Isaac Petersen: Battling drugs, crime and other dangers in his neighbourhood, Isaac changed his life after a conversation and choice made in prison | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
He grew up an aimless addict in one of the world’s most hectic drug capitals. Today he’s a poet, painter and pastor with a charity to boot. How did ISAAC PETERSEN get there? He spoke to KAT FARQUHARSON

Isaac (37) is the middle child of five, the son of a painter and a housewife. He lives in Cape Town’s Mitchells Plain with his wife Celesté, a former civil servant, and their two daughters, Jessica (9) and Taylor (4)

‘My school knew no career days. We were never asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. Few of us starved in windy Mitchells Plain, to which apartheid had forced so many people of colour to move, but we were a dreamless people.

One of my earliest memories is my dad calling me into his room to ask what I’d like for my birthday. I can’t account for why my little six-year-old brain chose what it did, but my heart started racing. I met my father’s eyes and said I wished to have Jesus come and live in my heart, and to have a bible.

But there’s only so much protecting parents can do in a place like Mitchells Plain, where gangsterism, accessible drugs and violence mean kids are exposed to decisions so much earlier. Just walking to school could get me and my peers targeted for drugs or even killed in gang crossfire. As a young boy, I had thoughts of one day writing a book. But before long, my passion for writing was replaced by the appeal of substances that numbed me to everything that had previously made me feel alive.

Isaac: ‘There’s only so much protecting parents can do in a place like Mitchells Plain’ | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

I didn’t realise I was being numbed, I actually felt more alive than I ever had. Dagga [marijuana] brought what seemed like the clarity and identity I’d always missed. Over the next few years, I upgraded to mandrax, then eventually tik [crystal meth] and ecstasy.

My parents tried the usual tactics to curb my wayward path, but eventually realised they could do nothing but watch and pray to save their child from the grip of drugs and alcohol. By the time I reached Matric, my final year of school, I was a shadow of my former self. I hated my druggie identity and despaired about my future, yet was no longer in control of myself.

I put the pills back

One night, I lay on my bed with a bunch of pills in my hand, determined to end my suffering for good. But a soft voice whispered in my mind: Don’t do it now. Give it one more day and see how it goes tomorrow. Just one more day.

I relented to the voice and put the pills back, still determined to end my life the following day. The next day, still feeling tense, I went to a shop where my friends hung out. I felt so low, I didn’t even want to smoke, and got up to leave. The next thing I recall is them helping me up from the ground: I’d fainted and hurt my head. I stumbled back to my empty home like a zombie and fell into bed.

Isaac in his troubled teen years of substance abuse and crime: ‘I didn’t realise I was being numbed, I felt more alive than I ever had,’ he says

It was in this rare sober state that I was enveloped in something hard to put into words. A voice spoke to me, bringing peace and a feeling of comfort. It was so contrary to everything being spoken over my life by others and myself that I believe it was real. It spoke promise for a future that wouldn’t be of failure and drugs. It assured me that I’d pass Matric, and spoke of a deep love for me.

The voice held power and majesty and if felt clear to me that it was Jesus speaking. I woke up and my whole being felt rebooted, a lightness returned to my soul. For a few days I was my old self, I felt the urge to praise God and the thoughts of depression and suicide had disappeared completely.

I wish I could say that such a profound experience turned my life around. But the enticement of the world I was living in and the pressures of my environment and peers eventually won. Within two weeks, I was back to my old habits, though I passed Matric, just as the voice promised.

My father was a reformed alcoholic who’d found God when his hunger for peace reached a point of desperation. He also had a painting business. I started working for him after school, but I had very little interest or enthusiasm for it. I lived for my after-work life of girls galore, fast cars, music and substances. Mondays announced hangovers and no money.

I felt my father’s disapproval grow

I felt my father’s silent disapproval grow as he and my mother watched me deteriorating and getting sucked ever further into the dark underworld of alcohol and drugs. I felt like a failure after all. My identity was a substance abuser, a druggie. I was rake thin, weighing 55kg on a good day.

An excerpt from Isaac’s autobiography, A Plain Story

One night at the club, I met a girl who got my heart racing. Before I got the courage to properly approach her, she had left. I went home that night, sat down and wrote the first thing for years: Perfect Stranger. A shaft of hope and light seemed to ignite within me. I’d finally found something that made me feel I was more than average. I continued writing after that, even when I wasn’t high. I’d found my voice, my soul’s uttering.

In April 2004, I was driving with a friend who’d just bought some drugs. A police vehicle appeared behind us and instructed us to pull over. My friend shoved the drugs at me and the police arrested me for possession. We were thrown into a cell with gangsters and drug addicts: revolting and dangerous. After a long and lonely night in the crowded jail cell, I remember seeing two birds through the small window and wishing I was as free as them. In that cell I threw out a prayer: If anyone’s out there, please help me. Save me! 

I knew in that moment that God wasn’t just my last way out, He was my only way out and if He ignored me or refused my earnest call, I’d be stuck in this dark world forever.

Not even five minutes had passed when a guy in a suit came into our cell with a worn-out bible. The thought hit me overwhelmingly: if this man was here for me, God had heard my call!

Isaac: ‘My friend shoved the drugs at me’ | Photo: Leentjie Du Preez

The man said he’d had a life of crime until he’d understood the power of Jesus to help him, and to help every single one of us. He then asked if anyone would like to respond. People in the crowd about me looked astonished as my hand went up. I went in front of all these prisoners and knelt in front of the preacher. Minutes after I prayed with this preacher, the warden came to call me. My father was there to bail me out!

My heart was light and joyful: my father’s was not. He sat in silence as he drove us home. But with one sentence, I was able to convert his despair to the same joy I was feeling. ‘I gave my heart to Jesus in jail this morning, Dad.’

any parent could be forgiven

Any parent could be forgiven for thinking their drug addict child was just telling them something they wanted to hear, but my father heard the truth and felt God’s joy. He turned a face blazing in gratitude and shouted, ‘What? Praise the Lord!’

He rushed us home so he could tell my mother. She took a little longer to receive the news, but their joy was real, as was my repentance. God had done a massive work in my heart, just as He’d promised them when I was too young to know, and again in my Matric year.

Everything changed that day. I was set free from substances, from cravings, even from withdrawal symptoms. Just like that, it was all over: the drugs, drinking, girls, parties and night life all ended in an instant. All over the community, rehabilitated youngsters relapsed within the first week of returning from rehab centres, only a very few overcame the powerful drug plague and made it out alive with their sanity intact. There were a few close calls after that when I ran into my old friends and ended up taking a hit or two just for the fun of it: about thrice! This isn’t how it always goes, and I’m eternally grateful to have been saved not only from darkness and life without God, but also to have been healed without the pain of withdrawal.

‘As a boy, my passion for writing was replaced by the appeal of substances,’ says Isaac. Today, he has rediscovered this passion

Later I found out that the preacher had never intended to come into a prison that day. He’d been walking past and felt God telling him to go inside and minister.

I began to see the real gospel: the gospel of Jesus and his unfailing love, a love that this world cannot give. I started writing more. The love for words that God had given me even as a child, now flowed freely. So I started writing A Plain Story, sharing my testimony.

I remember the first time I saw her

Another significant change in my life then came about. I’d met Celesté many years earlier through her older sister, a friend of mine. She’d been very young, a Western Province gymnast, in fact no less than a gold medalist! I remember the day I first saw her: she ran past me and my friend, and it was as if time slowed down. I remember every detail of that moment, and of turning to my friend to say that one day I’d be with her. During my dark years, Celesté’s sister and her family had withdrawn from my life to avoid the darkness I was associating with, and I’d felt judged, hating the way people like them saw me.

Newlywed Isaac with wife Celesté: ‘When I first saw her… time slowed down’
Taylor and Jessica Petersen play innocently in the neighbourhood that proved so challenging for their father | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
The family Isaac came close to never having: ‘Life’s troubles still pursue us but God is there,’ he says | Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Celesté and I dated for five years before we got married in 2010, when I was 27 and she was 23. She was the best a man could ask for in a partner, a wife and a mother.

We were delighted when our first daughter was born, I was so aware how different my life was from the statistic I’d been in danger of becoming in my youth. In 2016, I was ordained as a pastor with a small church, the Carmel Christian Union, and in the same year my autobiography, A Plain Story, was published. Life’s troubles still pursue us but God is there:  just as He had always, I now believe, been there throughout my dark days.

Father and son: Isaac continues the legacy of the painting company of his father Raymond, and has enhanced it with a charity wing

My father became ill in 2017 and I took over his painting company. We provide high quality painting services to upmarket domestic and business clients within the greater Cape Town area.

After he passed away, I founded a charity called the Mâshach Project. Mâshach is a Hebrew word meaning to anoint and to paint, and it aims to help people, including painting houses for people who can’t afford such things. Celesté left her job to work for Mâshach,  and my mother also volunteers her time as a Mâshach team leader. So far, we’ve painted five houses and provided clothing and other aids to a number of different people. Everyone we’ve helped has such deep and significant stories. We were pumping in money from our business, our households and the church, which proved to be unsustainable, so we’re currently working on a proper budget and business plan.

our dream is to show people hope and beauty

Our dream when we paint people’s houses is to show people hope and beauty both inside and out. In my years of following Jesus more closely and learning to love His people both inside and outside the church, I’ve learnt about the need to counter the lies that get spoken over people with words of truth, words of light. That is what I seek to do as a pastor and a business owner. It’s also why I write.

Our family still lives in the same Mitchells Plain suburb that tries so hard to entice youth away from hopes and dreams. But it isn’t places that need redemption, but people.

Community man: ‘Our family still lives in the same Mitchells Plain suburb, but it’s people not places that need redemption,’ says Isaac | Photo: Leentjie Du Preez
Mother’s touch: Isaac’s mother Adelaide is a member of the Mâsach team that seeks to bring light into the neighbourhood  | Photo: Leentjie du Preez
Before and after: to date, Team Mâsach has painted five houses and provided other types of support for vulnerable people
If God can reach someone like me

I am a young man who made it out alive from the grips of tik: a rare find indeed. If God can reach someone like me, He can reach anyone. I regret many decisions I made, yet I despise none of them now. For if my life hadn’t been the way it was, I’d never have seen the wonder of God in my life.’

‘We’ve all had a thought or glimpse of God and I’d like to tell anyone reading this that Jesus died and rose again for all people. His love is not reserved for me alone.

To anyone feeling dismayed: don’t be discouraged by your current position of discomfort as I know that God will make it out to be a blessing in your life. God desires you to have a healthy, abundant life. Why worry when God has gone before you to prepare a way that leads to peace and rest?

If for any reason you haven’t yet engaged with the Father through Jesus, now’s your time. Call upon the God who made the heavens and earth. Call upon His name and say:

God who made the heavens and the earth, who sent his son Jesus, I call on your name to come into my life right now. I confess that you sent Jesus to die for my sins, and that he rose again on the third day. I confess that I am a sinner who he came to save, so save me Lord, and make my life whole again. I thank you, Jesus, for what you have done for me and for what you will do for me from here forward. Amen.

Say it aloud, read it with sincerity and let it flow from your heart. Call from your heart’s core and await the glory of all heaven to come upon your life. There might not be fireworks now and it seems your prayer was just uttered into the empty atmosphere, but be of good courage. He is alive and has heard and answered your prayer. Believe and see it come to pass.’


Keen to know more about Isaac’s journey? His autobiography, A Plain Story, is available to purchase online

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