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Christie Buckingham: 'The Bali Nine were all singing... up until the shots rang out'

Pastor Christie Buckingham, originally from Portstewart, talks to Adrian Rutherford about the final moments of the Bali Nine drugs gang who were executed by firing squads in Indonesia.

Published 01/06/2015

Mercy mission: Pastor Christie Buckingham who was with the Bali Nine just before they were shot dead in Indonesia
Mercy mission: Pastor Christie Buckingham who was with the Bali Nine just before they were shot dead in Indonesia

Q. You have lived in Australia for 27 years. What made you leave Northern Ireland?

A. I grew up in Northern Ireland and studied at Coleraine High School.

After my A-levels I went to Australia for what was supposed to be a gap year, to work out what I wanted to do. Now, 27 years and a husband and three children later, I'm still here. We'd had family members who had emigrated, and I think Australia just always seemed so far away. It was a dream.

Q. When did you discover you had a religious calling?

A. I was brought up in a household where people were very committed to their faith.

It wasn't just about going to church on a Sunday. People were very committed to doing good, especially in places like Africa, so I saw their faith as very real.

However, for me, coming out to Australia was really an opportunity to see how much of that was actually my faith.

When I was aged four, I had told my father that I wanted to be a missionary.

He thought I meant Africa but I actually said, 'no, I want to be in the land where Skippy comes from'.

Anywhere I could see practical Christianity, I wanted to be hands-on.

I hated injustice and it made me cry to see people on both sides of the community not seeing others as humans created in the image of God.​

Q. Did growing up in Northern Ireland strengthen that view?

A. Absolutely. People here in Australia do not talk about whether people are Protestant or Catholic.

They talk about whether people are believers or followers of Jesus.

Q. Tell me about your church.

A. Bayside Church is a non-denominational contemporary Christian church.

We are finding that in Australia denominations are becoming more and more obsolete.

I was brought up as a Presbyterian but to try and find a Presbyterian church here is almost impossible.

They are either a united church or independent. It is very different to back home.

Also, in Australia, you won't have anyone coming to church unless they have a faith, whereas in Ireland they tend to go because it is the thing to do.

Q. It seems Australia is more progressive as a society - is that fair?

A. We are a very humanistic community. We have an incredible tolerance for everybody.

In our local area only three shops put up Christmas decorations. The rest are scared to use the Nativity scene in case it offends people of other faiths.

So in some ways we are progressive, in other ways we've gone too far.

Q. Gay marriage has been in the news in Ireland after last weekend's marriage referendum. How does Australia view the matter?

A. We are an accepting church, and we welcome everyone.

We don't ask if someone is heterosexual or homosexual. They are welcome to worship at our church.

However, we do believe that Christian marriage is between a husband and a wife, a man and a woman.

We get this all the time in Australia and it has been a massive issue.

It has become such a big issue that I think ultimately it will get through.

As a church we have to come back to recognising that every individual, regardless of their race, their gender or their sexuality, is made in the image of God and we need to treat them with dignity and respect.

Q. You also helped to establish a home for children in South Africa?

A. My father had an interest in Africa, and I sent a little bicycle out to the African Inland Mission when I was six years old.

A missionary, Arthur Park, was home and came to visit us. I said I wanted to help some of the children and asked could he take the bicycle.

We'd taken a photograph of it, and after we got it developed I wrote on the back of it that I had given the bicycle in the hope that I would one day go to Africa and make a home for these children.

Thirty years later, I went and set up the home. It is based in Johannesburg and has been open for 13 years.

We are working now on setting up another home in Zambia, because the issues there are massive with the Aids pandemic.

Q. You provided pastoral support to two members of the Bali Nine drugs gang. How did you get involved in working in prisons?

A. I was working a lot on the streets with drug addicts in Melbourne with a friend I've known since I came to Australia.

We both became pastors, and we both married pastors.

She married a Balinese pastor, started a church in Denpasar in Indonesia, and got involved in prison ministry.

There was a very prominent Australian prisoner and I prayed for her.

My friend went to visit her, and she asked would I like to come and visit too the next time I was in Bali.

At the time I said I was happy just to pray for her.

Q. When the two Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were arrested in 2005, you were initially unsympathetic.

A. I wrote in my prayer journal, 'How dumb can you get and still breathe, nevertheless Lord, show Your mercy'.

If you'd told me that I'd be up to my neck in mercy 10 years later, I'd have thought, 'No, there's plenty of people who can do that, I won't be one of them'.

Q. So what changed you mind about them?

A. About four years ago I was in Bali doing a conference for my friend.

She said the boys knew I was in town, and would love me to come in and pray for them.

The Bible says "I was in prison and you came to me", so I thought it was the least I could do.

And so I did, and I was so taken by how inspirational they were and how they had reformed themselves inside the prison, Kerobokan.

I told Andrew as I was leaving that if I could help with anything to let me know.

Two weeks later, after I got home, I had a letter from Andrew listing all the ways he thought I could be a help.

And so that's how it started, and I began to get involved with the other prisoners, including Myuran.

I started to develop a relationship with the boys, never thinking it would come to this, never thinking they would be executed.

Q. You were a spiritual adviser for Myuran in the hours before he died - how difficult was that?

A. It was quite extraordinary because I have helped many people pass away.

They have normally been dealing with an illness or at the scene of a car accident where it was quite evident they were not going to make it.

Myuran was so focused on making other people around him comfortable and thanking them and forgiving them.

Even the guards who were about to shoot him, he forgave them. He forgave Indonesia, he blessed Indonesia.

There was such strength and courage.

Q. What happened on the day of his death?

A. As I led him out of the cell we started to sing Amazing Grace. The guards were shackling him and making sure he was OK.

Some of the guards were crying. Some came up and gave him a hug, and he tried to hug them back.

It was quite an extraordinary sight. About 40 of them made a guard of honour for them as they were leaving.

Some of the guys who were waiting to take them away took their masks down and said "Please forgive us, please forgive Indonesia".

It was so profound, it was quite incredible.

You were walking them to their certain death. There was no way out of this. You know this is their last moment. You are the last voice of kindness they will hear, you are the last face that they will see.

The responsibility of keeping that memory alive for their families was quite surreal.

Q. There had been some confusion as to whether you would see Myuran that day?

A. Yes. The authorities were saying they would not let us across to the execution island, even though we had been approved.

There were so many different issues we had to deal with.

Eventually we heard from the very top, the attorney general and the president, that the executions would be carried out according to law, so I knew I would be going.

Even then, the one thing which is predictable about Indonesia is its unpredictability.

I was prepared to go, yet knowing they could change everything at the very last minute.

Q. Tell me about going to the island where the executions took place.

A. We got on to the island and said goodbye to the other civilians, the lawyers and so on.

Then we were taken off into the dark of night - the spiritual leaders and the military.

We were each sent to the solitary confinement cell with our prisoner. We had a good 90 minutes with them, before walking them out and taking them down to the killing field.

They got us in line so that we would walk out alongside our prisoner.

I'll never forget the sound of nine people walking, shackled, in the stillness of the night, and these shackles making a noise.

And then suddenly, out of nowhere, Andrew Chan started to sing Mighty To Save.

It was like a gift to everyone there. You could feel the courage rise up in the guys.

Then we were brought in to see them in their final three minutes.

Q. What was that like?

A. They were on the pole and they were singing.

Myuran's first words to me were: "I'm so sorry to ask you to do this, but someone has got to speak up, and I know that you will. I've chosen you because I know you hate the death penalty and you are not afraid."

I promised him I would speak up. I told him he could be sure of that. We talked over some of the things we had spoken about in the cell, and I prayed with him.

You couldn't see anything except for your prisoner's face, but I could see the green light of the laser beam lining them up.

I didn't want Myuran to see that, so I lifted my arm.

They tapped me on the shoulder to go, and I just said "one minute, one minute".

They lined him up underneath my arm.

Q. Then what happened?

A. I told Myuran just to remember what the Lord has said to him.

I said, "You've forgiven these people", and he said, "Yes, I've forgiven them".

He started to sing Bless the Lord.

There's a line in that song which says "Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes".

We'd been singing that song since January knowing full well that the evening would come.

I also had the total faith that the same courage that had got them to this point of rehabilitation would be the same courage that would enable them to face a bullet with love, compassion and forgiveness.

Q. What were the final moments like?

A. I started singing with him, and they came to me again because I was the last one left and I knew I had to move off.

I said "Myuran, I'm just going to take a step back, are you ok?" And he said he was.

I told him to keep singing and that I would see him on the other side, and he replied "I'll see you on the other side".

I told him I was taking three more steps back, and asked him could he still hear me, and he could.

I said "Love you Myuran, I'll see you on the other side".

He kept singing.

There was a sheet of black plastic that they pulled down.

They were still singing.

Then the next moment a hundred rifles went off.

The velocity was such a shock to me.

I wasn't expecting the noise of it. It threw my whole body forward. There was a massive noise.

Then my ears pricked up, because I wanted to hear if they had died instantly.

It was really important to me because we had been told that if they didn't die instantly that they would be left between seven to 10 minutes and we would have to go and witness them being shot in the head.

I was praying that would not happen because I didn't want the families to deal with that.

There was no noise, nothing.

There had been singing, now there was silence.

They were dead.

Q. You are very clear it was the wrong thing to happen?

A. Indonesia lost two of its greatest weapons against the death penalty.

I had taken some of my daughter's friends from school in to visit them - young adults who might be dabbling in drugs.

After going in there they never would take a drug.

Now we've killed two people who can say how they have been there, done that and regretted it, and it's just such a terrible waste.

Q. Did you cry?

A. No, because I was so filled with the atmosphere of love.

They had turned a place of slaughter into a sacred place.

They had turned a horrible, heinous thing into an honourable thing.

The least that I could do, if Myuran had shown so much courage in his last minutes before facing death, was face life with such strength.

Q. There is also a British national, Lindsay Sandiford, on death row.

A. I'm involved with Lindsay as well and that is just a horrendous situation.

I have never met someone who has faced such bad management of her case in her life.

The British diplomat there has been dismissed because of inappropriate behaviour with one of the other prisoners.

I was there the day [Foreign Secretary] Philip Hammond said that the government wished her all the best, but it couldn't defend her.

It couldn't provide a lawyer for defence, unlike other countries who disagree with capital punishment.

It is a whole other story. I need to get back to see her soon.

Q. So despite the deaths of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the fight goes on?

A. The fight has to go on. We're in 2015 and killing someone is never right.

Long prison sentences? Absolutely. Appropriate prison sentences? Absolutely.

These men weren't asking to get out of prison. They wanted to stay there and to actually stop other people ending up there.

They were the best educators because they knew the system - and we've lost them.

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