Pania walked into The Salvation Army’s Hope Centre in Wellington ‘literally bowed down’, hiding behind a hoodie and sunglasses to shield her from the world. Today, her face glows as she speaks about ‘being a daughter of the Most High God’, and her words have the power and conviction of a gifted orator. ‘I came into this place a broken person, but God showed me my importance, my worth and value,’ says Pania.
She reflects about the lifetime of abuse that found her walking into the Hope Centre. ‘The root of my brokenness was from rejection and abandonment from birth, when I was adopted out into the wider whanau,’ says Pania, as she begins to unravel her story.
Although she was ‘protected and spoilt’ by her adopted dad, she ‘never had a relationship’ with her adopted mum, and alcohol was always a big factor in her family life. She adds, almost as an aside, that she was sexually abused by wider family members. The threats and intimidation that went hand-in-hand with this abuse meant that from an early age, her life was ruled by fear.
Pania’s adopted mum was also physically abused for many years, and eventually left for another man. Her dad dealt with it the only way he knew how: alcohol. Still a girl, Pania was left to care for her four brothers, while her father became more and more absent. ‘I was so angry at Mum and Dad, there was no one there to support me and my brothers, and I was robbing whoever I could to feed us,’ she says. Her doctor prescribed valium to help Pania cope, and drug dependency got a grip on her.
At the age of 14, Pania found the whanau and sense of security that she longed for when she got into a relationship with a patched Mongrel Mob member. With it came the Mob lifestyle of drugs and crime.
Her relationship became violent, and for the next 13 years of her life Pania says she ‘can honestly not remember a week that went by without getting bashed’. Along with the physical abuse came another type of violence: ‘He would put me down, saying I was ugly, fat and no one would want me.’
They had a son and a daughter, and Pania dreamed of having a ‘proper’ family, despite the intimidation and fear she lived with. She did try to leave several times, but was always drawn back. ‘I felt no one wanted me, and it was better than having nothing,’ she says.
Meanwhile, people came into her life that spoke to her about Jesus, and she went to church every now and then. Pania now says that they were ‘seeds being sown’ into her life.
There was ‘another hiding’, no different to the many others, but this time something changed. ‘I knew this fantasy of the happy family was never going to happen, and I was exposing my children to violence. I went to the Police for the first time in all those years, and put him in jail,’ says Pania. ‘I knew this was a turning point in my life.’
She found the resolve to escape her abusive situation, but for the next 15 years battled a deep depression. Her thoughts got darker and darker, and she tried to fight off ideas of suicide. One day, wanting to escape, Pania took her mother’s car. But her mind became confused, and she couldn’t remember the familiar roads she had driven on all her life. Pania sat in the car and wept. ‘I cried out to God and said, “You’ve got to help me because I don’t want to hurt anymore. All I’ve ever wanted to do was love people. Why won’t anyone love me?” ’
Just then, a policeman knocked on her car window, and there was one of her brothers, and her mother in tears. ‘I could see the pain and hurt in her eyes, and it made me think, “I wonder if my mum loves me?” I had never felt that before.’
Soon after, Pania’s cousin came from Wellington to take care of her. ‘She refused to leave until she knew I was okay, and said ‘Come home with me.’ So, for the first time feeling a sense of love in her life, Pania moved to Wellington.
One day, she came into The Salvation Army for budgeting advice, still a ‘broken down’ person. Staff member Ondray Moir went up to her and simply said, ‘I want to tell you something: Jesus loves you.’
‘There was such power in those words,’ says Pania. ‘I just cried. But I thought, “Does he really? For how long? Is he going to hurt me?” But it made me feel good, so I kept coming in and Ondray kept speaking into my life, and each time I left there it was like I was being built up, and life was being breathed into me.’
Through the support and encouragement of Ondray and Hope Centre Manager Ollie Seumanufagai, Pania decided to give church another try. ‘This time, when I went along, I knew this is where I needed to be.’ She still battled with her lifestyle though. One Saturday night she got drunk and started breaking into cars, ending up with a night in the cells. ‘The next day I asked the policeman to drop me off at church. I’d lost my shoes and half my clothes the night before, and was still reeking of alcohol. The pastor’s wife came up to me and just said, “Parnz, it’s okay, you don’t need to explain anything to me.”
I just burst out crying, and she just took my hand and sat with me. ‘People think they’re not good enough, but God says, “Come as you are, in all your brokenness.” ’
Pania’s eyes light up as she continues, ‘And this is the good news: as I started to journey with God, I began to see the depth of his love for me. I started to see myself how he saw me, and it gave me healing and restoration. He knew everything I’d been through, and with gentleness, patience and love he transformed me.’
A year after she first visited the Hope Centre, Pania looks back her journey with insight: ‘Although I’ve been discouraged, abused and rejected, it’s only through the love and grace of God that I’m able to forgive those who have hurt me, and understand that they have their own brokenness manifested through drug and alcohol addiction, anger, domestic violence and generational cycles of abuse. God has given me a genuine love and compassion for them, and my prayer is that they, too, would come to know the love of my heavenly Father,’ says Pania.