Petra Zaleski may look like the picture-perfect vicar, but she has been on of a journey that took her to dark places. Finding herself at The Salvation Army’s drug and alcohol addiction Bridge programme, Petra disovered God and her true calling.
If you met Petra Zaleski for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking she was the archetypal vicar—with her cultured English accent, gracious mannerisms and vicar’s collar. But I first met Petra when she entered the Bridge drug and alcohol addiction programme as a client.
I was appointed to the Bridge at the time, and was able to witness her remarkable journey of redemption.
I catch up with Petra at St Peter’s Anglican Church in Ōnehunga, where she now serves. It’s a beautiful stone ediface steeped in tradition. But there is nothing traditional about its vicar.
Petra was born in England, but her stepfather’s work meant that her early life involved significant travel and dislocation. The first move was to Iran for a year, leaving at the age of three years old, during the disturbed period that culminated in the 1979 revolution. The family briefly moved back to England and then to Indonesia, when Petra was around five years old.
When she was eight, she was sent to boarding school in England while her parents remained in Indonesia.
It was during this period of her life, back in England, that Petra began experimenting with alcohol. She describes the time visiting an aunt’s place, finding alcohol in the house and then ‘playing ladies’ with a friend—dressing up and drinking alcohol, attempting to act in a sophisticated manner.
It started as play-acting, but Petra soon discovered that alcohol enabled her to escape into a ‘kind of fantasy world’.
When Petra was 14, she and her family moved to Wellington. She got a part-time job and was able to access more alcohol, begin smoking tobacco, and attending gigs. ‘Fueling up on a bottle of chardon or cheap wine before going to a gig would enable me to enter the romantic and entrancing fantasy that parties held in my mind,’ she recalls.
The drinking was paradoxical: ‘It gave me a sense of power, something I felt severely lacking in, but, at the same time, it came with a complete absence of compassion for myself.’
The party scene was a blur—Petra says she frequently experienced sexual assault—‘not that I could have fully understood or articulated it as such at the time.’ It created what would become a tortured relationship with men.
Petra says she always had some kind of faith or understanding of God’s presence. Along the way she had spiritual encounters. One was a charismatic and supernatural spiritual experience involving the Holy Spirit. But this, like other early experiences, didn’t break the cycle—even though it helped cement a conviction that God was real.
‘My image of God was of an older male,’ she says, ‘And the destructive relationships I’d had with men, made the concept of God problematic for me.’
Instead, as life continued, Petra lived in two separate worlds. At St Mary’s school in Wellington, she was a virtuous student.
‘I had discovered something I could feel good about—my singing. It was a gift I had, a way to express myself and something to be proud of,’ she says.
She was able to keep up the ‘clean-cut’ image at school, or on Sundays at church, but it was a world away from the drinking and abusive men she was involved with in the party scene.
‘I seemed attracted to emotionally unavailable men. I was physically present in relationships but with a complete absence of intimacy—it was a dirty and grubby world,’ she reflects. This dissonance and the associated self-harming provided the shadow in starkly contrasting worlds. ‘It just felt so spiritually degrading, when on Sundays I was singing in church,’ she says.
Petra’s parents left New Zealand when she was 17 years old. She wanted to follow her dream of singing and did an audition for a performance voice course, but was told she was too young. Instead, the money her parents gave her to complete the course, and the government-funded student allowance, all went on alcohol and parties.
Because of her behaviour, Petra was asked to leave the house owned by the people her parents had left her with. The next few years were a mix of homelessness and genuine attempts at a re-start. But her ‘intense shame’ kept her from entering the doors of church.
This pattern continued for some years, although there were periods of relative calm when Petra managed to get work. There was a relatively stable relationship with her first husband—for a while, at least. ‘I even managed to control my drinking when I got pregnant with my daughter Natasha. I more or less kept to what I understood to be the then-accepted safe standard number of drinks of alcohol a pregnant woman might consume—no more than one or two glasses of wine a day,’ says Petra. (The advice now is that even one drink of alcohol is potentially unsafe). Thankfully, Natasha was born in perfect health.
However, as much as Petra tried, her drinking always came back. Consistent with her past, her fraught relationships with men continued. She separated with her first husband, got back together with him, and then separated again.
Petra moved to Sydney, Australia, where she was drawn back into the party world. After a few years, her life had spiraled downhill to the extent that she had to be rescued by her step father—who paid for Petra and her daughter Natasha to come back to New Zealand.
She relocated to Auckland, where her parents now lived. The shame Petra feels is palpable, as she explains how her daughter was exposed to her choices: ‘I was driving Natasha around while being extremely drunk, along with other equally irresponsible and dangerous things,’ admits Petra.
Somehow, Petra managed to get sober and was even able to hold down a job. But, in 2003, she had a complete breakdown. ‘I just shut down,’ she says simply. ‘I just wanted to die.’
Petra had heard about, and occasionally even attended, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But this time someone recommended that she ‘do a rehab’.
Petra had hit her ‘rock bottom’. She contacted The Salvation Army’s Bridge Programme in Auckland, seeking treatment for her addiction. ‘My pleas were so heart-rending that a staff member fast tracked me into treatment,’ recalls Petra. ‘For so much of my life I thought I could control things. But broken as I was, I now knew for sure that I couldn’t.’
Petra speaks highly of the Salvation Army officers who served at the Bridge. ‘They were non-judgemental and treated me with such respect. My past had not followed me into this place,’ she recalls.
Petra’s experiences in Recovery Church, and her quiet times in the chapel where there was a rustic and rugged old cross, helped her reassess her concept of God. ‘I had to let go of everything I thought I knew about God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit,’ says Petra. ‘What I thought I knew had been messing with my head!’
The programme enabled Petra to begin her journey of recovery and engage with God in a whole new way. After she completed the addiction programme, people from Recovery Church supported her to keep going along to the weekly meetings.
Sometime after completing the programme, Petra’s mother —who was enrolled in a theological degree course—suggested it might be the time for Petra to consider doing something. So, with a growing spiritual awareness and her mother’s encouragement, Petra enrolled as well: ‘I had the incredible experience of studying theology at university together with my mother.’
Petra studied at St Johns Theological College in Auckland, while worshipping at the local Anglican congregation. She found that she ‘had a brain for academic study’, and it helped her spiritual development. In her third year of study, Petra made a surprising discovery: ‘I felt God calling me to the other side of the altar, as a priest,’ she says.
But during this time, Petra also discovered that a lifetime of destructive habits can’t be magically wiped away. The redemptive journey is hard. As they say in addiction treatment circles: ‘relapse is part of recovery’.
‘While I was still studying I relapsed and separated from my second husband, who I had married while attending the College,’ recalls Petra. Despite her world collapsing around her, Petra somehow managed to keep up appearances and got incredibly close to being ordained as an Anglican minister.
‘But I had developed my spirituality enough to realise I could no longer live the lie,’ she adds. At the risk of losing everything she had been working towards, Petra came clean and told her leaders the real situation. This was an important turning point. Throughout Petra’s past, she had always tried to manage the two contrasting worlds she lived within. Not any more. ‘My sobriety had to come first—for my sake and for the sake of my children,’ she says (Petra now had another child).
She pro-actively faced her deception and the sense of humiliation that accompanies this kind of confession. ‘I made sure everyone knew.’
The church supported her and in no way cast her aside—albeit that ordination was no longer an option, at least not in the short term. She underwent further addiction treatment and attended addiction support groups, as well as doing addiction studies. ‘In a sense I saw myself as needing to completely deconstruct that false self I had become,’ says Petra. ‘I acknowledged the deep sense of anxiety that pervaded my life ... it still surfaces from time to time but I have learned how to deal with it now.’
This hard journey is something she now celebrates. ‘It is so different from the quick fixes I so often resorted to in the past. I see that God is doing something deep and new in my life where once there was only a shallow facade,’ say Petra. ‘My faith has come alive in a new way. It’s not about outcomes or results. God is in the now.’
Scripture verses, like the following, have real meaning for Petra now: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,’ (2 Cor 12:9); ‘Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,’ (1 Peter 5:7).
After nearly seven years of sobriety, Petra has gone through the process and path the Anglican Church set for her, and has been ordained as the vicar of the church in Ōnehunga.
‘I can now see that I am in God in the present moment and that God is in the “other”. We don’t exist without each other.’ She clearly cares for the homeless that sleep on or around the grounds of the church, as well as the parishioners she ministers to. Yet, Petra says that she is still surprised by the role she has found herself in.
In contrast to the lost girl caught up in a false and double world, Petra is today growing in grace, daily living in Christ and walking humbly with her God. She knows who she is in God, and God’s power once more being made perfect in weakness.
From the Bridge programme to the Anglican church, Petra is an authentic witness to the Church and her community.
(c) 'War Cry' magazine, 1 December 2018, p6-9- You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.