By Joanna Delalande
Young Justin Gardner rubbed shoulders with those who later formed Melbourne’s underground gangs
After years of crime and violence, 22-year-old Justin Gardner hit rock bottom one night as he plotted murder and contemplated suicide.
"At that point in my life I had broken every promise I had ever made, I had burned every bridge, and I really didn't see any way forward for any kind of success, any peace, anything at all," Justin says.
In the opening chapter of his book Crimeson, Justin talks almost exclusively of his relationship with his father, whom he describes as the hardest man he has ever met.
He recalls how his father would force him into the outdoor pool on freezing winter mornings and make him do lap after lap, and if Justin did not perform well enough he would be deprived of his dad's love.
He also describes nights where his alcoholic dad "flipped out" and hit him, his mother, and his sisters.
"Some nights I thought dad would kill someone in a violent rage," Justin writes.
A lack of family love, a poor family life, and a bad relationship with the abusive children in his neighbourhood are all factors that contributed to Justin doing and dealing drugs from age 12.
He was out of school and out of home at age 14, befriending some of the people later portrayed in the Melbourne Underbelly TV series.
Yet despite a rough start, Justin's life turned around one fateful night at age 22 when, feeling at his lowest, he renounced his plan for murder and instead cried out to God.
"I called out to Him that night in that room," he remembers. "I said, 'I've done it long enough my way, I'll do it your way if you just come into my life, take over my life and forgive me of [what I have done wrong]'."
like my childhood that I had been robbed
of was starting to be restored”At that moment Justin began a relationship with a heavenly Father who, unlike his earthly father, loved and accepted him unconditionally.
Following his decision, Justin moved away from the culture of drugs and violence he had grown up in and started reconnecting with his family and working on his relationship with Jesus.
"I was like a baby again. I couldn't read properly so my mum gave me my sister's picture Bible and I just began reading that, and she would be praying for me like a child. It was like my childhood that I had been robbed of was starting to be restored."
He also began attending the church, where he would later become senior pastor.
"Every time a service was on, I was there," Justin says. "I still looked like a drug dealer; I had big gold chains, I wore a cap and sunglasses in church from start to finish... And I was crying every service."
He then volunteered at the church serving coffees and as he learned to live his life for others rather than for himself a passion for ministry sparked inside him.
"My mess, God turned into a message," Justin says. "And if He can do it for me, He can do it for anyone.
"So whenever I meet anyone, whether I'm talking to a millionaire, someone in prison, or someone who is homeless, I know that everyone is fighting something. That makes me feel like I am on the same path as them because we're all fighting something; only I've got a God who helps me win."
Through his ministry, Justin wants to let people know that God is real, that He loves them, that they are one of a kind, and that: "Long before they ever had a problem, He already created a solution in Him," referring to Jesus sacrifice for us on the cross.
Justin is a living, walking example of what the Bible talks about in 2 Corinthians chapter 5 verse 17 where it says anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person; the old life is gone, a new life has begun. And so all of us can be. •
Justin Gardner is the senior pastor of a church in Hoppers Crossing, Victoria, which runs a local drug and alcohol rehab.