He shouldn’t be here. Before the age of 20, Dennis Perry should have died three times. Yet his firm handshake testifies to the fact that he is still very much alive. And there are many people in Papua New Guinea who are very glad he is. You see, Dennis has devoted his life in retirement to helping those who cannot help themselves. With his former work colleague, David Woolley, Dennis co-founded Operation Food for Life (OFFL).
OFFL works with the poorest and most disadvantaged. It is relief work, feeding those with no access to food and clean water, taking food to those in prison and those in hospital, patients with severe disabilities, TB or HIV AIDS.
"When I give a wheelchair or a frame, I see myself there," Dennis says. "All they need is crutches and it can change their life." When Dennis was only four or five, he was struck down with encephalitis, an infection of the brain. His recovery in hospital and intense rehabilitation took more than 10 years. Even though doctors managed to save his life, he only slowly regained full function.
Soon after he was rehabilitated, Dennis was abducted after school one day. Perhaps a little naïve, after spending most of his life in hospital, Dennis was lured by sweets. He suffered terrible things and was left for dead in remote bushland. Stripped and exposed, Dennis barely survived the night. By some miracle he was found the next day by hunters, who thought he was a dead kangaroo.
Dennis died on the way to hospital but somehow again he survived. "I didn’t really know God back then but God knew me. He kept me alive for His purpose," he says. With such a traumatic start, you could forgive Dennis for seeking out a life of comfort and avoiding criminals. But you find him in prisons, serving and ministering to some of PNG’s most dangerous criminals.
“My mess is my message." Dennis smiles. "After all God has done for me, I just have to share it. It’s not me doing anything. It’s all up to God."
You can tell that Dennis uses some of these phrases a lot. In the mouths of others, they might sound rehearsed or clichéd but Dennis says them with genuine belief, the tone of a man who has seen firsthand the power of God change lives. He’s quick to deflect any praise however.
"I didn’t even finish school. None of this is me, it’s all God through me. I don’t do anything special. We just do what Jesus did, feed people physically before we feed them spiritually. He saved us to serve!"
And then he throws out another one of those quotable quotes, that I later find out is OFFL’s motto. "Our passion is compassion, witnessed by our actions".
Compassion? I’ve been to the rubbish dump and seen where OFFL does its work firsthand. Compassion is definitely one emotion the place brought up. But it also came with fear, unease, nervousness and a heightened sense of being well outside my comfort zone. Yet for Dennis and the committed volunteers of OFFL, they allow compassion to drive them; the love they have for those they help outweighs all other considerations.
I know, I know. We’re only up to two near death experiences. To help him recover from his traumatic kidnapping, Dennis’s father took him on a holiday. As he was running up to a counter with a heavy glass bottle, Dennis tripped and fell into the counter, smashing the bottle and suffering a deep wound. Dennis lost so much blood that, again, the angel of death was at his door.
But God always has a plan. Volunteers now provide physical and spiritual support to the poor and forgotten, giving each one dignity and hope. The Rob and Jan Patterson Literacy school that OFFL helped establish educates children to break the cycle of poverty. They count national politicians as their patrons. All because a boy who nearly died has dedicated his life to others.
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Matthew 25:36-37.
Visit www.offl.org.au for more information.
Jarrod Stackelroth is associate editor of Adventist Record.