Love and forgiveness are pretty central to the Christian faith. But it’s usually God’s love and his forgiveness that are the lynchpins.
In the case of John Hemans the hallmark of his conversion was the door opening to his own forgiveness of the man who sexually abused him at 13.
John is now 57. He’d been a Christian for 15 years when he took over what is now the Open Heaven Pentecostal/Charismatic church at Prestons, then known as River of Life, in 2011.
The church has an outreach focus to south-west Sydney and draws people from the whole region. Currently, 100 members.
In this interview John reveals the circumstances of his teenage trauma, what it led to, and what that led to after a confronting experience with the God he’d claimed to know as a child, but not really.
This continues our series on faiths in our region to promote understanding and acceptance and an appreciation of diversity. We ask someone committed to that faith why it has such a deep personal significance and how it has an impact on their daily life.
>> THE church John Hemans runs was started in 1961. Close enough to the year John himself was born. But in the 36 years before he’d end up there as the senior pastor he’d face quite a wild ride – sexual abuse as a young teenager, marijuana, mushrooms, LSD, mandrax, speed, cocaine, heroin.
“Both my parents were committed Christians. I was raised Christian. My dad was the organist and choirmaster at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in the city. So that’s where I went to school,” John said.
How important was this faith to you then? “It wasn’t. ‘Cos it was inherited. What I was brought up to believe.
“I was molested at 13 by a man in a position of authority in a church. I didn’t get involved in the Royal Commission ‘cos I dealt with it in my own way.
“You know, it’s only in hindsight I understand the ramifications of the molestation.
“At that point I began to rebel against everything that represented authority. Especially God.
“I’m not making excuses for my own behaviour, mind you. The molestation was a once-off thing that in many ways was relatively minor.
“But I was brought up in a sheltered, conservative environment so what that man did to me was a huge shock.
“At the time I couldn’t tell anyone. Nobody knew about it. I didn’t deal with it – I shut it down.
“Ultimately I blamed God because of his position of authority. ‘God, how could you let them happen to me . . . !’ But I was running away from it.”
Sure I felt like ‘Mate, I wanna punch you in the face’ but you have to go beyond that. I feel sorry for perpetrators and want to see them set free.
But God did let you down didn’t he? “My perspective is that evil is real in the world. For example, kids being targeted in war. My Christian faith now helps me understand I can navigate through anything with my relationship with Jesus. It’s about forgiveness, not retribution.
“I was a young boy coming into puberty, who didn’t have understanding. And I instinctively lashed out at all authority. I lashed out at my conservative upbringing. I was hanging out with friends taking pot. I rejected my parents’ authority.
“I refused to go to school – I was asked to leave anyway. I was sent to another school.
“At 16 – this was three years after I’d been molested – I turned to my parents and announced: ‘You can’t tell me what to do any more.’ And I promptly left school.
“I experimented with drugs. Started off smoking pot, mushrooms, LSD. This was the mid-Seventies, the height of the psychedelic drugs. I took mandies [mandrax], speed.
“I was nearly 18 and someone introduced me to heroin. And I was getting progressively worse. I had bouts of sobriety but couldn’t maintain it.
“I started doing a mix of cocaine, an upper, and heroin, a downer – pushing myself in two directions at once.
“I’ve had a gun stuck in my face here in Sydney and in LA. I was a drug-dealer for a couple of years. Into crime. Dealing drugs, stealing cars, breaking relationships.
I started doing a mix of cocaine, an upper, and heroin, a downer – pushing myself in two directions at once.
“From 14 to 35 I was a mess. The last 10 years of that I was a pretty hardcore addict, and aimless.”
How aimless? “Being a heroin addict is a dead-end street. You end up in jail or on meth – either way, for the rest of your life.
“The drugs’d run out and I’d tell myself I’m gonna kick them. But drugs are not the issue, it’s what’s underneath.
“Detoxing heroin is pretty straightforward. Just three days. But what drives you underneath is still there. I fell off the wagon multiple, multiple, multiple times. When I was off my face I didn’t feel empty.
“Dad passed away when I was 20 and that reinforced my negative ideas. But rather than deal with the grief I just took more drugs.
I’ve had a gun stuck in my face here in Sydney and in Los Angeles.
“I had two brothers, two sisters and one foster brother. They were all just devastated. My mum and dad were people of great faith. My mum would just keep praying: ‘God, you bring him round.’ “
Where was your Christian faith at this point? “Nowhere. Somewhere in my heart I knew God was real, that he loved me, that he had a call on my life. But the only time I stepped inside church was for a wedding or a funeral.
“Then something happened. Fast-forward to age 35. I was living at Summer Hill, near Ashfield. Playing in a band, dealing pot and ecstacy, drinking heavily.
“Making a lot of money from dealing but I was completely empty inside. No meaning or purpose.
“I’d try to cover up my emptiness by buying things, doing drugs, drinking, sex, playing in the band.
“One morning I had what I can only describe as an encounter with God.
“I had my first coffee and a cigarette and all of a sudden there was this movie flashing in front of my eyes, of everything I’d ever done, and things done to me, being molested. I was overwhelmed with guilt, shame, fear, thoughts of suicide.
“Here’s the thing. God allowed all that to come to the surface and showed me what I’d become.
“Pot was a gateway drug for me, I knew that, and here I was selling it to other people.
“The weight of my sin is what was coming to the surface. It went on for about two weeks. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and the flood of memories would consume me,.
“I was with a mate at Balmain. He was a believer. He wasn’t really living the Christian life himself but alcohol had loosened my tongue a bit and I thought I’d get some wisdom from him.
“Well, he looked me straight in the eye and spoke direct to me: ‘You need to get your life right with God.’
“A bullet between the eyes.
“It was actually God drawing me back to him, showing me what I’d become. Jesus said: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.’ Christianity is the only religion on the planet where God died for us.
“I wrestled with it a couple of weeks. I’d had 21 years of living my plan for my life, which turned out to be crap.
“My mum and stepdad were living at Greenfield Park and I went out to their house and told them what I’d been going through. It was one of the biggest moments of my life.
“I began confessing my sins to them. And the more I confessed out loud the more I felt was left inside. Just felt worse and worse. Even God doesn’t want me, I thought. I felt such shame. At that point I couldn’t have cared if a truck had run me down.
It was the single most profound moment of my entire life. People say I just imagined it, but you can judge an encounter by the fruit of it. I threw out the drugs, I stopped drinking alcohol, I got a job.
“I was about to get up and I heard this voice inside me. ‘Peace. Be still.’
“I was overwhelmed. The miracle was not hearing the voice but what happened.
“ ‘Peace,’ said the voice. And I felt it. I felt closed up and whole.
“I remembered the story of Jesus in the boat with his disciples in the storm. They were yelling at him ‘Don’t you care that we’re perishing?!” And he said those same words: ‘Peace. Be still.’
“It was the single most profound moment of my entire life.
“People say I just imagined it, but you can judge an encounter by the fruit of it. I threw out the drugs, I stopped drinking alcohol, I got a job.
“I had 21 years away from God and I’ve just had 21 years back with God.
“That original peace is constant, like a bedrock or a foundation in my soul, no matter what I’m going through. I’ve seen him miraculously protect me and restore broken pieces of my life.
“That experience of being molested has no effect on me at all now. I learned to forgive. I was able to say I choose to forgive this man for what he did to me and after a while it was really easy to say because God cleaned out the junk that went with all those memories. The tentacles of it had played out in all my relationships.
“I don’t blame this thing but I realise the enormity of its influence in every part of my life.
“Most incidents covered in the Royal Commission were far worse than mine.
“If I’m going to follow Jesus I have to forgive. I have no choice. I went through turmoil for about three or four weeks but it got easier and easier and easier. Now, I feel sorry for the guy. At some the point the shame of being a perpetrator is worse than the shame of a victim.
“God doesn’t see me as a sinner any more. And it’s not through anything I’ve done. ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.’ That’s Ephesians 2:8.”
Since your experience with God did you ever momentarily feel like you’d still like to find the perpetrator and clobber him? “Yeah, to be honest. but only on the surface. Sure I felt like ‘Mate, I wanna punch you in the face’ but you have to go beyond that. There’s a deeper truth. I feel sorry for perpetrators and want to see them set free.
“I’ve done jail ministry, to people in protective custody for that sort of thing. But compassion would never excuse what they’ve done.”
How can Jesus forgive those who do crimes against children? “That’s the astounding thing about grace.”
John has a Safe Churches program in operation at his church. Everyone involved with youngsters has a Working with Children check. No children are to be left alone with a single teacher.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.Ephesians 2:8
- John Hemans: 0434 729 610.
- Sundays 10am worship service and kids’ church. Fridays 7.30pm Presence revival meetings, focussing on the power and presence of God.