The day Justin stopped running
Drugs, gangs, prison, shame – and a big surprise
Born the son of a preacher man, Justin Stephney had every reason to feel the call of God on his life.
“I grew up with God and church – my dad prayed in tongues and I had four generations of pastors above me – so it was just so normal to me,” says Justin, the pastor of Surfcity Church on the Gold Coast.
But for most of his youth and young adulthood Justin’s rebellious streak took him far from his destiny, as he gave free rein to the lusts of the flesh and abused drugs to the brink of suicide.
“When I was arrested, I’d been awake for about four days because I was charged on drugs.”
Born in Sydney, where his American father and Kiwi mother had planted a church, Justin moved with his family first to New Zealand, then to two places in the US before returning to New Zealand in his mid-teens. It was in the US where Justin’s rebelliousness began, while attending Bill Hybel’s church in Willow Creek. He would run away to smoke cigars with a friend rather than attending the kids programme.
When Justin moved back to New Zealand, he fell in with the friends he had played soccer with as a young lad, who had turned into the area’s criminals. He began taking drugs at 15, progressed to heavy drugs by 18 and by his mid-20s he was smoking meth, ice and marijuana on a daily basis.
By 2005, Justin was so desperate to escape the “drugs and mess and gangs and get a clean start” that he “did some stupid things to get the money to get away”. Eventually, he was arrested at Auckland airport, forestalling his planned escape to Sydney.
“As I was sitting there on the concrete floor, it was probably one of the lowest of the lows in my life.”
“I’d been arrested at the airport on a Saturday night and then got taken to the jail in Manukau in South Auckland, which was quite rough. I got locked up in a cell – I’d been in cells before but only for like partying and stupid things – but this was with the hard guys. It was like I was in a demonic prison.”
At the courthouse, Justin recalls sitting in a holding pen like an animal.
“As I was sitting there on the concrete floor, it was probably one of the lowest of the lows in my life.
“I was pretty skinny at that stage – I’d lost a lot of weight. I’m 6’ 2”, but I felt like I was a mouse. And the guys around me were all gang-related bikies, hard Maori and Islanders, and the whole of the top of the cell that I was sitting in was covered in excrement, so it was just disgusting sitting there in this place.”
Justin says the shame of what he had done – obtaining goods under false pretences on behalf of his father’s business – and fear of what could happen to him if he went to jail drove him to suicidal thoughts.
“I remember sitting there and, literally, if I had some way to die I would have been happy,” he says.
“The shame of my dad and my mum being there and the fact that I was in jail. There was still this part of me that was like ‘I’m a good person,’ but I was so shrouded by smoking meth every day for probably a year at this stage.”
Justin escaped a jail sentence thanks to support from his uncle, who was a senior police officer, and because it was his first major offence, but he was deported from New Zealand and landed in Coolangatta at the invitation of a cousin.
“I was pretty good for a while. I got back into building work and some of the boys on the building site would go home at lunchtime and they had ‘gear’ [drugs] but they were using needles and so I eventually stumbled back into not just smoking meth but injecting, using all sorts of things, which then led to [thoughts of] suicide.
“I was just feeling like, ‘man, I’m no any good to anyone.’ I was so sick of failing. I think you get to a point in your life where ‘I’m just done trying. I just keep letting down everyone. There’s a good part of me. I was raised in a good house. My parents weren’t addicts, they didn’t drink, they didn’t smoke, they prayed in the spirit, they were good people, but a lot of the things I’ve done I still haven’t spoken to people about – it’s the shame and the despair.”
“There were no needles involved, there were no chemicals involved. I just knew that I’d just been touched by God. I knew that I’d met God that night.”
Justin wasn’t sure whether he believed in God. He remembers telling a girlfriend: “If God makes himself real, then I’ll know.” In late 2005, God showed his hand when Justin accepted an invitation to Surfcity night church and “had a massive encounter with the Holy Ghost.”
“I was sitting in the church – no one prayed for me, no one did anything – but I literally was pretty much baptised in the Holy Spirit. It was amazing. It was the turning point.
“My reference point comes from a life of using drugs and having amazing rushes go through our body. I would describe it as like the best rush of a drug you could ever possibly imagine – physically, in the flesh, as well as emotionally – and then I became aware of just a divine purity of love. It was so overwhelming. There were no needles involved, there were no chemicals involved. I just knew that I’d just been touched by God. I knew that I’d met God that night.”
“I’d been deported from New Zealand, I had a praying mum and a praying dad, but my family had to, in their words, release me and let me go. And I was suicidal.”
At the end of the service, after Justin responded to the altar call, a member of the prayer team took him out to a backroom .
“I spent the next two hours just crying because there was so much healing [to be done] – at that stage probably ten years of shame. I’d been deported from New Zealand, I had a praying mum and a praying dad, but my family had to, in their words, release me and let me go. And I was suicidal.”
After this powerful meeting with God, Justin checked into Transformations, a Christian rehab centre on the Gold Coast, expecting to graduate within a couple of months. It was not to be. It took him 12 attempts and six years to complete the programme.
“I was so angry and when I wasn’t angry and threatening and defending myself I was saying ‘stuff this’ and running from issues. It was that fight or flight thing.”
“I went into rehab for the first time on Boxing Day 2005 and my graduation service was February 2011. I’ve been in and out of the programme 12 times. The shortest time was I came in on a Sunday night during the church service and brought my suitcase and then I jumped the fence at midnight going ‘what the hell am I doing here? I need out of here!’
“I was so angry and when I wasn’t angry and threatening and defending myself I was saying ‘stuff this’ and running from issues. It was that fight or flight thing,” he reflects.
“There were times it was really hard … there were times I got stuck on stage one for three months because I just couldn’t give up cigarettes. It wasn’t easy and there always were big binge blowouts.”
“Had I not known the presence of God, I probably would be dead today, I reckon.”
Turning 30 concentrated his mind and helped to break the cycle.
“I was in Sydney at the time and it was the 11th time I’d been out. I wasn’t even doing hard drugs, but I was smoking weed every day and I was just so sick of flipping not doing this, so when I came back [I went back to rehab]. But for me the Holy Spirit and the presence of God and praying in the spirit has just been a life changer, it’s the deal breaker for me. Had I not known the presence of God, I probably would be dead today, I reckon.”
“I made the decision’ I’m not going to get glasses because I don’t want to see anything or anyone.'”
Another defining moment was opening his Bible one Friday night, and reading Matthew 16:3 ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and everything will be added unto you.’
“And I literally was like ‘OK, I’m going to do that.’ And so every day for that year I made myself, before I do anything else, I’m going to put God first.”
Justin followed through on his commitment to the extent of not getting glasses, even though he was short-sighted, so that he would be able to see clearly the pretty girls at church and on the beach.
“I made the decision’ I’m not going to get glasses because I don’t want to see anything or anyone.’ And I’d turn up to church right when I needed to be there, I wouldn’t go to parties. I used to hang out at the beach all the time, so I was very careful around that so that I could guard the lusts of the flesh.
“And then throughout that year of just putting God first I really believe that was the real foundation set for me.”
“To be honest I always felt a call of God on my life.”
When Justin finally graduated from Transformations, he attended the Bible College attached to Surfcity church. Part way through his theology studies, he was asked to take over the leadership of Transformations, but he felt he had a call to pursue a path in the church so he said no – four times.
By then he had started dating the pastor’s daughter, Chrissy, who was one of his teachers at the Bible College. “We got closer and closer and I guess through people preaching at college, the whole call on your life, and I had to decide what I want to do and I just wanted to be a dad and be normal and have some consistency. The pastor [Richard Nugent] started calling me up and before I knew it I was running young adults,” he says.
“I was never interested in girls like Chrissy but I just felt God was touching my heart, so we started to connect and then we got married and now we have three kids under five. We took over leadership of the church in February 2016.
“I had no ability to be bored. I had to be taking some drugs.”
“To be honest I always felt a call of God on my life. My dad was a pastor, my mum was a youth worship leader and a youth pastor, my dad used to be an evangelist and work in rehabs and never touched a drug in his life, so I guess it’s been in my DNA. Jesus has given me a new life that I now use to see freedom, hope and purpose come to others’ lives.”
Asked what is the best thing Jesus has brought into his life, Justin says “the ability to sit down and read a book. I had no ability to be bored. I had to be taking some drugs. The ability to be able to sit with myself. Now I can make a healthy choice to go to the gym and I enjoy my own company and I enjoy just doing nothing. Everything I used to hate and I used to run away from was really a lie from the Devil that was distorted.”