Everyone has an opinion about a woman who marries the guy she met on death row.
Feby Chan is used to that. In fact, years before she entered her first prison, she remembers seeing a woman on television who was dating a person on death row and thought, “She must be crazy!”
But Feby is not crazy. She is down-to-earth, thoughtful and open about her experiences. And yet, until the very end, she was also sure that Andrew would not be killed. God would save him.
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It’s been six years this week since Feby’s husband, Andrew Chan, was executed.
Known as one of the ringleaders of the Bali 9, Andrew was one of nine Australians convicted of drug trafficking, as they had attempted to smuggle $4 million worth of heroin out of Indonesia.
Feby’s book, Walking Him Home, which she has written with Christian author Naomi Reed, is also released this month. She says it has taken her this long to heal from the pain and confusion of her time with Andrew and his death.
“I’m ready to tell the whole story from my side,” she tells me. “My heart is finally free from all the anger. And I feel like I can share the right story.”
Although the Bali 9 made headlines around the world for their drug arrest in 2005, Feby did not hear about them. But four years later, Feby received an email from a friend who wondered whether she could help set up a prayer ministry at Bali’s Kerobokan Prison.
The request for this ministry had come from one of the prison inmates: Andrew Chan.
Seven hundred kilometres west of Kerobokan, Feby ran the prayer tower at her church in Yogyakarta, near Java in Indonesia. The prayer tower was a public space, open 24-hours for anyone who wanted to come and pray.
Feby was employed as an intercessor, running prayer meetings and leading prayers for six hours each day, every day. Mostly, she took the graveyard shift: midnight to 6am.
Setting up a prayer ministry in Kerobokan Prison was, then, not such an unusual request for Feby.
“But I wondered, ‘why would God want me to do this?’” said Feby. “Surely he could choose someone from Bali, not Yogyakarta?”
Feby’s friend was persistent: Come and meet Andrew in prison. She stopped asking questions, and got on a plane.
“I didn’t expect him to be so bright, so happy, so clean. He wasn’t what I thought someone on death row would be like.” – Feby Chan
Feby had seen photos of Andrew – she looked him up on the internet.
“His hair was dark and he seemed to be of Asian descent. He was quite skinny and there were tattoos on his arms. I’m not a big fan of tattoos. I also saw that he had a scar on his forehead. I thought he looked a bit scary,” she writes in Walking Him Home.
Kerobokan Prison in Bali was the first prison Feby had ever visited. By the time she arrived, in 2012, Andrew had been in prison for six years already. He had become a Christian while in solitary confinement, after reading and re-reading the New Testament and wrestling with his need for forgiveness. He was leading worship services within the prison and studying to become a minister (he was ordained in 2015, just before his death).
When Feby met him, it was his Aussie accent that first endeared him to her.
“I didn’t expect him to be so bright, so happy, so clean. He wasn’t what I thought someone on death row would be like.”
Feby spent five days in Bali, visiting the prison every day for a program of worship and Bible teachings that Andrew had arranged for interested prisoners. She was greatly encouraged by Andrew’s faith and commitment to telling other prisoners about God. When the week was over, they kept in touch via email.
“Andrew wanted to know everything about your day. He was interested in all the little details of the outside world. How long did it take to get somewhere? What colour something was. If my emails were short, he would respond asking me to share more. We emailed every day.”
“Talking with Andrew about his life and his faith encouraged me so much during those months in late 2012.”
Feby planned more trips to Bali, and expanded her prison ministry to incorporate five other prisons in Java. She and her friend Linda raised funds for the needs inside the prisons.
Kerobokan prison was built to hold 300 prisoners, but there would usually be more than 1400 prisoners at any one time. They raised funds for a kitchen where Andrew started a cooking ministry, teaching prisoners to cook and talking to them about God.
“Andrew loved to cook. Every time I went to visit, he would cook me something. I used to try not to eat before I visited so I was hungry to eat whatever he prepared for me.”
“I knew that Andrew wasn’t a ‘bad boy’, as people suspected. That wasn’t part of the attraction.” – Feby Chan
By December 2013, Feby and Andrew had been friends for almost two years, and their relationship was changing.
“I knew that I admired him. I thought he was an amazing man of God, and I really liked him … but I hadn’t really considered what would happen if our feelings became more serious. Slowly, though … I started to think about him in a different way.”
Recognising the seriousness of her relationship, Feby’s family went to Kerobokan Prison for Christmas in 2013, to meet Andrew. And in February 2014, they began to tell people that they were in a romantic relationship.
“The more I prayed about our relationship together, the more I felt sure that it was right. It was somehow part of God’s plan. I knew that Andrew wasn’t a ‘bad boy’, as people suspected. That wasn’t part of the attraction.”
All the while, Andrew remained on death row. Often, they would have only one hour together for their visits. Andrew would cook, and they would sit on the floor of the packed visitors’ area to eat. There was no ‘dating’. No time alone.
Feby felt God’s hand on everything leading up to her falling in love with Andrew Chan. She felt as if God had sent her to him.
“I had seen so many miracles! I expected a miracle, and I was sure it would be Andrew’s freedom. I never thought that he would die.”
In June 2011, Andrew Chan and fellow smuggler Myuran Sukumaran’s final appeals were rejected by the Indonesian Supreme Court. Their lawyers appealed to Indonesia’s then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for clemency in 2012. They were left off the execution list for 2013 and given a glimmer of hope.
Then, another two years in prison. Ten days after Andrew’s 31st birthday in January 2015, his plea for presidential clemency was rejected, and all avenues to save him were exhausted.
Feby convinced herself that so many prayers would surely not go unanswered
Still, Feby believed it would be God who would save him. They prayed for a delay in his execution. Their prayers were answered. His lawyers kept agitating. And three more months stretched on.
“On 3rd March, we heard that Andrew would be taken from Kerobokan Prison to Besi Prison on the execution island – Nusa Kambangan.”
Feby says millions of people were praying for Andrew – pastors all over Indonesia and Australia had been in contact with her. She convinced herself that so many prayers would surely not go unanswered. Andrew would be freed.
But on April 25, 2015, Andrew received formal notification that he would be executed. A 72-hour countdown had been announced.
Feby was in the hotel near the prison when she heard. She couldn’t stop shaking. But still, she hoped for a miracle. She was allowed to see Andrew the next day, and cried uncontrollably.
“It was the only time I cried.” The guards took off Andrew’s handcuffs so he could hug her.
Later that day, she was allowed to visit again. And Andrew asked her to marry him. She said yes, but she was also wary.
To help set her mind at ease, Feby wrote a list of pros and cons of marrying Andrew just a few days before his scheduled execution.
“On the one hand, I knew that if I married Andrew, I would have a mark on myself. His story would be linked with mine for the rest of my life. People would think I was crazy. They would assume all sorts of things about me and him. They would question my motives. But mostly, I thought about Andrew. Would it be a source of strength for him? Was this what he wanted? Would it help his faith to remain strong? Would it help him in the end?”
And she prayed. The next day, they were married in the prison chapel. Andrew’s close friend and confidant, David Soper – a Salvation Army minister – performed the ceremony.
“The reality was in front of us – Andrew would be executed in only a few days – but I kept believing that no matter what the world said, God could stop it. God can do anything. We kept believing, until the last moment.”
Just 35 hours after they were married, Andrew was executed by firing squad. As they were tied to wooden poles, the eight men to be killed sang hymns, including 10,000 Reasons which Andrew and Feby had sung at their wedding:
“Bless the Lord, Oh my soul. Sing like never before, Oh my soul. Worship his holy name.”
“And on that day when my strength is failing, the end draws near and my time has come. Still my soul will sing your praise unending. 10,000 years and then forever more.”
At 1am on Wednesday 30 April, they received word. It was over. He was dead. Feby felt numb.
“Yet, even after Andrew was dead, I clung to the belief that God would bring him back to life.”
For months, Feby dreamed she was walking to the execution field. She stopped praying.
His body was flown to Sydney for the funeral, and Feby and his family prayed over him for hours and hours. And Feby suddenly knew that Andrew would be staying with Jesus. He was not going to come back.
“I felt his hands and his face. He was so cold.”
“I thought, ‘I’m never going to see him again.’ My whole world collapsed. And I was angry.”
Feby struggled with her anger for a long time. She was angry at God. What did he not answer her prayer? Why would he want her to suffer?
Feby was hounded by media for the weeks before and many weeks after Andrew’s death. For months, she dreamed she was walking to the execution field. She stopped praying.
For a long time, Feby hid herself away – from her friends and from God. But she missed talking to people who knew Andrew. And by reaching out to them again, they helped her come back to God. Slowly, Feby began to speak. And she began to listen afresh to God’s words.
“I had this image of a God who would not allow someone to go through such pain. And I know now that was the wrong mindset, it was a [misunderstanding] about how God deals with difficult situations in our lives.”
“After what happened to Andrew, that’s what really shifted for me. I began to understand that being a Christian didn’t mean that bad things would not happen to me, but that when they did God would be with me. And he can use my pain and my difficulty in those dark hours to help other people.”
“I believe God sent me to Andrew to be with him and prepare him for what was to come. I believe I was there to walk him home.” – Feby Chan
On April 29, it will be six years since Andrew’s execution. The memory doesn’t automatically bring physical pain for Feby anymore – who was severely traumatised by everything that happened. She can finally remember with fondness the time she and Andrew got to spend together.
She tried to visit Kerobokan Prison again, after Andrew died. But her whole body seized up. She did not make it inside.
“I think it’s weird, the way the body seems to record your feelings and you feel the trauma not just in your mind but everywhere. I prayed that God would take that away. It has taken years.”
Feby still believes in miracles. She has had a lot of time to ask God what she did all those years ago: Why me, God? Why did you send me to Bali?
“I believe God sent me to Andrew to be with him and prepare him for what was to come. I believe I was there to walk him home.”