Doing hard time


When I first saw pastor Ben Tavao, the first thing I noticed was his biceps. They verge on monumental. This is definitely not the guy you’d want to challenge to an arm wrestle—or a fight. But it wasn’t always that way. 

Ben arrived in Melbourne from New Zealand with his family when he was 12. And it was not a happy landing. 

I expected everyone to be on fire for God. But I soon found out that Avondale is not heaven on earth.

“Back then, there weren’t many brown faces around. At my school, there was just me and one other guy. Many of the white kids couldn’t accept someone like me. They called me the ‘n-word’, ’blackie’ and all sorts of other slang to provoke me. I felt I had to fight to survive.”

Ben wasn’t the only one picked on. If you emigrated from Chile, Greece, Italy or Vietnam it was open season at the public school. 

“So, we started hanging out together. Looking out for each other. When you feel everyone is against you—when everyone actually is against you—you do what you can to protect yourself.”

Between the overt racism, the fights and the difficulties of trying to fit into a culture that seemed very different, something had to give. By the time Ben finished ninth grade, he was finished with school. But that wasn’t a problem. He already had a job. On the streets of Melbourne. Running with a gang of guys doing petty crime and dealing drugs. 

“We were low-level drug runners. Just pawns for the big guys. We had our regular run of clients, and we got the drugs from the big guys to them and took our cut. In a way, it all seemed pretty normal,” Ben remembers. 

What kind of drugs were they running? 

“All the usual ones,” Ben says calmly. “You know—ganja (marijuana), eckies (ecstasy), heroin.”

It may have seemed like the normal thing to do at the time, but there was nothing pedestrian about what happened next. 

“I woke up one morning and my house was like a scene from a TV show. But not in a good way! There were cop cars everywhere, a helicopter overhead, and within a few minutes I was down on the ground with cuffs on. There’s nothing cool about that, let me tell you!”

Ben was busted, and soon after began his sentence for drug dealing. 

“Life in prison was really tough. It was eat or be eaten. I was attacked by a really big guy early on. It was at brekky. I stabbed him with the bread and butter knife I’d gotten in the cafeteria. It was terrifying because you always had to watch your back. But it was in prison that I had an encounter with God that I will never forget and I believe that it was in prison that God had put me on a journey to set me free.”

When Ben got out of prison, he began drifting again until he met a breathtakingly beautiful young woman. 

“I’m not sure what she saw in me,” he admits. “I suppose she saw me as a project to improve!” 

They decided to get Ben out of the city and go fruit picking in NSW. It was during their fruit picking adventure they met a young Samoan Adventist elder. He was really excited about his church. Ben had heard of the Adventist Church before but was never interested because of his Presbyterian upbringing. 

“The elder was on about the Sabbath and all these things. Then he gave me a book about a national Sunday law. It all seemed really odd. But then I read the book and my eyes were opened,” he recalls.

One thing led to another and soon Ben and Gabby were settled in Griffith, attending the Griffith Adventist church. Ben got a position working full time at a job centre. 

“It was a great position. The church was so supportive. We were young and very much in love. Life was good,” he says.

But then something happened. Pastor Aaron Jeffries told Ben that he had what it took to be a minister. Ben and Gabby prayed about it. 

“Trust me, I wasn’t looking for a new career. I was happy. Things were going so much better than I ever expected they would. But we felt so strongly impressed,” Ben says. 

Studying theology at Avondale turned out to be an eye-opening experience. 

“I expected everyone to be on fire for God. But I soon found out that Avondale is not heaven on earth. It’s full of real people who sometimes are there for the right reasons, sometimes not; sometimes making good decisions, sometimes not. I was naive to expect anything different. But it still took some time to get used to the reality,” he reflects.

When Ben graduated, he was one of only six theology graduates to be offered a position. Maybe it helped that he graduated with the Bill Marr Institute of Public Evangelism Prize. His name is on the Avondale honour board for the class of 2008. “This was a great honour for me,” he says. “Imagine–I only had a ninth grade education.”

At Ben’s ordination, Glenn Townend, who was then the Western Australian Conference president, said word had reached him regarding Ben’s passion for Jesus.

“It was Glenn who invited me to Western Australia. I had never been to Western Australia and I didn’t know anyone here. But we were like, ‘If that’s where God wants us, then we’ll go. We’ve now been in Western Australia for five years. It has just been an amazing experience.”

God is using Ben and Gabby in a mighty way. They have planted a church and have plans to plant another this year. Their other established church has grown from 40 members to 96 within a few months, and they have a lot of plans for further growth. 

Right now, Ben and Gabby, and their team at Cannington Adventist church, are praying for $2 million in two years so they can expand. They have a big vision to evangelise their local community and bring as many souls to Jesus as they can.

They are also both extremely musical; leading worship with a power and enthusiasm that’s infectious. 

“It has been a long road from where I started to where I am now,” chuckles Ben. “I am so thankful Jesus saw me and invited me to serve Him. I praise His name. I honour Him. And He gets every bit of credit for anything good that has happened.”

James Standish is editor of Adventist Record.