I shall not die:
I shall not die:
A student’s journey from prison to freedom
Kesavan Balasingham was born into a Hindu family in Sri Lanka. After living in Germany and France, Kesavan’s family arrived in Canada in 1989 to eventually settle in Toronto.
In high school Kesavan was exposed to the issues of racism surfacing in the early ’90s in Toronto. “Our school was very multicultural, but the racism wasn’t just between white and coloured but between black and brown,” says Kesavan. “At that time there were a lot of young men moving into the country with their families. They were struggling with their identity – there’s a culture at home and a new culture at school and they didn’t know how to deal with all that.”
One of the results of the violence at Kesavan’s school was that he and his friends, along with some older males in the community, decided to protect themselves by forming a group: a brotherhood that eventually became affiliated with a local gang. “We had access to weapons and guns,” says Kesavan. “It wasn’t a good thing. We never thought of what that would lead to down the road.”
In June 1999, Kesavan had finished high school and was fast tracking through an IT program that he hoped to finish while he was still 19 years old. Then Kesavan’s best friend was beaten up by another gang. “This was right in the Tamil community,” says Kesavan. “That was really difficult for me to deal with. I had no mentor, nobody I really looked up to to say, ‘Look, I’m really struggling with this. I’m full of anger.’”
Soon a few members of his gang came to speak to Kesavan, expecting him to lead retaliation. Though he agreed, he took a backseat in the planning. He was however in the car, armed, when the retaliation took place. “It was brutal,” says Kesavan. “There were multiple guns used, it was between vehicles.” About twelve people were involved in the shootings.
Kesavan was shot in the hand, other people were wounded and one young man didn’t survive.
Kesavan and two other men were arrested within two weeks of the incident. “That’s where everything stopped for me,” says Kesavan. “I was going a hundred miles an hour and then I found myself in provincial prison. I was charged with this violent crime and I was hopeless. I pretty much was about to lose my mind just thinking about everything that had taken place in one week.”
To distract himself he asked another inmate to find him something to read. “By God’s grace I was handed a Gideon-placed Bible and I opened it and started reading it, not knowing anything about where Jesus was mentioned or what Genesis even meant,” says Kesavan. “The moment I started reading it my emotions started to settle down and something started to happen from within. I couldn’t explain it, couldn’t put my finger on it.”
At that same time Kesavan met some people from local churches who would come in to the prison to visit and minister to the inmates. “I became a sponge - literally. I was sick and tired of my life – tired of just wasting it away,” says Kesavan. “That was probably the lowest point for me. Then I read in Matthew where Christ says to forgive your enemy. That was the challenge, my convicting point.”
In September 1999, after being in prison for almost four months, Kesavan became a Christian. He had to struggle through what it meant to have been born a Hindu and if he was going to lose his identity if he became a Christian. As he talked this through with one of the prison ministry volunteers, he realized he still wanted a relationship with Christ.
He received his sentence and went into the federal penitentiary system. “The consequences of my actions didn’t just go away,” says Kesavan. He’d already been incarcerated for two years. This was another low point. One Bible verse stood out though – Psalm 118:17: “I shall not die but live to declare the words of the Lord.”
“God reminded me that he didn’t call me to waste my life away but to declare his works. He started using me right in the prison, opening doors, showing me a lot of favour,” says Kesavan. He became a certified peer counsellor working in suicide prevention and teaching health.
Kesavan was incarcerated for over nine years – for most of his twenties – in a number of prisons. While in a re-integration program, Kesavan was allowed to work and attend certain functions in the community where the prison was located. Kesavan was asked to speak at a men’s breakfast at one of the local churches. After he told his story, one of the men told him that if he ever sensed God calling him into ministry and study, he would like to help. “Initially I thought, ‘That’s crazy! I could never go through [study for ministry]. That’s not me,” says Kesavan. But he started thinking and praying about it and found that this calling was for him. The men from that church, some who are Tyndale alumni and others raised over $20,000 to pay for Kesavan’s tuition at Tyndale.
Kesavan was released from prison on September 10, 2008. The next day he was in his first University College class. He finished his classes in October 2010, just a few months after getting married. “Coming here, sitting in a small group, being trained…for me it was like I felt I was born for this,” says Kesavan. “It’s not just a degree on the wall – it’s a real life experience integrated with some theology, ministry and various teachers bringing in their own experiences.” Kesavan graduates May 2011 with a BRE.
Kesevan is presently working for a software company in Markham that serves non-profit organizations in the areas of fundraising and marketing. Kesavan has lived to declare the words of the Lord. “The past doesn’t have to be a waste no matter how bad it is. He can use it for our good, for His glory,” says Kesavan. “That’s where I’m at: As long as I surrender I find that God can use my past in small and big ways.”