A Prodigal Son Reborn

A Little Rascal

Before age four, I lived with my grandparents in Soochow, China, and have no memory of what my parents were like. Later, our family was reunited in Beijing where my parents worked as engineers for the Department of Communication. Because they were superbusy people, they left me, a five-year-old boy, from Monday to Friday each week in the care of a nursery operated by a government agency. With almost no supervision or discipline from my parents, I was a spoiled kid!

The downtown Beijing nursery was quite a distance from where we lived. One biting cold night, I longed so much for the shelter of my parents that I successfully left the nursery with a companion. We escaped the watch guard on duty at the gate and nudged our way onboard a city bus without purchasing tickets. When we passed the zoo, I knew we were nearly home!

It was a serious offense of negligence by the teachers and the guard that children could go missing from the nursery! To their relief, at 12 midnight they were informed by phone that the two missing children were found, safe and sound at home with their parents. This incident clearly depicts my childhood—I was wild and uncontrollable, living without family rules or supervision.

By the time I was in primary school, our family had immigrated to Hong Kong to live with my grandfather and grandmother. I studied in a Christian school and met a teacher who influenced my life, though she never knew it. She would invite me and my classmates to her home for visits and to sing hymns, with the intent of sharing the Gospel with us. I wasn’t touched by the love of Jesus, though I studied in Christian primary and secondary schools and was exposed to the life and teaching of Christ. I was, however, touched by music. I loved to sing! I would listen to contemporary hit songs and dress like the stars with unconventional tight pants and fancy hair styles, creating an image of myself far removed from what was appropriate in mainstream social norms.

During my last year in secondary school, my academic work was average but my conduct was extremely bad. I broke so many school regulations that the school expelled me. One of the Christian teachers tried to help me stay, but I was not spared the school’s firm decision to expel me. My parents sought out a new school for me—one where the former principal happened to be my uncle. But as a new Form V student, I did not change to become a good student.

At this time, I was living in Discovery Bay and hung around with a bunch of bad kids like myself, some from very wealthy families in China. I joined a ring of hoodlums (a gang) and became a member of the Triad society, an organized crime group. Because I failed to pass the public Hong Kong Secondary School Certificate Examination, I could not be admitted into Form VI in my original secondary school. My parents then arranged an alternative, enrolling me in the international school located in Kowloon Tong. Nevertheless, my behavior problems persisted and grew worse. With a bunch of other gang members, I lived a wanton life of heavy drinking and wild parties, squandering my family’s money. Known as a threatening, egotistic bully, I was reputed to be a troublemaker in Discovery Bay, and my notorious presence was everywhere.

When I was 18, I along with several others broke into the clubhouse of Discovery Bay at midnight and removed every item in the clubhouse just for kicks. That night, after my parents had gone to sleep, I lowered my bike down from the second floor, rode to the clubhouse, and—knowing the front gate was equipped with an alarm system—broke a rear window and climbed through the air-conditioning vent. Climbing to the main floor, I joined other youth in removing every item in the clubhouse. Destructive behaviors like this were adventures for me, which I did without the slightest feeling of fear or remorse.

Big Trouble Ahead

Endowed with a good mind, I was able to score high on the SAT and TOEFL tests and qualified to study abroad in the U.S. With an option to study in either Seattle or New Jersey, I opted for New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) to elude supervision by my uncle and aunt who lived in Seattle and were well-known in our family as devout Christians. I did stop by Seattle to pay them a brief visit.

During my entire freshman year at NJIT, I studied hard and attained a high GPA. My friends that year were all good people, but the following year, I transferred to Rutgers University and made friends with a couple of fellows with a music band. They hired out to party organizers to play at events, and I followed their lead. Becoming a star nightclub singer, I was attracted less to the money that could be made than to the female fans who followed us around. I loved singing in public and went on to win three distinguished awards in contests, once receiving a grand prize of $10,000.

Unfortunately, within a week the money was gone, spent frivolously on drinking and gambling. My taste for gambling had begun when I was in secondary school in Discovery Bay. I would frequently go to an uncle’s home to play poker, mahjong, and Chinese betting cards, as well as off-track jockey betting so popular in Hong Kong. Many of my friends were from wealthy families who were racehorse owners and jockey racers. At the disco clubs, I’d hear gruesome and terrible plans related to gang activities they were involved in. The parents—including my own parents—ignored what we young people were doing, thinking we were adults and should run our own lives independent of supervision. I became hooked on off-track jockey betting and was euphoric at the prospect of what life had to offer me as I pursued selfish gains and the pleasures of wanton living. In reality, I was plunging down into corrupt morality without any awareness of what I was doing.

Business the Wrong Way

When I arrived on the East Coast for study, I supported myself mainly through off-track jockey betting. I paired up with people to bet on the outcome of American sporting events—football, basketball, tennis,or whatever games were in season. I also operated an illegal underground betting ring in Chinatown in New York City, where I had moved for more convenience in running my gambling business. I was like Lot in the Bible who moved his tent closer and closer to the sin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, without realizing the consequences.

Working hard to make money—often through illegal channels—my GPA dropped from 4.0 to 1.2, resulting in my being terminated by the university. Unphased, I got involved in the lucrative business of soliciting interest income from people who were broke but needed immediate cash. By loaning out ten thousand dollars, I could get a yield of interest income of three to five hundred dollars a week—without the slightest bit of remorse or shame on my part!

By this point, I was an addicted gambler and betting agent—treated in the casinos as a welcomed patron. As a secret underground betting agent, I was frequently chauffeured back and forth to Atlantic City to learn all the tricks of gambling. I once won $200,000 and then lost it, along with an apartment owned by my mother in Hong Kong—a piece of real estate valued at over two million US dollars. How could I ever repay such a huge debt or escape the heavy penalty of lawsuits against me?

In those days, I never called my parents, and my parents could not reach me either. I was living a way of life most suitably described by a Chinese quote: “Three hours in poverty vs. five hours in wealth.” When I desperately needed ten or twenty thousand dollars to cope with a financial transaction, I would risk losing face by calling home to ask for money. Years later my mother told me that she dreaded hearing the phone ring because she knew it would be bad news. Her heart was full of worry and pain because of me. I was her prodigal son!

In 1994, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani proclaimed a law eradicating gang membership. Many Triad Society gang members were arrested and detained in prison. I was lucky that my name was not on the blacklist. Nonetheless, I fled to Chicago to hide for about a month. Afterwards, I returned to New Jersey to live in my aunt’s home and tried to resume study at the university but without success. I did, however, stop working the wrong kind of business.

Red Lights Unheeded!

When I first saw my future wife, I was performing at a karaoke parlor. She was a young innocent girl, stepping into a karaoke parlor for the first time with her schoolmates. I thought she was beautiful and very elegant, and, for some reason, she singled me out to sing a rendition of her favorite song. We began dating and soon were married. For the next five years, I led a pretty stable and normal life working as a chauffeur for company executives. Our first daughter was born in 1997.

Then in 1998, when some of my former buddies were released from prison and reconnected with me, I slipped back to my old ways. Partly from coercion and partly from the temptation of materialistic gain, I began my old practice of loaning money, charging very high interest, and gambling with what I made. All I cared about was achieving the end of making money. Yet, when I gained $100,000, I wanted to make a million more, always thinking I could quit at any time. As a betting agent—the middle person—I sometimes could not collect the debts owed to me and would have to borrow money to cover the debts. There was no way I could force people to pay, even with the threat of violence!

At first, my wife knew nothing about my dealings. When she found out, trouble began. My wife had a daytime job working in a Chinatown clinic as operations director, and I worked at night doing my dirty business. As husband and wife, there was little time between us to be together, which drove my wife to the brink of a nervous breakdown. She felt it was pointless to continue to live together while I lived for money and didn't care how she felt. So, in January 2003, she filed for divorce, drove me out of the house, and took our two daughters to live with her mother. She refused to answer any of my phone calls seeking to reconcile with her.

Struggling with guilt over losing my family, I hoped in vain for a way to pay off my debts and get back with my wife. Pitifully, all I could think of were ways to achieve my goals with wrong methods! I knew I had to terminate my relationship with the wrong group of friends, and I needed to start over and create a better future with a decent job. So, ignoring losing face, I approached my mother again, and also my aunt. With their help, I was able to pay off nearly $200,000 to avert a crisis. I knew I was very lucky to have their help, yet for weeks my brain nearly exploded with jumpy thoughts about what to do next.

Saved at Last!

After a few months, I determined to turn over a new leaf, regardless of whether my wife accepted me back or not. I needed to repay the money owed to my family members, so I got a commercial driver’s license to operate a public transportation vehicle. Later, my aunt suggested that I might find a job in a government agency.

The tutorial class I took to prepare for work for the postal service was in the home of a couple who helped new immigrants prepare to take the exam for civil service work. The husband worked in the post office, and they just happened to be marvelous Christians. During the classes, we were introduced to hymn singing, treated with desserts while we did our homework, and often told a story from the Bible. This Christian couple sincerely and enthusiastically demonstrated love, even inviting over one hundred of us to their home to celebrate mid-autumn festival.

Even with the kindness of this couple, I felt uncomfortable in the class and wanted to drop out. My hair at the time was dyed red, I walked and talked in snobbish, arrogant ways, and I was ill-mannered. I felt everyone shied away from me because I was an outcast. In my present condition, I wondered how I could ever have a bright future. Then, unexpectedly, the husband called to ask how I was doing. In the most caring manner, he prayed with me over the phone. This man was indeed an angel sent by God to show me love and encourage me at a time when I wasn’t seeking help from anyone. From this point on, I started praying to God, asking Him for help. After getting a job in the post office, I continued joining the fellowship group to learn and understand the true gospel step by step. Touched deeply by the Good News of God’s forgiving grace, I had sincere regret over the sins I had committed and rejected them decisively. I asked God to forgive me and give me a new life in Him. My wife finally agreed to live together with me again, and we were reunited with all our family members to start a new life of harmony. In less than a year—in 2003—our son was born. Thanks be to our awesome God!

Something to Sing About

In 2004, I attended an evangelistic meeting, and the Holy Spirit moved me to take a public stand for believing in Jesus. My old self had led me to believe that I could control my own destiny, that I could be master of my life. In reality, my own knowledge and abilities are very limited. Looking back over ten years of my life’s journey, I realized the frailty of the human soul, which can easily be deceived to act on impulse alone. A prodigal son like me being reborn can only be explained by the omnipotent God leading me all the way. He was there to remind me, warn me, and discipline me from the beginning. Everything about me was under His plan, His guidance, His protection, and His deliverance! I’m grateful that the life encounters I had brought me back to the God who created me! I am deeply aware that God was relentlessly and mercifully seeking after me! So, in 2005, I was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!

After I put my faith in Jesus, I felt peace that I had never experienced before. All fear was gone! What I gained most was that I had a goal in life, no longer living for things that were temporary. My wife had lots of questions that were not easily resolved before she put her faith in Jesus. Later, when she saw the change in my life, she was willing to make her commitment to believe in Jesus too. She was baptized in 2006, at the same time as my mother. What a beautiful, inspiring picture for me to see!

Our Heavenly Father welcomed a wandering scoundrel like me and gave me a new beginning. One thing I regret is that my earthly father passed away in 2002 without seeing his only son repent of past wrongdoing. He did not get a chance to believe in Jesus to be assured of eternal life like my mother and my wife. This is a real sorrow for me in this life on earth!

I was always aware of my ability to sing. Realizing that it was a talent given to me by God, I joined the choir at my church. However, before serving, my Sunday school teacher, Dr. K. C. Tam, challenged me to think about whether I wanted to show off my talent or glorify God? One of the greatest enlightenments I gained after I put my faith in Jesus was to seek the will of God in everything. I knew for sure that I wanted to sing for His glory, not for myself.

Regarding my job with the post office, I went from a part-time clerk to a full-time delivery mailman, to a postal team leader, to branch manager. Praise God that in the past ten years, He not only changed my life completely but also provided me with opportunities to witness for Him and glorify Him at home and at work!

*This article was written by Kwok Hoi Wong, contract editor of Chinese Christian Mission, after an interview about Jackson was published in the August 2018 issue of Chinese Today. It was translated into English by Kwok Hoi’s husband, Philip Yu, a frequent contributor to Challenger. Kwok Hoi and Philip reside in New Jersey and attend Rutgers Community Christian Church, where Jackson is also a member.

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