Matiu Rota was a gang member at rock bottom when he saw the light. Now he wants to help people who were just like him. Photo: Charles Anderson.

From gangs to God

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Matiu Rota just wanted to be accepted.

He had come from a broken home and wanted a family. So he turned to gangs – to drugs, alcohol and violence.

“I never knew love as a kid growing up,” he says.

He had his first criminal conviction at 15-years-old and served several terms in prison for offences like assault, burglary and aggravated robbery.

At 26-years-old he found himself homeless – living in a burned out house on Auckland’s streets and contemplating his life.

“I had no family, no friends, no hope, no future … I was a drug addict. I had uncontrollable rage and I was looking back and started to reflect on my life.”

He thought about suicide. But when he was at rock bottom he met, by chance, with a pair of Christians.

“They spoke to me about Jesus. Then I started going to church.”

He says it was like walking into another world.

“The hardest thing for me was to understand what love was. I never remember being loved as a child.”

But in church that was all they spoke about.

He came off the streets and into the home of one of the parishioners.

He started to look at his life in a way he never had before.

Matiu started to figure out how he could forgive his father for abandoning him as a baby and how to forgive his mother for disowning him when he was 15.

“There were a lot of tears and a lot of pain.”

Matiu says he was never taught about right and wrong growing up, so it was a process in understanding what that meant and being “set free” of that baggage.

About 10 years ago, he did. He started going to Bible College. Then in 2014 he started studying counselling at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. He gained his certificate and is now having a break from studying towards his degree.

“I want to help people. I want to use the experience I have had to be used for good.”

Matiu, a single dad to an 11-year-old son, says it gave him tools for his own personal development.

In 2008 he started his own ministry called “The Peacemakers”. The non denominational church uses some of the motifs and language from gang culture to help give those who are embedded in it an alternative to the life they are leading.

“We don’t believe a church is confined to four walls. It is wherever we are.”

He says other churches have looked down on them because they don’t “fit into a box”, but he has seen the good they have done.

They also don’t believe in preaching the gospel.

“We live it. I don’t want to be in people’s faces.”

But that does not stop the public often getting the wrong idea when he and his parishioners are out in public.

They wear leather jackets with patches and are heavily tattooed. But these ones read things like “Child of God” and “Jesus Christ.”

Matiu has a facial tattoo, as part of his full moko, that reads: “Jesus Christ for Life”.

“We are taking familiar concepts to people from gang culture and turning them around in a Biblical way,” he says.

Matiu says he doesn’t mind people judging them from their appearance but many do come and speak to them about who they are.

“Some don’t take the time to read what we wear. They see patches and judge. But we are all human and this is about looking further than just skin deep.”

Matiu says he and the church do not have anything to prove.

“We are just thankful that we were taken out of the darkness and hope that we can be a light.”