From as early as I can remember we were taught the values of right and wrong. Every night when we went to bed, mum or dad would pray the Lord’s Prayer with us, and we would make our requests known to God. On Sundays we would go to Mass, which at that time was spoken in Latin. Later we moved to the suburb of Burnaby and we changed churches to one at a closer location. Now the Mass was spoken in English. I remember thinking how disappointed I was, comparing the English to the Latin. It used to sound so reverent and holy, now it was plain and repetitive: no longer mystical.
After receiving my first holy communion at six or seven years old, I began attending confession on a monthly basis. I treated confession very seriously, and was quite honest and sincere about confessing my sins, and would come away feeling quite unburdened. But I found I was always returning back to confess the same old sins, and as the years went by I wasn’t becoming a better boy, if anything I was getting worse.
My father’s mother had many icons, crosses, and small statues about her home that she said brought protection. She taught me to say the rosary and to pray to the saints. She was a very devout Catholic.
When I was 13, my Grandmother (or ‘Nonna’ as we called her), took me with her on a trip to the ‘old country’ (Italy) to visit our relatives in a small town in the north. This trip had a profound effect on me. Here I was exposed to the full grandeur, marvel, and wonder of the Catholic Church, expressed in its great cathedrals and monasteries.
Here I witnessed the piety and devotion of the Catholic faithful who would crawl on their knees along great avenues of stone so they might reverence and pay homage to statues of the ‘holy virgin’ or one of the ‘saints’; statues whose feet were dissolved by being perpetually bathed in kissed and tears.
The high point in the trip was in Venice where at St Mark’s Cathedral, at the Doge’s Palace, I beheld great rows of suits of armour lining the corridor, complete with swords, battle axes, and other weaponry; all stamped with the name ‘Maniago’. Maniago was the name of a village in northern Italy dating back more than 1000 years, whose inhabitants specialized in the forging of fine steel for the manufacture of weapons. This was the village of my ancestors. Maniago was our family name. Oh what pride I felt! To see our name cast into all those weapons, in this the most opulent and magnificent of settings.
Years later, I would discover to my horror where many of these weapons would have been used: to slaughter true Christians, simply for their beliefs. It would prompt me to change my name.
My mother became involved in the Catholic inspired ‘Charismatic Movement’. She would attend weekly group or household meetings, would often fast, and would occasionally go on extended retreats. I would see her regularly praying and reading her Bible, and she would listen to radio programmes featuring Katherine Kuhlman, Herbert W. Armstrong, and other popular evangelists. She never forced her views on us, as she knew that dad had a very conservative nature, resisting any change that might unsettle his traditional Catholic views. But she would readily express her faith when opportunities arose, especially if we showed any interest in spiritual things. Many times she pointed out how the current events we would read about in the newspaper, or see on television were foretold in the Bible.
As the years passed I became quite interested in mum’s Bible comparisons to current events; the evidence seemed undeniable. But my attitude towards the Bible was confused. On one hand I had been taught all the Bible stories about creation, about Adam and Eve, about Noah and the flood. And on the other hand the ‘facts’ I was learning at school, taught that the earth was millions of years old, man evolved from apes, and that a flood couldn’t possibly cover the whole earth. I didn’t really try to sort it all out; I thought the truth was found in combining both points of view. My outward life wasn’t changed by mum’s Bible prophesies, but I kept them tucked in the back of my mind relating them to events as they unfolded.
The primary school I attended was built on what used to be an old farm, and then later the area overbuilt with suburb subdivisions. The old farmhouse still stood on the school grounds. It was cordoned off with a high security fence, and used as a facility for mildly handicapped children, (such as those with Down Syndrome). It was here that I learned a lot about cruelty…
At recess and lunch time when the kids were allowed out onto the playground, dozens of children would gather around the security fence to taunt the ‘retards’ (as they were called). Faces were pulled, names were called, sticks were poked, and rocks were thrown. The scene was not unlike that of a zoo, with people gathered around a cage trying to extract a response out of some dumb animal. I was often very unpopular, and got into a lot of fights for sticking up for these handicapped kids as my own brother Norman suffered from such a condition.
Throughout my school years I struggled through the academic subjects such as Maths and English. I was a dreamer whose mind was often off on other things. Abstract concepts didn’t sink in very well. Rather, I gave my energies in the areas of art, and later the industrial subjects, in which I excelled. In sport my perseverance often made up for my lack of talent.
The resulting poor grades I received in the important subjects often lowered me to deceit, as I feared the repercussions when dad and mum found out the results on my report cards. This deceitful trait tainted my character for many years and often brought me to shame.
Two of my best friends were brothers Mario and Arthur. Mario was a year older than I was and went on to high school before me. I didn’t see much of him after that because he made new friends and his interests changed a lot. He began smoking and drinking, going to parties and listening to heavy rock music.
One night Mario was returning from a party with a friend. The vehicle they were driving was broadsided by a drunk driver. Mario was thrown from the car, but the door slammed back on him as he was ejected, crushing his spleen and liver. He lingered in the hospital for five days before he died. Everyone said that Mario would now be in heaven. And although his family were very religious, traditional Catholics, his mother would not be comforted. For weeks after Mario’s death she would wail uncontrollably for the loss of her son. I could see she had no peace about the state of Mario’s soul. I too had my doubts whether Mario had had indeed gone to heaven.
Little did I realise at the time, but I too would soon embrace the very traits that had overtaken Mario, that I had perceived as being so evil.
“Evil communications corrupt good manners”, as I can shamefully attest when I recall my high school years up through to my early twenties. These were years that I sank into such depravity and rebellion that I came to despise my own life. These were the years where I cast aside the values I knew to be good and true, and traded them for pleasure and vice.
My life degenerated into a slovenly, don’t care, rebellious, self-centred, self-pitying attitude, especially after my hopes were dashed concerning an infatuation with a girl I knew well. At high school I began skipping classes, until I had dropped out of most subjects. At home I neglected my responsibilities, and took everything for granted. I caused my father and mother much pain and sorrow as they endured disappointment after disappointment in their eldest son. I know my mother spent many hours in fasting and prayer over me during those years.
I became disgusted in myself. Ashamed of the example I was to my brothers and sisters, ashamed of the hurt I was causing my parents, ashamed for dishonouring the family name, ashamed of the habits I had fallen into; too ashamed even to go to Mass.
I kept a veneer of respectability, and there were certain lines I would not cross, but the only one I was really fooling was myself. I did have seasons where I tried to shake off my failures, and do better. For instance, I later went back to high school and gained enough credits to graduate, because I could only find low-paying restaurant work open to me. I would attempt to be more helpful at home; mowing lawns, doing painting and so on. I would set out to achieve goals, such as buying a stereo or a car.
But always undermining me was the lifestyle I became locked into with the friends I kept. These were a tightly knit group of mates that went back to my early high school years. We were closer to one another than brothers and our loyalty to each other often exceeded that of our own families. Our lives were almost completely geared around the quest for seeking out ‘good times’. Good times encompassed indulging in alcohol, smoking, drugs, rock music, dances, concerts, movies, gambling, ice hockey, skiing, and a whole host of other thrills, and pleasurable pursuits where we could find gratification, or escape from the pressures and responsibilities of life.
All this riotous living exacted a price. Tiredness from late nights and hangovers from bingeing had to be hidden or minimised from parents and work bosses. Lack of performance and mistakes had to be made up for, or covered up. Lies and deception became a regular part of life in the attempt to avoid confrontation or to stay out of trouble. And always beneath the surface was a troubled conscience.
Many of the incidents during these years are so shameful to recollect that they are better off left buried. I carry with me scars in my body and in my mind that I must bear for the rest of my days, and I will continue to reap for the things that I sowed during those reckless years.
This self-defeating lifestyle culminated in one pivotal event that changed the course of my life. I will recount it in detail…
One night in my 21st year a group of my friends and I drove to a party across town. There was the usual drinking and rock music. But on this night I distinctly remember contending with my own conscience. Why did I feel so guilty about indulging in all this revelling? None of my friends seemed to worry. Why couldn’t I just enjoy myself without being encumbered with thoughts that what I was doing was sinful? I was fed up with my nagging conscience always reminding me that I was squandering away my life! And the other thing eating me was: why did my friends seem to get all the lucky breaks in life, when my path often seemed to be inexplicably barred? Was it that I was standing in the way of my own happiness, because guilty feelings were restricting me? Or was there some intangible force that prevented or allowed the events in my life that I had no control over?
So I made a decision. No longer was I going to let my conscience stand in the way of my happiness. I would throw off its inhibiting, tormenting weight. Life’s pleasures were there for the taking, and I was determined to enjoy them.
Later that night I left the party with my friend Rob, to head home in my sports car. I took an alternate route that wasn’t used much at night, so I could drive fast. We were speeding down the highway at over 160 kph, and had just entered a long sweeping bend, when suddenly we hit loose gravel that was strewn across the road. The car spun then left the road. We flew through some underbrush then across a gulley impacting against a tree on the far side. The car then rolled into the bottom of the gulley, settling on its passenger side in a shallow creek.
I awoke, dazed from unconsciousness; Rob was gone; my head throbbed as I fought to keep from blacking out again. Because the car was on its side, I found myself suspended by the harness of my seatbelt. I called out, “Rob are you alright?” Thankfully he answered back, affirming he was okay.
About me I could make out fractured glass and twisted shapes. I looked behind, through the mangled hatchback door, to see the moonlight shimmering off the surface of the creek. Suddenly, the creek erupted into a sheet of flames, shooting right up into the passenger footwell! The fuel, from the ruptured petrol tank floating on the water, had ignited. The fire quickly advanced through the car’s plastic interior, including the synthetic wool seat cover now situated below me.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins as the flames licked at my right side. Time and again I plunged my hands into the blaze in a vain effort to release the seat belt buckle, but it wouldn’t budge. Frantically I searched for a means of escape. I exhausted every effort to dislodge the crumpled driver’s door, but it was jammed, and the window winder was also useless.
Meanwhile, Rob was screaming, “Get out, get out!” as the inferno engulfed the car, but he was too petrified to come any closer. I could only cry back, “I can’t, I’m trapped!” as I writhed from the torture of the flames.
Terror seized my heart as I realized that the flames were about to welcome me into hell! In an instant of time my whole life flashed before me, and in desperation I cried out, “God help me!”
Then from out of nowhere came a calm, clear thought into my head that said, “Recline the seat”. So I reached for the lever and pulled. The seat shot back. I wriggled out of the seat belt harness and tumbled into the back compartment, then escaped through the hatchback door. Still burning, I rolled on the bank of the creek to extinguish the last of the flames, and turned just in time to see the car explode with a fireball that scorched the trees more than ten meters above.
Rob crossed over the creek and helped me out of the gulley back to the roadside. By now a number of vehicles had stopped, and we were told that an ambulance and fire truck were on the way. As the adrenaline wore off, the pain of the burns set in, I sat down shivering in shock as I waited for the ambulance, thanking God for sparing me.
It must have been quite a shock to my parents when they first saw me at the hospital. My face was blackened and bloody, my hair mostly singed off. My hands were swollen to twice their normal size. My right side, upper leg and back, roasted.
Nobody had to tell me that I was fortunate to be alive. I had just been plucked from the jaws of hell, and I knew it with every fibre of my being! I begged my parents’ forgiveness for the way I had been, as I related how God had intervened to spare my life.
I had second and third degree burns to 30% of my body and was to stay in the hospital for a full month to receive skin grafts. Rob got away with a few stitches on his thumb and some bruises, but I don’t think he ever got over being haunted by the fact that he never came to my aid.
The car had burned with such intensity that even the magnesium wheels were melted off their hubs. Everything that wasn’t submerged in the creek apart from the raw steel was completely consumed.
I had a lot of time to think during that month in the hospital. The Burns Ward teaches many lessons.
When some patients came in, you could hear them screaming for hours; then when the screaming stopped, you knew that they were dead. Some arrived with serious but not lethal facial burns. They often gave up all will to live, and simply died. Yet there were others who had such a tenacity to live they overcame amazing obstacles.
One man, (who was already in the ward six months before I arrived), had fallen over some downed high-tension power lines. He had received burns to 85% of his body. The only area not burnt on him was his back. He had lost one arm, one leg, his ears, lips, and nose. The area of his burns was covered with pig skin until enough of his own skin could be harvested from his back to replace it. This meant that the skin on his back had to be cut away, then left to regenerate, then recut and regenerate until enough was produced to graft on the rest of his body. He was less than halfway through the process, but I had no doubts that he would have made it.
Another man I met, (a young ex-doctor), had also been in a fiery car crash. He was in the hospital to be fitted with prosthesic limbs after having endured two years of surgery and skin grafts. He had lost both arms and both legs. All that remained of him was his head and torso. Yet there wasn’t a hint of self pity in him.
The spirit of these men inspired me. If they could battle through such appalling circumstances, surely I could endure the pain of my skin grafts, and accept my scars without complaint. Besides, I reminded myself, God had let me off lightly: I deserved much worse. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t waste another day. God had left me with a fine healthy body, he expected me to use it, not abuse it.
From that point on, my whole outlook on life changed. I quit smoking and taking drugs, I limited my alcohol intake. I took up cycling, scuba diving, weight training, running, ski instructing, and ski racing. At work in the Parts department of Detroit Diesel Allison, I became much more reliable and responsible; therefore I climbed the training ladder much quicker. My foreman, whom I never previously got on with, soon changed his attitude towards me, when I began submitting to his often unreasonable demands, and stopped reacting to his sarcastic barbs.
My relationship at home improved vastly. At long last I was now relating well with dad and mum, as well as my brothers and sisters. I had a renewed interest in the things of God, and was prepared to listen to my mother, brother, and youngest sister, who were active in a Pentecostal Church. I began to think of myself as a Christian, even though I hadn’t committed myself to any specific group or set of beliefs.
And yet even with all the wholesome activities I had pursued my life still lacked fulfilment. I yearned for something deeper, something with more purpose, but I didn’t even know what to look for, or how to fill the void.
My concept of Christianity was distorted. I really wanted the best of both worlds. On one hand, I wanted God’s blessing to endorse my endeavours. And on the other, I wanted to still maintain a good relationship with my friends. I thought perhaps I could influence them to a more temperate lifestyle, but they were seldom interested. Rather, when in their company I found myself succumbing to temptation, and indulging in the very things I despised.
So I finished up worse than ever. I had acquired a self-righteous wholesome lifestyle, but I was too weak to keep from sinning. I felt like a hypocrite. I desperately wanted to be right with God, but I knew I was far from Him.
I became more of a loner, seeing less of friends and giving myself wholeheartedly to the passion of skiing. I was good at it, but pride drove me to be the best. I took tremendous risks, flaunting speed and danger, and if it wasn’t for God’s intervention and mercy on numerous occasions, I should have been dead long ago.
I began mixing in other circles, associating with friends I hadn’t seen in years. But I found them to be shallow, and superficial; more interested in conveying a popular image, than relating to the deep issues of the heart.
I often pondered how I could reach out to God. I could see his handiwork, in nature and in the stars. I knew God had often spared me, but for what purpose? I had tried to live up to what I thought He would expect of me, but I always seemed to fall short, and in my current environment, I wasn’t finding the answers that would let my heart be at peace. So in 1982 when one of my close friends invited me to travel with him to Australia to visit his sister, I jumped at the opportunity. Perhaps I could find some of the answers I sought out in the wider world. I was granted a seven month ‘leave of absence’ from work. We planned to see New Zealand, Australia, Rarotonga, and Tahiti, but before we bought our tickets, my friend squandered his money on drugs.
I wasn’t to be deterred: I would go alone, and use a bicycle, rather than hitchhike; it would keep me fit for the ski season.
Before I left Canada I wanted to make sure all of my affairs were in order. I decided I should go to confession (I hadn’t been for many years). Once in the confessional, I poured out the burden of my sins to the priest. When I was finished he told me to say ten ‘Our Fathers’, and ten ‘Hail Mary’s’. I came away utterly disillusioned by his instructions. How could years of wretched sinfulness be swept away by repeating two prayers over and over? Surely there was more to making my life right with God than this? What did the other Christian denominations have to say about what God demands of a man? Maybe I would find out more when I went overseas.
Later I expressed my disillusionment to my mother, brother, and sister. They encouraged me to attend one of their Pentecostal meetings, so I accepted. At the meeting there was a call for those who wished to receive Jesus Christ as their saviour, to remain standing so they could be prayed for. As I stood, I prayed this prayer, “Please Lord, lead me to truth”.
Not long afterward, the day of my departure arrived. Dad had warned me not to get involved in any sects like the ‘Moonies’, or get caught up in anything like ‘Jonestown’.
Mum presented me with a Bible, with these verses from John 10: 27, 28 inscribed inside the cover: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand”.
At the airport I said my farewells to my family, and friends and was off to New Zealand.
In the two months that I took to cycle through New Zealand I regularly read from the Bible that mum had given me. On the first day of the week I usually made a point to seek out a ‘church’ to attend. Often I would choose out different denominations, so I could compare their teachings with my Bible. I found that there were many different interpretations and opinions between the Christian groups, and rarely was there anyone who was committed in their beliefs, though I did come across a few individuals who really had a hold of a strong faith with convictions that I admired.
Then on the weekend before I was due to fly over to Australia, I was approached by a man in Christchurch Cathedral square. He asked me if I was interested in Christianity, and when I affirmed that I was, he challenged me with Christian principals, as no one had ever done before. He said that he and his family belonged to a Christian community located approximately an hour out of Christchurch, and offered a ride out there if I decided that I would like to spend the weekend.
When I arrived at the community, it was plain that this was Christianity as I had never seen it. The life that they were practising was patterned from the New Testament churches found in the scriptures.
Everyone I met was friendly, well mannered, and modestly dressed. The women were sweet and submitted and many had bore and nurtured large lovely families. When I asked why they chose to live communally, and to act and dress the way they did, the answers I received were all soundly backed with Bible verses that couldn’t be refuted. I soon found that there were Biblical principles applied to virtually everything that these people did.
In short, this was practical Christianity being lived amongst people who set themselves apart from mainstream society, so they could preserve and foster their beliefs.
It was obvious that all the outward observances and principles I was witnessing weren’t kept out of constraint, but out of a deep seated love to keep the commandments of Christ and to care for one another. These people had a depth of selflessness, joy, and spiritual fulfilment greater than anything I had seen in my lifetime. I could only conclude that Christ was dwelling in the midst of them.
Could it be possible that ending up at this church (that was making such a deep impression on me) was the answer to my prayer asking that the Lord lead me to truth? If so, then ‘Christianity’ was going to demand far greater changes in my life than I anticipated.
As the scriptures were expounded to me, it was evident that a choice had to be made between godliness, (with all the power and promises that went with it), and the world. To adhere to the one without renouncing the other was futile, because fulfilment could not be reached in either.
At last I could see it clearly! To follow Christ it would cost me everything! Any less, (as experience had taught me), was just playing games that would get me nowhere. Hence the full implications of Christ’s words in Luke 14: 33, “Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple”, were driven home to me.
What then was the price I was willing to pay? Would it be too high if it meant giving up the rest of my tour? (I still had five adventurous months ahead to see Australia, Rarotonga, and Tahiti). Could I let that go? If it meant giving up my skiing (I was near the top of the skiing fraternity, the next few seasons would tell how far I could go). Could I give up that?
What about my job? (In the plant where I worked, we were the highest paid partsmen in North America). Would I be prepared to jeopardize my financial security? What of my friends? (Even though they were as brothers to me, I knew they had no time for Christianity). Could I accept being abandoned by them?
My family; surely they would be delighted if I had finally committed myself to strong Christian beliefs. But what if they thought that I was getting involved in something that was much too fanatical? I was warned that most relatives react very negatively when one of their own renounces the world to live a separated Christian life. I was told that I may have to make a choice between offending those who were dearest to me, and Christ.
Finally and most importantly, was I ready to give up myself? Was I prepared to yield my life back to God my maker, and trust him to lead and guide me? I had always wanted God on my terms, to serve my agenda. Now I realized I must put God’s will before my own.
As I contemplated all that I would have to forsake to gain the peace and joy of the Christian life, my heart was greatly torn. All that I had, all that I ever wanted to be, all my pride and independence would have to be surrendered.
It all seemed like too much to consider in such a short time. As I went around and said my goodbyes, I told them that I would continue on to Australia, where I could think things through. Then perhaps I would return. I loaded my bicycle and gear into a van so I could be taken to the airport when, stepping aside… I thought to myself, “If you walk away from this now, you will never return”. I had come face to face with the truth, now here I was walking away from it. I could travel the world over and never get another opportunity like this again. I had pushed God away so many times in my life, maybe this was the last chance He would give me. Anyway, why did I need more time for consideration? I would probably only use it to convince myself that there were easier ways to be a Christian. “There could be no turning back”, I thought as I considered my options. They had warned me that it was better not to make promises to God, then to make them and go back on them.
Then, in that moment, I made my decision. I had counted the cost. I would pay the price in full! Instantly the turmoil in my heart disappeared, and I was flooded with a peace that I knew could only come from God. The spirit of Christ had entered into me, and I knew I was now a son of God. Hallelujah!!
We went to the airport where I handed in my ticket, saying I wouldn’t be on the aeroplane. Returning to the community, I telephoned home and explained the good news to my parents. Sadly they didn’t share in my joy and enthusiasm; my news was not well received. I was sorely disappointed that they weren’t glad for me, but I wouldn’t be swayed to reconsider.
I wrote relatives, friends, and my employers, telling them that I was now a Christian, and that I had made a new life here in New Zealand amongst a people who truly lived according to the Bible. I effectively burned my bridges, so the only way to go was forward, for Christ.
Within the week I was baptized. I stepped into the river knowing I was finished with my old self. When I was plunged under the water, like as Christ in the grave, I believed my old self to be dead and buried, washed away down the river. I rose up out of the water a new creature in Christ. My sins were gone, and the power that sin had on me was broken. No longer was I under the devil’s power, burdened with guilt and condemnation. I was clean at last, set free though the blood of Christ to live a victorious life!
Out of a grateful heart, I bound myself with vows and commitments to serve God and my brethren in the Church all the days of my life. These vows I have kept, often to my own hurt, determined I would remain true and faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ who gave His life for me.
From that time until the present, I have had to overcome many trials, and my faith has been proved many times. I have had to make many strong stands against those who through sentimental or emotional ties, would desire to draw me away from the life I hold so dear here in the church, I have had to stand also, against those who over the years have turned from the truth.
How I would love to testify of the happiness of Christian marriage, of the joys of seeing our children grow up to follow Christ, of the fulfilment found in sacrificing self to care for others, of witnessing the power of God, leading and guiding His people.
My years here in the church have been richly blessed. They have not been wasted years because they have been spent building the kingdom of God, and laying up treasure in heaven.
When a man has truly found the joy of the Lord, and has the knowledge that his life is pleasing to his heavenly father, and has the hope of the reward of eternal life burning in him, if he endures until the end. Then no person, power, or circumstance in this world or in hell will be able to move him.
I believe that my testimony can be summed up in these three verses:
Matthew 16: 24-26 Then said Jesus unto His disciples: if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul, or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?