Peter Gibbs reckons he should be sponsored by Kleenex. This burly Aboriginal man used to be the angriest young man he knew, growing up in the outback NSW town of Brewarrina, always raging against the authorities, particularly the police.
But God has softened his heart to such a point that Gamillaroi man can’t control his emotions whenever he gives his testimony of a life transformed by Jesus and the power of forgiveness.
Peter had to wipe away tears several times as he told me his story of how Jesus has used him as an instrument to improve life outcomes for Aboriginal people in his community and across the nation.
It is a story of raw authenticity and vulnerability that is likely to move the audience deeply when he speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Canberra on November 28.
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Peter never believed he would be able to forgive the NSW Police after his little sister Fiona died in police custody in 1997, leaving behind four small children.
“I don’t think I would’ve been here if I’d made a different decision back there at that very, very critical point after she died.”
She’d been arrested and jailed for drunkenness in the middle of the day – something that would not happen anymore in NSW, thanks to protocols brought in to reduce jailing of Aboriginal offenders for all but the most violent offences.
“As a young man, I walked my own way, but at that tragic time, I made the decision I had been running from all of my life, and that was to restore my love for the Lord. And from that, everything changed. Everything changed. Wow. Here I am, still here. I don’t think I would’ve been here if I’d made a different decision back there at that very, very critical point after she died.”
Back in 1987, the death in custody of Lloyd Boney sparked a riot in Brewarrina in which buildings were burnt to the ground and many people hurt. Sadly, it seems not enough was learned from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Just ten years later, when Peter Gibbs’ sister died in a cell, the police were expecting another riot.
It’s not lost on Peter that when people in the town came to him seeking consent for violence, they expected him to be leading from the front. But despite his deep shock and grief, he was determined that something positive should come out of the tragedy.
“After Fiona died in 1997, we were asked to burn Brewarrina to the ground. Those were the words I remember very clearly. That all we needed to do was give that consent,” Peter tells Eternity via Zoom from his home in Dubbo.
“There was to be peace up to the funeral, then on the funeral night, there was going to be chaos. But my dad and I looked people in the eye and said, ‘There will be no violence. We don’t want anything to come from Fiona’s death. There will be a positive.’ We didn’t even know what that was going to be, but all we asked the people for was peace.”
For Peter, it was a sliding doors moment. He was living 500 km away from Brewarrina at the time and felt guilty that he hadn’t been there to protect his sister. And he was angry that she could die in a cell after all the work that had been done in the community since the death in custody in 1987.
“So all that came crashing down when I got that message that afternoon. Oh, the anguish, the confusion, the pent-up anger while driving from where I was to where I needed to be. I was just building up with all this anger and I could feel the rage inside me.”
“The Lord had a hand on my life. There is no other explanation. My heart was so softened.”
But as he was driving to the hospital in Brewarrina with his wife Janelle praying beside him, the Lord miraculously intervened in his life, changing him from an angry young man to a man of peace.
“I’ve lived the life of racism. I confronted so many different rejections in the normal course of life. However, for some reason, the Lord had a hand on my life. There is no other explanation. My heart was so softened, so softened, particularly towards the police,” he explains.
“While we were driving, my wife was praying for me. My auntie in another community was praying, everybody was praying for me and I had no idea. And when I arrived, I was the man of peace. I came in peace.”
It took him two years from that point to finally surrender his life to the Lord – after a thwarted suicide attempt. Those two years were filled with working to restore peace and developing a proposal to prevent other deaths in custody.
“I was going through a process that we took the NSW police through the court for what we believe were mistakes that they’ve made in causing her death, and that they would be held responsible for that,” he recalls.
“There were so many things happening at that time. Janelle and I got married. She lost her dad. We had our first child, and then my sister passed away all within six months. And so a lot happened to Janelle and me in 1997. And it resulted in all the pressure of trying to hold up, be strong, be confident, be the leader of the family, and still dealing with all the anger and the confusion, and also the guilt. The guilt that I wasn’t there to be the brother that I needed to be when she needed me. I made a decision to take my own life.”
“I remember saying to the Lord, ‘I know you are real, and from this day on, and for the rest of my life, I will follow Jesus.”
In 1999, while he and Janelle were living in the country town of Parkes, Peter decided he couldn’t take the pressure anymore.
“We lived just off the New England Highway, so I knew if I got to the highway, I would confront a truck. I worked it all out. I knew it would be very quick. I said goodbye to my wife and two little girls at the time, and I went in my car to take my life. I had calculated that there would be a truck every eight minutes. And then there were no trucks.
“It’s one of the busiest highways in our country. It’s the major transport route from Melbourne to Brisbane. However, there were no trucks on that road for at least 45 minutes. It is one of the most amazing things.
“And in that time, that’s when I remembered what my Nan was telling me about Jesus, how much he loves me and that I would grow up to be a man of God, that I would be a leader for my family and my community and all these things. Then I remembered what my wife used to talk to me about and she would pray for me. I remembered so much in that time. I remember saying to the Lord, ‘I know you are real, and from this day on, and for the rest of my life, I will follow Jesus.”
Peter went back home and two days later, without telling Janelle what he had almost done, he announced he wanted to drive 400 km to see his uncle and aunt who pastored a church.
“So we went back there, I walked up in the church, said to my uncle, ‘I want to surrender my life to the Lord.’ He just held me, prayed for me, and I’ve been serving the Lord since then. The most amazing transformation in all aspects of my life has taken place.”
“The spirit of this program is about a tragedy that was turned into a positive because of the need to take responsibility.”
Over the next ten years, with the help of the then NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, Peter helped develop a program to train young Aboriginal people to become police officers. Hundreds of Aboriginal people have since done the TAFE NSW’s Indigenous Police Recruitment Our Way Delivery (IPROWD), a bridging program to provide the opportunity, the literacy, and academic skills needed to enter the NSW Police Training course.
“It took me ten years to get it off the ground. It’s now been going for over 15 years. It’s trained hundreds of police, but also hundreds have also done other things with their lives – become nurses and teachers and doctors and all sorts of wonderful things. And what’s connected us is the spirit of this program. The spirit of this program is about a tragedy that was turned into a positive because of the need to take responsibility.
“Everybody is searching for some mechanism to build relationships between Aboriginal people and the police forces. There’s such a hatred towards police and sometimes for legitimate purposes. But the thing is, we’ve got to take responsibility for it. We can’t just perpetuate it and pass it on to the next generation.
“I’m a Christian, and it took me some time to work towards forgiveness and only the Lord could help do that. You can’t just make it right and forgive somebody. I try to explain this to my brothers, who are not saved, and my dad, who is still alive and not saved. I can’t explain what the Lord can do. I can only tell you what he’s done for me. And you can see it. I can see it. I can feel it, it’s amazing.”
“I’m a walking, talking testimony to what the Lord can do.”
As well as giving his testimony at the National Prayer Breakfast, Peter will also be calling for prayer.
“I need prayer for the forgiveness of our people. We need to come to that point of forgiveness. And it will assist us to deal with so many hurts of the past You can’t right a historical wrong. You’ve got to come to a point of forgiveness. And I’m praying for our people.
“For our political leaders, I’m praying they would listen to the Lord’s voice. Stop blocking the Lord’s voice out of all parts of our society. We’re limited in what we do in our schools’ program. We can’t pray for people. We are limited by what can be the answer to most of our problems. And this is one of the things that we deal with in our community on a daily basis, that locking out of the truth. Why can’t we pray? That’s what we all need to continually pray for because the Lord is the answer – there is no other answer.
“My testimony points to that. I’ve tried everything. There’s not a liquid I haven’t drunk or a drug I haven’t taken to dull the pain, but I surrendered my life to the Lord and look what’s happened. I’m a walking, talking testimony to what the Lord can do.”
The National Prayer Breakfast will be held at Parliament House, Canberra on Monday 28 November 7.15am AEDT. Buy tickets to attend in person or register to watch online here.