Nick Helliwell has a huge burden to bring the gospel to First Nations and Indigenous men who are as he once was—men from poor, dysfunctional families whose lives have been shattered by poverty, child abandonment, chemical dependency, and sexual abuse. And he’s convinced the key to making that connection is to help them grasp what being a father is all about.

“When Jesus Christ called us to pray ‘Our Father,’ if we don’t have a connection with that word, then everything else is a fog and we’re just shooting in the dark,” says Helliwell. But once they do understand it, then real healing can begin. “I really honestly believe that it’ll bear fruit—not in the immediate but in the long term. I really think it’s going to turn around a generation of men.”

Helliwell himself was caught up in the so-called Sixties Scoop, the government-sanctioned practice of “scooping up” Indigenous children from their families and placing them in foster homes or adopting them out to primarily white middle-class families, beginning in the late 1950s and continuing into the 1980s. He was taken from his mother before he was one, and went through 15 different foster homes before starting school. Then his Grade One teacher adopted him. But when that broke down, he re-entered foster care at age 13. By the time Helliwell reached adulthood, he had been through 26 foster homes.

When Helliwell finally met his birth family, he discovered that some of them were very heavily involved in drugs and gangs. It was then, in January 1994, that Helliwell and his wife, Vivian—who had also been abused as a child and young adult—gave their lives to Jesus.

Feeling that their inner-city church was not doing enough to help them deal with their many hurtful issues, they launched Healing Hearts Ministries the following September.

“The principles,” he says, “really remain the same today—meeting people where they’re at, understanding that a lot of our behaviours come out the hurts of our past, and that a lot of the hurts of our past are generational. And so, as you begin to understand that larger context, and apply the reconciliation that’s available through Jesus Christ, that brings healing into your life.”

For Helliwell personally, one pivotal moment of healing came in 2006 when he attended a Promise Keepers intensive called Discipleship Training Unleashed led by PK’s Director of Spiritual Formation at the time, Dr. Steve Masterson. The focus was on what it means to be a Godly man.

“He put the question to me: ‘Write down your definition of “father.” What does the word mean?’ And I didn’t have anything. I had absolutely no concept, nothing that I could draw upon, that said this is what a father does,” Helliwell recalls. “When Steve Masterson, in wanting to pray for me, said, ‘I want to take spiritual responsibility for those men in your life who have failed you,’ that was a very significant healing for me.”

Soon after that, the disciple became a leader. “Nick was one of the first guys to take that training,” says Community Relations Manager Ian Nairn. “He then proceeded over the years that we offered it to bring other leaders and future leaders into participating in that.

“Nick’s got a real fire in his heart and his spirit to see First Nations and Indigenous men capture that vision of God’s design for them as men, as husbands, as fathers, as brothers, as warriors fighting for the hearts of others. He’s a spiritual father to many.”

Today, Helliwell is Healing Hearts’ pastor to men, a chaplain at the Regina Provincial Corrections Centre, and a chaplain with the Regina Qu’Appelle Health District. He also visits a half-way house that helps men released from jail transition back into the community.

“I’m reaching out to the dads in the jail,” he says. “Right now, I’m teaching the Spiritual Foundations of Fathering. This’ll be the fourteenth group. Over 250 men have taken it and it continues to be really an asked-for course. I’ve got guys that have taken it multiple times just so that they can really get it firmly entrenched in their lives so then they can apply the principles.”

The challenge is massive. Last June, Statistics Canada reported that in 2016-17, Indigenous adults made up 76 per cent of Saskatchewan’s prison population compared to only 14 per cent of the general population. Even worse, the proportion of Indigenous youth sent to prisons across Canada that year was 25 per cent higher than ten years earlier.

And yet Helliwell is convinced that despite all the damage done to them, First Nations people still possess a deep reservoir of faith in God. “The residential schools or the Sixties Scoop really served to strip people of the inner city of that essential connection,” he says. “This is where the Church has such an incredible opportunity—to help that First Nations man reconnect in an authentic expression to Jesus Christ. The only bridge is to say, ‘Jesus Christ is the Creator’ and all else follows.”

“I love that vision,” says Nairn. “But what their leaders continue to say to us is, ‘We don’t want you to come in and do it for us. We want relationships.’ I’m waiting for that opportunity just to come and walk together with guys like that. In Nick’s case, he’s taken that vision and he’s living it out in his own family and his own circles of influence.”

But life can still be hard. In July 2017, the Helliwell’s eldest daughter died from organ failure, leaving them with seven grandchildren to raise by themselves along with a foster child. Their other daughter and her son came to help out and stayed. For Nick, the grief and stress were so great that three months later, he suffered a heart attack.

Today, 14 people make up the Helliwell household —including their first great-grandson who was born in February. And when a long-time friend passed away recently, he left behind two sons. They, Helliwell says, “practically live here as well.”

However, he says the challenge is also a tremendous opportunity to build into the next generation.

“You can’t pass on something you don’t have — and you will pass on things that you do have. If you’re angry, hurt, living a negative lifestyle, you can’t just simply turn that off for your kids and not pass that on. We need to acknowledge the past, acknowledge the sins of the past, find reconciliation, forgiveness, so that then we can have the fruit of the Spirit — love, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control — to pass on.”

“We’ve never had the fruit of the Spirit passed on to us and built into our lives as kids, and so, we can’t possibly pass it on,” he adds. “And that’s the connection I’m trying to teach.”

To learn more about Healing Hearts Ministries, go to healinghearts.ca.

Frank Stirk lives in North Vancouver. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Streams in the Negev: Stories of How God is Starting to Redeem Vancouver (Urban Loft).

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