Many Polynesians from the islands of the South Pacific migrated to New Zealand in the 1970s, my parents among them, not just for themselves, but to make a better life for their children. My mum was from a very humble Christian family, while Dad, who came from a well-off family, was all about living life in the fast lane. And despite my grandmother’s warnings against marrying someone who didn’t share her faith, there was no keeping them apart.
Once they married, Mum quickly found out how right my grandmother was. Mum was unable to practice her faith during that time, because, with my dad, it was his way or the highway. And when we children began to make our appearance, he didn’t change. He was the sort of person who would talk to us once and, if a second word was required, well, it was a piece of hose or a broomstick around the backside. So we were always on our best behaviour when it came to our father. He was tough—he would never tell us he was proud of us for anything we’d accomplished or achieved.
My parents were struggling to find themselves in New Zealand. And I was struggling in school; in fact, I failed miserably. And, following my dad’s attitudes and behaviour, I developed a distaste for religion. In fact I hated two things—religion and school. So when I was eventually kicked out of Kelston Boys High in Auckland, I immediately gravitated to the gangs and their drugs and alcohol. It was “blood in, blood out” for these street gangs. I wasn’t allowed to wear gang colours until I’d beaten up someone from a rival gang—an act of violence that bonded me to my “boys”. Blood in. And if you ever betrayed your colours or tried to leave the gang, it was blood out—my blood would be spilt. These guys knew the meaning of loyalty more than those who were actually related to me. They’d often tell me, “Rome, I’d die for you; I’d lay down my life for you.” And I said the same thing back.
It was a time when I was really confused about who I was as a person. There were times when I was contemplating suicide. I was really frustrated with life—I was angry. And no matter whether I was in a nightclub having a good time with my mates, there was still this dark place within my own heart and mind.
I remember the moment when I got a phone call from a girl I was in a relationship with. She told me she was having a baby. I knew I wasn’t going to be a good father, so I told her, “Listen, we’ll make an appointment and we’ll just get rid of the baby.” I remember her just nodding her head. She was kind of confused, but she went along with the proposal. But when it came to the time when the procedure was supposed to happen, she failed to appear. I was waiting as the appointment time ticked past. I phoned her and left a nasty message: “That’s it. I’m not going to have anything more to do with you.”
A few months later, she had the baby and, reluctantly, I went with a few of my friends to the Waitakere Hospital, where she was.
“Hang around outside, I’ll just be in and out,” I told them. But when I walked in and met my son . . . . I still remember his face; I remember his fingers. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. And what was supposed to be an in-and-out moment turned into more than two hours. All of a sudden, I discovered that there was some meaning to my life after all. It was a crazy feeling—it was like I was in love. I told his mother that I was going to be there for her no matter what.
But the promises soon faded. With my life being such a mess, she couldn’t be around somebody like me. And I had to escape—there was this darkness that I couldn’t explain—and it wasn’t long before the relationship ended.
The bus stop
My dad was driving home from work one day with two items in the car: a crate of beer and a 20-kilo potato sack. When his car broke down, he had to choose which of the two he’d carry with him home on the bus; he couldn’t carry both. He chose the beer crate. He got to the bus stop and he sat on that beer crate, waiting for the bus.
There was music coming from a building behind him. Then he heard the voice of a preacher. I can picture my dad cringing as he sat there waiting for the bus to arrive so he could disappear—he hated religion. But the bus didn’t turn up for another 20 minutes. And when it finally arrived he let it go past. And he sat there listening until the preacher had finished. Then took the next bus home.
The following day his boss said, “I heard your car’s broken down; I’ll take you home.”
“Nah, it’s fine. I’ll catch the bus.”
Sitting at the bus stop again, he tuned in, listening. The meetings went on for about three weeks. And at the end, after listening to everything the preacher had to say, he made a decision. When the preacher made a call for those who wanted to be baptised—to give their life over to Jesus—Dad walked into the building, his arms wide open. He gave his life to God right there and then.
You can only imagine the shock my mother got when he arrived home and told her of his decision. She didn’t believe him until he went to the fridge, took out all the alcohol and began to pour it down the kitchen sink. But she joined in—they had this moment together, pouring out the alcohol.
“Today, I’m making a change,” said my dad.
"I had to escape—there was this darkness i couldn’t explain . . ."
Up to that time, in every court case that involved my brother and me, my mother would be the only one to turn up in support. She’d be sitting there, praying. And I’d be thinking, Woman, you’ve been praying for years! And I don’t know whether to feel sorry for you or get angry, because nothing changes. This is who we are.
My brother was facing one of the most difficult court cases of his life. And this time Mum didn’t walk in by herself; she marched in with my dad and some church folk. Man, they were like soldiers! They sat down and began praying together.
Then at a time when Dad was not supposed to say anything, he stood up unannounced to speak what was on his mind. The judge didn’t hold him back.
“My son’s failure is not his alone,” he began. “I’m not asking you to give my son a second chance; I’m asking you to give his father a second chance.” The following week, my brother was released with bail conditions.
“You know what?” he told me. “I prayed too! I prayed that I would give my life to God, if He got me out of that situation. So I’m jumping on a plane and going to Australia.”
A new start
But I was a true blue Kiwi—all the way. Whenever anybody spoke to me about Australia, I would say, “I’ll never go to Australia. Ever.” But I was trying to find a way to escape my darkness; I was desperate for change and I knew my gang mates would never let me go if I stayed in town. Blood in, blood out. I had to get out of their reach.
So I flew to Australia and joined my brother. I found work and settled. After a while I felt that I wanted to reconnect with my son and his mother. It took some time, but I eventually found where they were. I had to go back to New Zealand to see them, but I knew the score with my former gang, so I went quickly. Just in and out. We worked things out and got married, then she, with my son, came back to Newcastle, NSW, to join me in my new life.
It was right around that time when my father got in contact.
“Son, I want to spend some time with you,” was all he said.
He opened up about the many struggles he’d been through in his life. Both of us laid our hearts on the table. For my whole life, I’d never had a conversation like that with my father—we’d never had that sort of relationship. We spent every day together for the next three months.
A new challenge
After Dad went home I decided, That’s it. If my dad can be transformed by that Book and by Jesus Christ, I need to find out who He is for myself. I had a mental picture of who Jesus was but I didn’t really know Him personally. Not at all. Then I came across a Good News Bible at home and began reading. I went through Genesis, struggled through Exodus and died in Leviticus: “I don’t know what I just read!” I said. I ended up at a Catholic library where people taught me how to use commentaries and concordances. So there I was, studying through the Bible, word by word. Then some students from a nearby Seventh-day Adventist college—friends of my brother—came to my house. We were talking things through, going back and forth. In the midst of the discussion, I suddenly realised that the two things I’d hated more than anything were school and religion, and here I was studying religion! I couldn’t put these books down—I needed to find out for myself.
"God was calling me to something greater than myself."
When I read Jesus’ words that there’s no greater love than for someone to lay down their life for their friends, I remembered the fierce loyalty of those gangsters back in New Zealand—blood in, blood out—and I thought of the violence Jesus suffered and His sacrifice on the cross. I had this sudden realisation: Man, Christianity’s the biggest gang there is!
And then I came across the book of Daniel. It so startled and intrigued me that I woke up my wife in the middle of the night to ask her, “Have you read this? Daniel chapter 9—have you seen it?”
It tells of an incredible prophecy that predicted, centuries before, the rise and fall of empires, and the arrival of Jesus Christ to the exact year.
I started drawing up graphs—you would have thought my room belonged to a madman with papers and timelines spread across the floor. I couldn’t stop; I couldn’t move away from the Book. And I realised then that God was calling me to something greater than myself.
So I signed up to study at college with my brother’s friends. I’d been out of school since I was 15, and I just couldn’t cut it. So I prayed, “God, You’re going to have to help me get through this.” I struggled to do it, but I didn’t give up on Him. And I know that He didn’t give up on me.
In my second year, my mother phoned me. She’d heard from a relative that someone with my surname was speaking in Sydney. The last thing Mum had remembered of me was that I was getting locked up—involved with so many crazy things.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I hadn’t told Mum I was studying. I wanted to graduate first, then when done, I’d tell her, because I’d failed her all my life. I was hesitant, but my wife said, “Just tell her.” So I did.
“Mum, your boy’s at college studying for a degree in theology!”
“Yes, it’s my second year; I’ll be going on to my third year soon.”
Quiet on the other end of the line.
Then she said in our language: “Thank you, Jesus. After 20 years of praying . . .”