“I became a Christian about ten years ago. I was in prison at the time.”
No, I did not expect Keren Nelson to say that.
I have been a journalist for two decades so I shouldn’t be surprised by the things people say to me in an interview. After all, I usually don’t know much about most people I speak with. One of the cool things about this job is the discoveries made as you question total strangers about themselves.
As I would find out during the next 45 minutes, Keren’s conversion to Christianity behind bars was only the tip of an extraordinary iceberg of trauma, crime, shame, forgiveness and gushing the good news.
Keren is a First Nations man whose heart language is Nyoongar, spoken by the people groups of south-western Western Australia. Recently, I’ve been trying to write some stories about Bible translations in Nyoongar and Keren’s contact details came my way. He has been reading the gospel of Luke in Nyoongar and enthuses about its impact upon his faith.
So I gave Keren a call, not anticipating that when we finished talking, I would have heard one of those personal stories of faith that you never forget. A story that grows out of the inner suburbs of Perth near the turn of the century, in a childhood awash with the sort of hardship I usually only see on TV or movies. Except Keren is real and he’s describing his own life to me.
“As I grew up, I went through a lot of abuse – emotional, sexual, physical, all those kinds of things.” – Keren Nelson
At age three, Keren was being looked after by the boyfriend of a family friend. “He sexually abused me and abused his two sons as well – and that left me as a fractured boy. I remember that something was stolen from me that day.”
Keren’s mother didn’t know. “A seed of rejection was implanted in my life, as a child.”
“I started using drugs at age eight, and was in and out of juvenile detentions from the same age,” Keren tells me without being guarded. “I was probably abandoned by my mum, from that age as well, when I went to live with my aunty.”
“As I grew up, I went through a lot of abuse – emotional, sexual, physical, all those kinds of things. I went through a lot of suffering in my childhood.”
As a ten year old, Keren remembers his suburb of Karawara (near Curtin University) as a “pretty rough area back then; about 80 per cent government housing.” Hindsight paints a grim, sad picture for Keren of the community he was shaped by.
“All us young fellas, basically, were just running amok. A lot of the parents were absent or on drugs or drinking; running amok as well. I used to go down to the shops and ask people to put money in a donation tin I had. Sometimes I’d get home with 80 dollars worth of gold coins. People were really generous – even though I wasn’t given it to the charity.”
“I was basically a common thief, you know. I grew up a bit like Robin Hood – steal from the rich. Or, steal from those who we thought were rich.”
Stealing was a survival tactic, according to Keren. It was also the only affirmation he received, as Keren and his peers would enjoy sharing with each other whatever they stole. He also mentions how he got no positive reinforcement from his own dad, who had never been around. Keren had not been told who his dad was.
“By the time I was 11, I hated authority because of the beatings I took from my stepfather and all that sort of stuff I went through in my childhood. I began to despise authority.”
“I was full of hatred back then.” – Keren Nelson
At this point, about ten minutes in to our conversation, my mind already is racing to keep up with Keren’s unexpected biography. We haven’t got anywhere near talking about the reason for my call – the Nyoongar Bible translations. So I definitely don’t stop to consider whether the brief details about his father have any greater significance. Turns out they do, but first I’m asking Keren about how this self-confessed thief met Jesus in a Perth jail.
Toward the end of a two-year stretch that ended around 2010 when he was 23, Keren befriended a Christian inmate who he had spent a lot of time hating. “I was full of hatred back then,” he recalls.
When his new-found mate shared gospel stories with Keren, they came alive to him. Stories which would gradually flourish within Keren to become the gift of “everlasting life and forgiveness of sins” from a loving God.
An Indigenous pastor, Dennis Jetta, also spoke with Keren and others about Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the like. That was the start of his faith journey but Keren distinctly remembers the moment his entire identity was transformed – as a Christian and as a father’s son.
“When I was in prison, the day I came to Christ Jesus, the Lord spoke to me about who my dad was,” explains Keren who speaks with a gentle ease that contrasts greatly with the startling details he keeps revealing to me.
“My mum said that my dad was a man in Tasmania – the ends of the earth, you know? But the day I came to Christ in prison, I was in a trance and I began to see visions of my childhood.”
“God spoke to me and told me that my dad was my great uncle Jimmy.”
Keren went to a phone in the minimum security prison and called his mum. He told her God had revealed who his dad was, before he broke down and wept hard about discovering his birth out of incest. “My mum lied and said, ‘Nah, that’s not true.’ That was her way of hiding the truth, I guess.”
“So then I had that conflict in my heart. Do I believe God or do I believe Mum? But when I looked in the mirror I saw his face in mine. I hated myself because I hated him – because my Mum told me that when I was a boy, she was hurt by him.
“He’s a guy that I was planning to go to his house when I was about 16 and I was going to shoot him. I was going to kill him. And I never knew at that stage, that he was my dad. I just believed he was my uncle.
“It’s a pretty intense story.”
Yes. It is. And there’s much more, as Keren continues to let me into, over the phone from his new home in Darwin. How Keren comes to be now writing his life story – working title: Born in Sorrow, Raised in Glory – in the Northern Territory (after completing a Diploma of Ministry at Perth’s Alphacrucis College and believing his calling is to be an evangelist) is a longer story Eternity will soon share more of.
“God’s changed my whole life.” – Keren Nelson
An intense life story that Keren also has some trouble fathoming how he made it this far. “I think about it, ‘How am I here today? How did Jesus protect me from so many of those things I went through?’ It’s a miracle.”
“I lost a lot of loved ones to drugs; some were murdered and died in criminal activities,” laments Keren for a group in which he considers himself to be “the worst by far” (giving a nod to the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15).
“God’s changed my whole life. I can have a beer now and I’m not a drunk anymore. I don’t want to be around people with a toxic lifestyle – but I’m not there to judge anyone either. I want to be there to reach out to people and see them come to Christ as well. So, my heart has been radically changed.”
By this stage of his life story, I’m finally expecting Keren to reveal things which, frankly, blow my mind. But I’d be lying to your face if I told you that I had somehow prepared myself for what happened when prisoner Keren found his freedom as a 23-year-old.