James Giam (51) has been jailed 19 times over the span of three decades. And in the nine years he spent away from home, his wife and two young sons, James was all alone.
He slept in parks and in the void decks, borrowing money from the few friends who would still acknowledge him. He had almost nothing left to his name but the clothes on his back.
“The problem was with my lifestyle, my mindset, and my drug addictions. Things were no longer within my control. I tried changing but I just couldn’t find a way out – I felt trapped.”
It all began with glue-sniffing around the age of 17, which opened the door to darker paths and more dangerous drugs.
“I did think of going back, many times. But I couldn’t. ‘Face’ was one thing, but the second thing was that I had already given up. I’d given up on myself, given up on my family … I didn’t want to pick myself up again.”
So, he lived a vagrant’s life. And when it got too much to bear, he would try to get himself arrested and sent to prison – where there was at least food and shelter.
With all the time he spent in prison – whether for drug-related offences or for petty crimes – James saw his share of things.
James saw sons visit their fathers, fathers visit their sons – but he had also seen sons and fathers locked up in the same prison. He wondered if he would have to visit his son in prison one day, too. Or if they would end up there together.
So one morning in prison, James thought of his son. “Sean, who should have been in secondary school at that time, came to my mind. I became rebellious at that age … and I wondered if he would become rebellious too.”
James had grown up without his parents, and he saw himself then in his son. After all, Sean was only seven when his father stopped coming home one day.
He saw sons visit their fathers, fathers visit their sons – but he had also seen sons and fathers locked up in the same prison. He wondered if he would have to visit his son in prison one day – or if they would end up there together.
“I happened to read a book about prayer, so I wrote a very long [prayer for my family]. Day and night, I prayed that prayer.”
James didn’t know if God was going to answer his prayer, but it was the only thing he could do for his sons from behind bars, so he kept at it. He prayed for his family every day.
And after he was released from prison, James asked to see his sons to which their mother agreed.
“One day, my mum told me that my dad wants to come and find me. I was thinking, after so many years … Why now?”
Sean was hesitant to meet the man who was little more than a stranger to him, but agreed when his mother told him that the conditions she had set were that James wouldn’t come into the house, and it would only be for an hour.
“When he came over, the conversation didn’t turn out the way I expected. We talked about a lot of things. We talked about how he was in Church, and how I was in Church also.”
James told me he remembered thinking then, “God really answered my prayer.”
He had been praying that God would surround his son with Christian friends, that someone would bring would bring Sean to Church, so his son would know Jesus.
“He answered it completely,” said James. Both father and son discovered that they had both been attending the same Church.
“I was quite shocked,” said Sean. “It couldn’t be a coincidence. That was when I was reassured that God was pulling me back to my dad.”
But forgiveness was still something Sean had to learn.
“When I told my mentor about this situation, he encouraged me to meet my father more. I was quite hesitant. But in the end I just tried to meet him more.
“As timed passed, I learnt from my mentor to forgive. At the end of the day, when I see how I’m forgiven, I think I should learn to forgive as well.”
But a few months down the road, Sean was tested when James ended up in prison again.
“When I heard from my dad that he made a mistake again, I was quite shocked that I wasn’t angry … I didn’t condemn him and I didn’t scold him.”
Sean took his mentor’s lessons on forgiveness to heart, and God gave him strength to help his father pick himself up again.
” … At the end of the day, when I see how I’m forgiven, I think I should learn to forgive as well.”
“Sean’s forgiveness to me was a new revelation of God’s character, and a new side of my son I’d never seen,” James said. Neither father nor son thought their present outcome was possible – James freed from his bondages; Sean having a father.
But Sean wasn’t the only one who had to learn how to forgive. Having grown up without his parents, James also had to learn how to forgive them.
“Unforgiveness made my life very painful. Because without forgiving them, I also didn’t know how to forgive myself. As I prayed … I also forgave my parents. And because of that, I am able to receive God’s forgiveness, and my children’s forgiveness.”
In the end, forgiveness from God was the key that opened the door for James to walk out of darkness and back into his children’s lives.
And it was the same for Sean: “Since God can forgive me for what I’ve done… I can also forgive my father.” Sean planted the seed of forgiveness in faith, not knowing what would come out of it. But three years later, his act of obedience to God – to honour his father – is reaping fruits.
“When my mother sees me accepting my father, she can also let go of the past and accept him, to the point that she’d let us go out with him and invite him back home for reunion dinner during Chinese New Year.
“Seeing my mum happy and my dad happy gives me a sense of relief.”
As we prepared for the final questions of the interview, there was still some time before filming began. So James and Sean sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a ledge, talking casually about school, camera equipment and the imminent rain.
If you didn’t already know their story, they look like any other father and son pair. As the interviews concludes, Sean emphasises this one thing repeatedly: No matter what happens, he’s got his father’s back, and he will always support his father together with his younger brother Paul.
From the look on James’s face, you could tell he knew his son meant what he said. Though Sean is only 18 this year, his choices reflect love and wisdom beyond his years. It reminds me of something Jesus said to his disciples:
“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)
I believe the key to Sean’s capacity to love and forgive is this: The knowledge that he too has been forgiven much by his Heavenly Father.
Forgiveness helped James and Sean to step out of darkness and brokenness into light. It looks a lot like God’s forgiveness, who first forgave us. Love is never far from where forgiveness is dispensed.
“And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:6)
A Father’s heart is always turned towards His children.