God calling him to become a Salvation Army officer. 

“You’ve got to be joking,” said George, who was only 4 foot 11 inches. “I wouldn’t even be able to see above the pulpit.” George grew 10 ½ inches that year. 

On a Sunday morning, George rode his bike to the Salvation Army church, and an old man he knew from years earlier met him at the door. The man put his arms around George and said, “I’ve been praying for you.” They wept together.

Soon, a young woman named Judith who attended the church started talking to George. Two weeks later, he asked her out on a date and learned that she had felt the call to become a Salvation Army officer since age 14. They were married in 1964, went to college in 1965 and were commissioned as Salvation Army officers in 1967—serving in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and West Australia before their recent retirement. Together, they raised three sons, and they now have eight grandchildren, all of whom are serving the Lord. 

“We were able to see so many people come to the Lord in our ministry,” George said. “Without Billy Graham, I don’t think I’d be alive today. I can see God working in my life right from when my father died. God worked through all of that hatred and won me over. I give Him all the glory.”  

Have you allowed God to transform your life? Receive His peace today.

About the author