I quickly snapped out of my contemplation when Ricky returned and handed me a steaming mug of fresh coffee. I took another deep breath. “We’ve talked a lot about these kids and their families,” I said. “But, if you’re okay with it, I’d love to hear your story.”
“Well, I started serving full-time in ‘82 through ’85, with Christian Care Centre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,” he began. “I participated in a Disciple Training School with Youth with a Mission in Singapore and later served as an associate pastor in Full Gospel Assembly in Singapore and Malaysia for several years before coming here in ‘93. I graduated from Bethany College of Missions in America in ’88, with a degree in Missions and Theology.”
“I was able to gather most of that from your website,” I joked. “I’d love to know more about young Ricky, though. About your time in Malaysia, about your own parents.” Just then his son walked into the room, introduced himself, and sat down at the dining room table a few feet behind us.
“The second time I tried to kill myself was a few years later,” Ricky said. “At the time, Malaysia’s school system was based on automatic promotion. This meant that no matter how you did, you advanced until you reached the 10th grade. There you’d have a load of kids in over their heads and unable to read at a 10th grade level, if at all. I was one of them. Wasn’t able to seriously read and comprehend what I read until I was 21, or so. So, there I was, barely 16, with no skills and too far behind in school. I dropped out.”
“What did you do? How did you get by?” I asked.
“I ran with the wrong crew, a gang I guess. I pushed drugs, broke into homes, stole. I trained in Muay Thai kickboxing for a few months around this time and wanted to go pro. I was completely aimless. It didn’t take long before I started using. I used every drug I could get my hands on.”
“Where was your family at this point? Was there a breakdown?”
“Yeah, I guess there was. My mother died when I was six. My father was living with another family. Thank God, I had two good sisters. So, there were times where I felt alone, you know. Without a family, without a job.”
A gang or otherwise like-minded crew of dropouts can fulfill these two primary needs. At once a gang both welcomes members as family and employs them as workers. Acceptance is essentially contingent on want, proximity, and availability (being jobless). Employment is the willingness to steal and deal. It’s danger sheathed in the artifice of family, of safety. Danger sheathed as safety is far more dangerous than unsheathed danger.
The result is that the stealing and the dealing do not feel as dangerous as they actually are. Everyone around you is doing it, and they can relate with your hardships. It’s why financially struggling artists feel a bit better when they have the support and community of other financially struggling artists. With security and a job, it’s easy to go months without seeing your next-door neighbor, but the gang is tight. Within the close dynamics of a gang, decisions are often made for the benefit of the gang, with the unspoken hope that the trickle down “what is good for them is good for me” happens. More often than not, however, the “us” concept disintegrates in a gang because so many individuals come and go, enter clean, start using, vanish, or are banished.
The needs of self often trump the needs of group, especially in the disjointed, disconnected world in which we live. That’s one reason why we’re drawn to the news stations that support what we already believe. It’s one reason why community engagement is perhaps at its lowest level even though the world’s population is rising. The war against modern-day slavery is tough to wage in the face of a climbing population and the climbing poverty resulting from it. Many efforts to increase the public’s awareness of modern-day slavery may be countered by the numbers game and the slave owner’s increasing ability to hide what they do. In order to battle modern-day slavery, we must acknowledge this.
“At 18, I did six months in prison, and apparently didn’t learn a thing from it,” Ricky continued. “As soon as I got out, my friends took me out for some ‘freebies,’ and just like that I was back to being an addict.”
“Were you always on the run from the police?”
“Oh yeah. You know, the thing about being an addict is that you are always either thinking about getting caught, thinking about using, or thinking about quitting. Nothing else even enters your mind. Nothing else matters. There was one time where some of us were fitting heroin into straws—we’d light it and inhale the smoke—and a police raid burst in. I was the only one caught, and the police cuffed me. I wrestled out of their grasp and took off down a dark alley. They couldn’t open fire because there were too many houses around. I hid that night and slept with my cuffs on. In the morning a friend sawed them off. That’s the kind of life we lived.”
“Do you still keep in touch with any of the ‘we’ you refer to?”
Ricky paused. “Actually, no, I don’t. You know what? They are either dead or in prison. We all went separate ways.”
“And how were you able to quit, Ricky? How were you the one who made it?”
“Friends introduced me to the teachings of Jesus and, I don’t know, I finally started taking the teachings seriously. At first going to church just provided me with a safe place while I was still using. I knew the police wouldn’t come, plus, after service I got to meet all the girls in church. A win-win. Eventually, though, I started seeing myself as a sinner.” He picked up the Bible on the table and flipped to a page. “This verse in Corinthians gave me a revelation of understanding,” he said as he handed it to me. “Read it out loud.”
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” I said.
“Yes. You see? I didn’t have to carry guilt and be depressed and continue sinning. I could be given a second chance. I could be born again. I realized that I had a choice. I chose not to sin. In my case, to destroy my body with drugs, to lie, to steal, to cheat.”
“Some people say that once you are an addict you are always an addict. Even if they are not using they feel the addict quality is within them. Do you ever feel that?” I asked.
“No, no,” he said. “‘The old has gone; the new has come.’”
Both of our smiles turned to laughter, and the mood lightened. I felt comfortable enough to ask if he’s experienced any animosity from others, especially within the Catholic Church, for his helping of the older children who, willingly or unwillingly, engaged in “homosexual acts.”
“Not so much,” he said. “But then again I’m working primarily with kids. Some of my friends are helping homosexual adult males who have contracted HIV/AIDS, and they struggle quite a bit more in trying to get members of the church to help them out. Homosexual adult males, especially those with HIV/AIDS, are considered by some to be the absolute scum of the earth. I don’t know,” Ricky said as he took a long, slow drink of his coffee, “whatever my beliefs, I try to see people not just as their weaknesses. I mean, look at me. Look at the stuff I did when I was younger. We are all human, Cameron. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done or will do. We are all human.”
Ricky looked down at his watch. Just then we heard the faint sound of children talking and laughing in the distance. They grew louder. We both smiled. No matter the country or language, the sound of groups of children leaving school is always the same. “Let’s go hang out with the kids,” he said. I followed him out the door, and as we were both slipping our shoes on, he leaned closer to me and whispered, “You know, even when I was in America I always had this intention to come back to Asia to try give back what I took. I’ll never be able to fully make up for my past wrongs, but that doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying.”