Connections November 2023
“I always assumed I’d know what the end of my rope would be like, but I didn’t. I’d seen and done horrible things—but this, this was the worst day of my life.”
As a gang member, 17-year-old Matt Bergen had been in many dangerous situations before, but this was the first time he was unequivocally terrified. The police were closing in on him. “I knew I was in deep trouble,” says Matt. “I tried to end my life, but the gun jammed. I couldn’t believe it. So I prayed instead. I prayed a desperate prayer that if God was real, he needed to show up.”
And God did—immediately and in big ways. Inexplicably, a series of events led Matt to receive mercy. He came back to God and turned his life completely around. Today, eight years later, Matt works at Greater Vancouver Youth Unlimited as a youth worker, with a focus specifically on gang members and incarcerated youth—arguably the most marginalized and difficult segments of society. But if Matt’s life has taught him anything, it’s taught him that no one is too far gone, and nothing is impossible with God.
Raised in a Christian, two-parent home, Matt was taught that loving Jesus and going to church was important. But familial struggles mixed with issues of purpose and belonging pushed Matt to the fringes.
At age 15, in Southern Manitoba, Matt start doing drugs, and by 16 he was engrossed in the lifestyle. While it was enticing, Matt wanted out. He had gotten himself clean and when his family moved to Alberta, he saw it as a chance at a fresh start.
Once there, Matt attempted to get involved with the local church. Unfortunately, the first person Matt encountered made it clear that youth group was not a place for “someone like him.” While Matt now knows that misplaced fear was not a church value, at that life juncture it was a damaging encounter.
Matt walked away feeling angry and betrayed. “If a faith community wasn’t a place where I could be included or loved,” he says, “I was going to go find a place where I could be known. And that’s when things got really dark and twisted.” Matt jumped into a dark lifestyle wholeheartedly. He joined a gang, immersed himself in heavy drug use and dealing.
“But it all crashed down that fateful night. “When you’re in a gang, you subconsciously know it only ends one of three ways—the hospital, locked-up or six-feet under,” says Matt. “But until it’s staring you in the face, you don’t get it.” Miraculously, Matt emerged from the darkness alive, shaken and without a charge to his name. The wake-up call pointed Matt back to God. He left the gang, finished high school and enrolled in Bethany Bible College.
Once at Bethany, Matt set out to become a youth pastor. “I thought, if you’re a Jesus-follower who wants to help kids, that’s what you do,” he explained.
“But it wasn’t until an inner-city trip that Matt’s life calling clicked. “While most Christians feel more comfortable in a church than on the streets, I suddenly recognized the reverse was true for me. I felt at home there. I realized that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
In June 2015, Matt left his inner-city work in Winnipeg to join the GVYU team. Today he works mainly with gang members and incarcerated youth at Burnaby Youth Custody.
“”There’s something about Matthew 25 that’s so beautiful,” he says. “‘When did you come visit me in prison?’ Jesus is talking about the demographic that today often gets left out: those who are incarcerated.”
“While Matt is experienced, his job is anything but easy. “When you finally jump through all the hoops to get access,” he says, “at first the kids don’t really want anything to do with you. Their hard backgrounds have hardened their hearts. But you have to go in there and just talk with them and listen.”
“Fortunately, Matt’s unique past provides insight. “My experience helps me understand that world. I know how desperate you can feel; how you don’t see any way out.”
Through Matt’s role, he has helped many young men find jobs, housing, a connection to a supportive community and help on their faith journey.
“As part of the family of God, I believe I have a responsibility to walk with those who are hurting, alone, and left to fend for themselves,” he says. “I do not claim to have answers to their pain, but I agree to walk with them for the long haul.”
Support YU with Healthy, Sustainable Food!
Youth Unlimited is partnering with SPUD to help us reach our fundraising goals. You can help us by ordering a box (or 10!) of local, organic produce, delivered straight to your door! 25% of that goes to YU.
Here’s how it works:
1. Create an account at SPUD.ca
2. Choose organic produce boxes you want to order and add them to your cart. The boxes are listed on the SPUD Fundraising page under the Home tab. Or enter www.spud.ca/fundraising
3. At checkout, enter the promo code FUNDRAISING and select Youth Unlimited from the drop-down menu.
4. Complete your order. Your order will be delivered to your home or office.
5. 25% is donated to Youth Unlimited’s work with vulnerable youth!
Eating local, healthy and organic now tastes EVEN better!
Art Auction at the Sky Hanger
Join Youth Unlimited at a semi-formal art action featuring creations made by YU teens. Funds raised support the Creative Life program in East Vancouver.
Friday, September 16
7PM — 10PM
18799 Airport Way #170, Pitt Meadows map
If I had to pick a hero, someone who faced huge obstacles in their life but found a way to overcome them, I would choose my wife Sherri. To this, some would say, “aww, how sweet,” and others would say, “aww, how predictable”; I honestly don’t care, because it’s true.
Sherri was abandoned by her birth mother, a source of much emotional, mental and physical pain. Dealing with the pain of abandonment was a difficult road to navigate and in her teens she began struggling with anxiety and depression. As her husband, I have been walking with her for over 20 years, seeing her face this pain head on, determined to live a fulfilling life.
While I am prone to hide my pain, Sherri courageously shares hers. I have watched in amazement as Sherri has shared her story with others struggling in similar ways. Whether showing them where to get help, or offering friendship and a listening ear, I have seen the beauty in the shared experience.
In this month’s Connections you will meet one of our Youth Unlimited staff, Matt Bergen, another hero who isn’t simply overcoming the pain in his story, he’s using it every day to help some of the most vulnerable youth in our society.
Matt courageously shares his story in a way that is helping to transform the lives of incarcerated youth. Matt believes in the words Paul wrote in the Bible:
“We can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Romans 8:28)
Over the years, I have learned it is always God’s desire for us to go and share our stories, whether we want to or not. God never wastes our pain—only we do that. God is an expert at bringing good out of bad.
Because of you, we can share our stories with kids who desperately need to know that as painful as their stories are, they too can experience God working it into something good. Because of your investment, you too, are a hero like Sherri and Matt and we can’t say “thank you” enough.