I spent the day on Monday with our missionary to urban First Nations people. It was an incredible day of learning for me as I heard not only his personal story but his insights into how our society has failed the First Nations people, what can be done, and how people are finding help from abuse, addiction and prejudice. When he spoke on Sunday, a number of people expressed an interest in hearing more about his background and road to recovery. I wanted to try my best to share his story for those who didn’t get a chance to hear it.
First Nations people weren’t allowed to leave the reserves until the 1950’s. When they began to head to the cities looking for jobs and an opportunity for a better life, they often faced racism and poverty. Without either the community support of traditional life or the employment opportunities of urban life, many men felt a loss of honour and self-esteem and fell into addiction and crime. At the time, many policy makers believed that separating First Nations children from their families was the solution to the challenges of integration. Contact with law enforcement or child services resulted in children being automatically placed in foster care or residential schools.
Nick was born into a notorious crime family and like many First Nations children was placed in the foster care system while still a toddler. By age five, he had already been in fifteen different homes and had developed a super-compliant attitude as a coping mechanism and means of acceptance. In grade one, he was adopted by his teacher and his hope for a more stable life was realized. Unfortunately, the motives of adoptive parents at this time were often mixed. It was fashionable for wealthier families to adopt “native children,” but condescension and prejudice often followed. While both of Nick’s adopted parents were teachers and provided him with a strong education, his father was also an alcoholic and would often abuse and demean him.
The inner pain that he had endured throughout his childhood seemed to erupt when Nick was thirteen and he pulled a knife on a teacher at school. He was at a loss to understand why he reacted the way he did but something had snapped. He was put into a group home where he learned to use drugs as a means of escape. In time, he would connect with other members of his biological family and come to know how powerful and feared they were in the underworld. Still, God’s hand of protection seemed to be at work, sparing him from deeper involvement in crime or deeper consequences from his drug use.
In his twenties, he married another First Nations woman who had also endured years of abuse as a child and even as a young adult. Bringing so much pain into their marriage, it’s not surprising that conflict between them was intense. Their fights had become so physical that Nick was convinced that one of them would eventually kill the other. They needed help and so he went to the only Christian he knew. He came back with a Bible and a compulsion to pray. He asked his wife to join him in prayer and said, ‘God, we’ve tried to change and we can’t. If you don’t do it, I know I’m going to die.’ It wasn’t an eloquent prayer, but it came from an honest heart of repentance and trust and God answered it dramatically. Nick and his wife both felt as if a light had come into them and they cried and jumped up and down in relief and joy. Had God really answered their prayer?
They got out the Bible they had received and found a piece of paper in it and read these words:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Peter 2:24-25
Now they knew what the light was they had felt. They had strayed but now they had returned to the Good Shepherd who had died in their place on the cross so that they might turn their backs on sin and begin a new life, alive to God and His righteousness. They knew that a new life had begun for them.
They visited their Christian friend and he was overwhelmed to hear that they had actually prayed and that God had answered them so powerfully. They then visited that person’s pastor and he was similarly amazed. But the pastor gave them help in understanding more about the Christian life and on the next Sunday, they were both baptized on their first visit to church! But not everyone was so happy. You don’t just walk away from a life of drugs and involvement with one of the city’s most wanted crime families without some opposition. As they explained what had happened and told family leaders that they were out, they were tested. One family member, an enforcer, cocked a shotgun and pointed it at them, but having tasted the light of God’s hope they knew there was no turning back. By God’s grace they left unharmed.
Through patient discipleship, Nick has experienced a level of healing and recovery that is remarkable. He and his wife have received close to twenty foster children and adopted children and have opened their home to countless people in crisis. He has a powerful ministry to men in the community and through the church but spends half of his time serving as a chaplain in a local jail, preaching the Bible, teaching guitar lessons and leading fathering classes. Having returned to the Shepherd of his soul, he seeks to shepherd others who have strayed the way he had and Jesus’ hand is powerfully at work in all he does.
For the next two Sundays, we’ll have a special offering to express our love to Nick and support of his ministry. May God bless our generosity in his life and in the lives of all he touches.
In awe of Him,