From gangs to God

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Once a feared gang boss, Tuhoe Isaac found religion and headed down a new path. Daisy Hudson sat down with him to learn more about his transformation

He’s a familiar, and conspicuous, sight around Queenstown.

The big Maori bloke, long hair pulled back in a ponytail, full facial tattoo, sitting on Camp Street selling copies of his book True Red.

But unless you’ve picked up a copy, you probably wouldn’t guess the remarkable, turbulent life Tuhoe Isaac has led.

From his childhood in Wairoa he became the leader of three Mongrel Mob chapters, before finding God and turning to a life of religion and community work.

Sitting down with him over a cuppa, it’s hard to reconcile the once violent mob enforcer with the fervently religious man who just wants to do God’s work.

For example, he organised the Ambury Park Convention that ended with the pack-rape of a young woman by some younger members of the gang.

Drugs, violence, and crime were entrenched in his life.

Now, he’s quick to laugh, quick to preach, and quick to help others.

He’s also not overly keen to talk about his life in the mob, preferring instead to focus on his “radical conversion”.

Isaac was one of 13 siblings growing up in Wairoa, a small town in Hawke’s Bay.

It’s about as far from Queenstown as you can get.

After training as a sheet metal worker, he moved to Auckland and Palmerston North before crossing the ditch to Australia. When he returned to New Zealand and moved to Wellington a year later, he fell in with the Mongrel Mob.

“I was disconnected,” he says.

He says people don’t need to know everything about his past.

“I’m free in my spirit now. I’ve made peace with my past.

“We make a lot of choices, and we make a lot of wrong choices. In life there’s a thing, you can look back into your life, see where you’ve come from, see all the mistakes you’ve made, but also you can trace them.”

He describes it as divine healing.

“Freedom was looking at me.”

That was when he went to visit his sister, who had also found God.

He later spent six years at Bible school and doing short-term mission work overseas.

In 1999 he travelled to Finland to speak to young people there about his journey. He still goes into prisons in New Zealand to speak to inmates.

In 2007, he published his autobiography, True Red.

After being invited to give a presentation at church, a friend told Isaac he wrote books and asked Isaac about his story.

“I felt there was a bit of a connection between him and I.

“I thought ‘oh well bro, I’ll give it a go’.”

As he was writing, he realised he was reaching out to people who had been through what he’d been through.

“For those young kids that get caught up in the gang culture and the gang cycle. And the grandchildren that have been left behind, and the grandchildren yet to come.

“That’s a legacy that’s left behind so they can study it and realise Jesus is the light, the life, and the way.”

He’s pretty open about the fact he wouldn’t choose to live in Queenstown, where he’s been for four years.

The way he sees it, that choice was made for him by God.

“I came here to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

He earns an income through selling his book, and donates to local churches and charities.

As for where he’ll end up?

“I talk about different seasons. This is only a season for me, here in Queenstown.

“My challenge is to go home, catch some eels down the creek, and I wanna grow a big garden.”

daisy.hudson@scene.co.nz