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Second chances

Ollie Seumanufagai- image by Fairfax Media/Dominion Post

When I think about what God has done in my life, I can’t help but break down in tears. In all my troubles and wrong doings, God still embraced me and didn’t let go. God gave me chance after chance after chance.

My parents were pioneers at the Newtown Pacific Island Church in Wellington, where I grew up. Although we had loving parents who wanted the best for us, in our Samoan culture ‘children should be seen and not heard’. Aiga (family), respect and discipline were strong virtues in our family. I grew up with a Samoan parenting model in a palagi world. Growing up as a New Zealand-born Samoan, I struggled with our differing customs, values and belief systems.

I was an introvert, lacking in social and communication skills. But from an early age, the one thing that I found I was good at was fighting. If I couldn’t respond to a challenge or joke, anger and frustration would set in and I would ‘let my hands do the talking’.

I got unwanted attention from authorities and teachers, but I also got attention from people I could call friends—even if it was based on fear.

Growing up in church I understood God as an authority figure. I had knowledge of God as someone to be revered and feared. Then, at the age of 16, I went to a youth camp and my heart was moved. I finally understood that knowing Jesus is about having a relationship with him, and I gave my life to him.

Doing battle

I was leading a double life, attending youth group on Friday and church on Sunday, but then going out with friends drinking, smoking pot and creating havoc. I tried to be staunch and make a rep for myself as someone you don’t mess with.

I met my wife Penny and at an early age became a father. But I continued my double life. Fighting became a habit fuelled by alcohol and drugs, and it was a cocktail leading to self-destruction.

Through all my personal struggles and despair, God was with me, holding me tight. I understood about prayer, salvation and God’s forgiveness, but I was held back by my guilt, shame and feelings of unworthiness. This played on my mind time and time again.

I remember sitting in a bar, quite drunk and stoned off my face, when it dawned on me. I knew I had one more chance, because my next conviction would land me in jail. I clearly remember thinking: ‘If I carry on with this life, I am either going to kill someone, or I am going to be killed.’ I had three children by now, and I couldn’t bear to think of them having to carry on without me. I knew I had to change my life or I would lose everything.

It was during Christmas 1992, that I made a re-commitment to serving Jesus, and it has been a journey of transformation ever since.

A second chance at life

I look back at that troubled young man of many years ago, and I know one of the biggest things God has transformed in me is my mind. For years, I felt tormented by guilt and shame, but God has given me freedom and liberation from that bondage. I would love to say it has been a sweet bed of roses, but on the contrary it has been a time of rebuke, learning, forgiveness, growth and learning to trust God.

God has done a lot of work with me, unpacking and bringing healing to my rage and bad habits over the years. God placed good people around me, particularly my wife and my kids, and my mum who helped me through difficult times.

God has shown me how to be a better husband, to love and cherish my wife, and we have now been together for 28 years. God has blessed me with seven children: Jermaine, Tasia, Ollie, John, Mona, Viena and Adrian, aged from 15 to 26. I am so proud of them all, and I thank God for trusting me with his children. God is teaching me to be a good father, leader and role model to them.
For someone who didn’t do well in school and lacked communi-cation skills, I praise God that I’ve had the opportunity to go back to school and do a Bachel or in Social Work, along with other qualifications and some theology papers.

I could go on and on about how God has changed my life, so I don’t say these things out of arrogance, but to tell of God’s goodness and love. I have a simple philosophy in life, and that is to ‘be a blessing to others’, because God has helped me so much, and I want to pass that on.

There is always hope

For 17 years I worked for various social service organisations. Then, five years ago, I became the service manager for The Salvation Army Hope Centre in Newtown. It feels more like a ministry than work, and I absolutely love it.

I oversee all our services—which include a drop-in centre, food bank, seniors programme, emergency housing, counselling and budget advice—ensuring best practice in all our operations. But I love to get stuck in too. If the toilets need to be cleaned or the rubbish taken out, that’s just as much part of my job.

What I love most is to walk with people and give them as many ‘second chances’ as they need. It’s not going to take a couple of weeks—they may come with 30 to 40 years of baggage, and that can’t be unpacked in a short time.

People may come in for emergency housing, but we may also help them with immigration, internal affairs, putting them in touch with other social services like Plunket, and working with Housing New Zealand so they can get a long-term home. We can help them with food, budgeting, and maybe address underlying family issues. They come to us for eight weeks of emergency housing, but we may work with them for a couple of years.

People come in with a sense of hopelessness, inadequacy and insignificance. But we feed them, clothe them and support them. And they go out with a sense of significance.

In the social service sector, there’s a lot of cynicism. We get asked, ‘Why do you keep supporting these people?’ I say, ‘Well, these are individuals, and from a spiritual perspective there will always be hope.’ These people are God’s children. That’s why we do what we do.

At the drop-in centre, lots of people make commitments to Jesus, just by getting to know others. But that doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to help them change their lives. My thing is that in the Christian Kingdom, we can do our part, and trust that God will put others around them.

Success, for me, is helping people along a part of their journey. People are very vulnerable when they come to us, and not always grateful. Change is difficult. If they make one change, that’s a huge success. And I know I can entrust them to God.

A second second chance

A few years ago, I got my second ‘second chance’ at life. In my late 30s, I hit a low point when was very unwell and bedridden with gout—a type of arthritis—for weeks on end. I knew my diet and lifestyle had to change. My own dad died of heart complications and diabetes when he was 56. But what really made me think was when two of my friends, who were my own age, had heart attacks.

The thing I’m most proud of in my life is being a father to my seven children, and I realised that I needed to be a role model to them. In the Pacific Island community longevity is not a common thing. When you’re 50 to 55, you’re considered retired. But I decided that wasn’t for me. I’m 46, and I want to be around for my children, grandchildren to come—and even great-grandchildren in the future.

Since 2010, I have gone from 130 kg to 98 kg. I never went on a ‘diet’, but tried to make small, consistent changes. Before, I would go hard at the gym for a couple of months, but soon give up.

This time, I tried to encourage my whole family to adopt new habits. We started eating more healthy food—I think I’ve eaten more vegetables in the past few years than I had my whole life before that!  As a father, I have always tried to speak to my children in love, but I also know that young people respond to action, not just words. So we all re-educated ourselves. Instead of feasting, we learnt that one plate of food is enough, and that three meals a day is the right amount.

Brothers on bikes

Although we have been always been a rugby league family, over the past year I’ve discovered a new passion for road cycling. I’m part of a Pacific Island group called ‘Uso Bike Ride’—uso being Samoan for ‘brothers’. We’re used to seeing Pacific Islanders on the rugby field, but it’s a rare thing to see a pack of big Island guys on these little road bikes. Everyone asks us how we sit on those small seats!

The group began three years ago when two of my brothers-in-law lost their father to prostate cancer. They decided to ride from Auckland to Wellington, promoting health and wellbeing to the Pacific Island community as they went. I was on their support crew in 2012, when they rode from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

I really wanted to join them on the road, but road bikes are expensive. Then, someone on the team practically gave me their $3500 bike for only $500, so that’s when I got the cycling bug. I was able to be on the riding team last year, when Uso Bike Ride went to Samoa in collaboration with the Cancer Society. We rode between villages, spreading our wellbeing message.

Then, last November, I competed in the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, riding 160 km around the lake. I was so humbled that The Dominion Post wanted to do a story on me, as I have never pushed myself forward. They took a photo of me lifting up my bike, and all the guys were joking that the next photo was going to be me, getting a lift on the support bus, which made me laugh. Well, it took me over seven hours and I came in 3668th out of 9000, but I was really proud of myself that I finished. I am my only competitor.

I was always putting limits on myself, but now I think, ‘Wow, there are so many more things I can do!’ I am hoping to go to Hawaii this year with Uso Bike Ride, I am working with the Arthritis Foundation to spread the message of good health, and I’m training for a 200 km cycling race.

I pay homage to what God is doing because I could never do this on my own strength, but it is Christ who strengthens me. God has taught me that I am a winner, not a loser. God has shown me who I really am and given me a new identity. Now, I’m like, ‘What’s next God?’

By Ollie Seumanufagai