Not everyone’s life journey follows a straight path nor can that path be entirely predicted. Leslie Demmings of Wallace could not have imagined his life story would involve the twists and turns, and acts of grace, that it has.
Recently returned from a mission trip to Indonesia, Leslie says missionary work didn’t occur to him until he joined Wallace River Baptist Church about five years ago and attended a course at the Wycliffe Centre in Linden.
“It was during a course on Bible translations when I realized the goal of the church is not just to sit around here on Sundays and sing hymns; the goal of the church is to send missionaries,” Leslie says. “In one of our learning sessions, part of our training was ‘Go!’ I didn’t realize that meant Indonesia,” he adds with a big chuckle.
He was on the Indonesian island of Batam from February 20 to March 5 to help build a church and refurbish an orphanage. He was part of a group of seven men and woman travelling with Reach Across Missions.
Their work started in a small fishing village.
“We took a generator so they could have lights and heat. We did repair work on their church and helped build their church so that when we left, the cross on the steeple was fully lit up,” Leslie says.
The group then returned to Batam City to refurbish an orphanage.
“We took all the furniture out of their rooms and painted them. We bought them a washing machine, a stove, a refrigerator. But the work isn’t done; I’m returning in the fall,” he says.
The orphanage is home to children aged 18 months to 14; some of the children were orphaned in the tsunami of 2004 while others are given up by parents who cannot feed them.
“The younger ones go to school but the older ones have to go out; they work for slavers,” Leslie explains. “The slavers put them on the streets to beg or prostitute themselves.
Leslie would go out at night to watch what was being done to them, knowing there was nothing he could do to stop it. He says it was very difficult to watch those children go out.
“I cried for the first three days.”
Is there anything the missionaries can do?
“We can teach them about Jesus and we can educate them by supplying schools and school supplies,” he says. “Just being there for them to show them there is another way. They know of no other way. The orphanage is only there for them to sleep and eat. There’s always a pot on the stove full of soup. They go out during the day and part of the night. Some of them don’t come back until the next day.”
Even though many of the children don’t speak English, Leslie found some universal ways of communicating.
“They always smile,” he says. “I was able to arm-wrestle with the older boys and they had a guitar with three strings on it so they sang songs in their own language for me.”
Now this conversation with Leslie takes an unexpected turn. He brings more than a simple missionary zeal to this work; he actually can relate to the experiences of these children.
Born in Five Islands, he was put on a plane at nine years old and sent to British Columbia where his mother had moved.
“The stepfather I went to was very cruel and at the age of 12, I was living on the street,” Leslie says. “I had to survive and survive in an older world. I was sexually molested, being new on the street. So I got tougher. By 16, I was a tough little boy and that’s when I went to the United States. That was in the late sixties, the riots in Berkley, California, and I was on the streets there. I was on the streets of San Francisco and in Haight Ashbury in the sixties.”
This is now the story of a runaway who became a Marine who became a prison guard who became an enforcer with a biker gang who ended up working as an ice road trucker and wilderness guide until eventually he settled in Wallace and found a new calling as a missionary.
“I ended up joining the Marine Corps when I was 17 years old. I was walking down the street in Oakland, California, one day and walked by the recruiting depot. I walked in the door and filled out the papers, lied my head off and three days later, they called me and told me to bring my toothbrush. That’s exactly what I needed to bring me in line.”
After he left the Corps, he became a guard at the prison in San Quentin but shortly after, his life fell apart.
“I was married, that’s why I have my daughter, but my wife blew the whistle on me,” Leslie explains. “When they found out I was an illegal immigrant with a gun and a badge, they did not appreciate that. They gave me 24 hours to leave. When I went back to my house, my wife had already left. All I had was a motorcycle. She was gone with everything. So I rolled up a sleeping bag and got on my motorcycle. When I returned to British Columbia the first people I met were bikers.”
He was 22 years old. Understandably, he arrived back with a lot of emotional baggage. He admits to being very angry and bitter, making it easy for him to fall in with the wrong crowd.
“I became a very bad boy,” Leslie says. “I ended up addicted to drugs and had a really rough ride until the early eighties.”
He even worked as an enforcer with the Outlaw motorcycle club.
He says he’d started to come around a bit when, in 1989, a friend introduced him to Jesus, changing Leslie’s life and setting him on a different, cleaner path.
When a grizzly attack during a guiding excursion in the mountains left him unable to work, he took a disability pension and moved back to Nova Scotia.
“I have no fear,” the 63-year-old missionary says. “My life is God’s. I go where God sends me.”
And for Leslie, that means returning to Indonesia in the fall to help build a new school for the orphaned children of Batam.