© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

FRINGE: Resurrection

Gerrit Gray Doppenberg
Jacob Skilling one
Jacob Skilling at his Sockburn home  Gerrit Doppenberg

Hearing Jacob Skilling’s story, people would be surprised at the man he is at 30.

His story isn’t a happy one, but the Christchurch man radiates peace as he sits in his home in suburban Sockburn and plans out a future helping others.   

From the faded tattoo on his face, to the knuckles scarred from a lifetime of fist-fights, there isn’t much about Skilling that would immediately say “I can help”. But it’s precisely in this past that he has gathered the experiences he needs to bring others out of the holes he once found himself in.   

Skilling grew up in a turbulent household in Invercargill. It’s an upbringing he remembers clearly.  

“There was exposure to drugs, gang members, fights with my family. Jake the muss type stuff. It was just a series of unfortunate events.”   

Violence, of both physical and sexual nature, peppers the memories of his childhood in Southland. One of the youngest of 12 siblings, including two sets of twins, he and his siblings would often get up to mischief. The lack of structure in his upbringing led Skilling to petty crimes from a young age.  

School was no respite for Skilling. With ADHD and a lack of structure to his household, – he found himself alienated by the system and lashing out whenever he could.   

 “I was always angry at those ages, suicidal even. Dunno where that stems from, even to this day.”  

Skilling says despite his troubles in school, he still remembers the teachers who cared for him and he maintains contact with some of them to this day. He ended up requiring an adult to constantly supervise him at school.  

When Skilling was seven, after an outburst at school, he was walking the streets of Bluff, crying. A woman stopped to talk to him, and listened, buying him an Ice -cream. Even now he tears up recollecting the memory.   

“It was the first time anyone ever actually listened to me. My first encounter of genuine love and compassion.”  

Jacob Skilling on his motorcycle
Jacob Skilling on his motorcycle, displaying his Passionate Sons banner. Gerrit Doppenberg

But petty theft turned into breaking into people's homes. Smoking cigarettes to huffing butane, to taking speed. And the fighting that characterised his early childhood took an even more violent turn. He would use knives, destroy what was around him, even attacking his brother in one incident.   

He was moved out of his home after continued conflict between him and his family and put into the foster care system but his struggles continued. He never felt fully at home, bouncing around from home to home. 

Skilling was a skilled sportsman and the pride in his voice is evident as he recollects the trophies he won at St Josephs in Invercargill. He was renowned for his speed in athletic events at Broadgreen Intermediate and thrived in sports teams.  He was a member of multiple rep teams for rugby, representing his school and the region.   

But as he grew older, he was kicked out of multiple schools and eventually put into a “naughty school”, where he started selling drugs to the other students.   

A charge for aggravated robbery allowed the young man a chance to clean up. He started to play sports again and tried to reclaim some of his life. But it only lasted three weeks before he was back in the world he swore off.   

When he was 17, however, his life would change overnight. After an altercation at a nightclub, Skilling and friends were involved in an incident where a man was seriously hurt.  The victim was in hospital for a week, with multiple injuries. Two weeks later, Skilling and the others were arrested and charged for the assault.  

“I shouldn’t have been a part of the assault. I shouldn’t have caught him. I was young, naïve, misled, misguided, and made those choices as an adult.”  

During his time on remand before his trial, Skilling’s best friend took his life in the jail cell above him. He was 17 years old, trapped in a cage, with his best friend dead above him, just a stone's throw away.  

“Dealing with that, with losing my best mate, was an emotional train wreck....an emotional rollercoaster. He was the godfather of my first child.”   

Jacob and Arron
Jacob Skilling and his flatmate Aaron Kahuroa, who he helps with addiction issues. Gerrit Doppenberg

Skilling was sentenced to nine years in jail. He exploded, threatening the judge and loudly stating his intent to appeal the sentence. Even now, he stands by his disdain for the sentence.   

The Court of Appeal upheld the decision to jail Skilling for nine years citing his substance abuse issues and high risk of reoffending.   

Skilling faced the start of his adult life from the inside of a cell.   

“I started growing up in there. From 18 to 25 years old, it became my home. My cell wasn’t my cell; it was my house. You’re living in a place that’s a jungle, that’s a concrete jungle, full of a whole type of personalities and defendants. 

“I was always happy- go- lucky. Would help people, would write poems and help people write letters home, but there was the other side where I was very unpredictable. A few violent things, was on charges up in there, stabbed a number of people for whatever reasons. I don’t like to go over that. I’m a new man. It’s like someone robbed my old house, I don’t like there anymore.”  

After seven years and five unsuccessful parole hearings, he became a free man.  After a stint in Odyssey House, Skilling found himself on the straight and narrow. He had a job, was back into sports, and even managed to buy a nice car.  

“I’ll never forget when I bought that car, that Audi. I loved that car. I felt like a king.” 

But Skilling found himself back partying and selling drugs.  

“I just fell back over, got back into the old life."

Gang connections made it easy to fall back into that life.   

“I started partying, then selling, then snorting, and then just went party one hundy.”   

But everything changed on June 29, 2018, at a Christchurch strip club, when Skilling ran into an old associate in the gang world. The man assaulted him, putting him into a coma. At that moment his life was changed forever. Skilling says it was the first of many divine encounters and visions he has experienced.  

He remembers a time in his hospital bed in Christchurch and he was surrounded by family members and friends who had passed away. There, up in the bluest of skies, Skilling explained that something, which he believes was God, had let him know what had happened to him. And it wasn’t his time to die yet.  

Jacob and Sven with home made food
Jacob Skilling and Sven Christensen with some of the homemade, home-grown food they're producing. Gerrit Doppenberg

He started to frequent prayer groups.  Christ now envelops his life. In every meeting, Skilling will lead a prayer. Halleluiahs scatter conversations, and notebooks sit open around Skilling’s home with bible verses scrawled over them.   

His home these days is what some would call a halfway house. Several cars are packed into the driveway of the Sockburn house.  He runs it with the help of his ministry and people are welcomed with open arms, regardless of their backgrounds. There are a few rules - no drugs, no alcohol, and a good attitude is required.  

Outside the house is a large lawn, strewn with exercise equipment. Standing centre stage is a statue of a lion and a home-made cross, the decoration of choice for the congregation Skilling chose, the Passionate Sons, and although the vests they wear might be reminiscent of gang attire, they refer to them as banners instead of patches. 

The ministry itself doesn’t have an official head. It’s another transitionary period for those left behind, to help them into the fold of non-denominational Christianity.   

“We’re not religious, we’re radical.”   

These are the new Christians. They want to share the love they’ve found with the world around them. Motorbikes, face tattoos, and leather vests, proclaiming the good word, instead of the local gang. 

Instead of packing up a half a gram for someone down the way, a discussion breaks out regarding which package of food should get the ice blocks, and who should get the ice creams. Instead of breaking into people’s homes and stealing, Skilling helped his elderly neighbour move, and  prayed with her. Instead of getting together and having a few brews with the boys, Skilling gets together with fellow worshippers at 8 o’clock in the morning to have a prayer session.   

Skilling runs a registered charity, named the Broken Movement Trust, dedicated to helping others like him overcome trauma and mental health issues.   

His latest project is horticulture therapy, working with Sven Christensen, a local gardening hobbyist and social worker. The goal is to let at-risk youths learn how to garden and create food for themselves.  

Food packages
The food packages that will be delivered to those in need around Christchurch Gerrit Doppenberg

The passion both Skilling and Christensen show for the results of the work, and the desire to see people change is what keeps them going. The trust isn’t highly funded, so Skilling is working the night shift at a local meat works factory to pay for both his life and to pump money into the charity. 

The extra burden doesn’t bother him.   

“You can’t pay someone for that feeling of helping someone succeed. There's nothing like it.”   

His time at the Ministry house is coming to an end. Skilling has a fiancé, who is seven months pregnant and he’s excited about getting into a new home. He  loves being at the home and helping people, but he knows it’s not the best place to bring a child up. 

He talks with pride in the home, as if that was his own garden, taking the seeds of damaged people and cultivating them into people who can live without drug dependencies, without fear and healing the traumas rotting away inside of them.  

And this is the crux of the Skilling story. From the fringes of society to becoming someone dedicated to helping others.  He doesn’t hide away from the scars that litter his body. Slashed wrists, broken knuckles, a stab wound on his neck. But it’s the scars that aren’t showing that resonate the most.  

He carries his past like a cross on his back. Maybe that’s the reason he is so driven to Christianity.  Skilling has risen from the ashes of the New Zealand’s underworld – a resurrection of sorts - and he has a simple message.   

“You can change too.”