2 February 2017
In April 2015, Australians watched the last weeks of a decade-long drama in Indonesia as two of their fellow countrymen faced execution by firing squad. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who had spent 10 years in Bali’s Kerobokan Prison on drugtrafficking charges, were eventually executed on 29 April.
Andrew had returned to Christian faith while in prison, a faith he had been introduced to as a boy through his family’s friendship with the Soper family in Sydney. Majors David and Shelley Soper are Salvation Army officers. Their sons – Luke, Joel and Mark – all Salvationists, grew up with Andrew, his older brother, Michael, and their two sisters, as close friends. Throughout Andrew’s prison ordeal and execution, the Sopers were an ever-present support for Andrew, both in their visits to Bali and in regular communication from Australia.
David was Andrew’s chaplain and was with him in the weeks leading up to the execution, as well as those final moments before he faced the firing squad. He loved Andrew as a son, and chose to walk this journey with him, but does not speak publicly about this time of anguish and pain. Shelley, though, with David’s support, has agreed to share their story in an interview.
Simone Worthing: How has your relationship with the Chan family developed?
Shelley Soper: We were appointed to Enfield, Sydney, in 1988 and within a few days, all the kids in our street had connected. Ken and Helen Chan and their four children lived five doors down and we all became friends. Their boys played with our boys – Andrew was only three at the time and the other children were in primary school.
Not long after we moved in, Ken and Helen began a Chinese takeaway business and worked very long hours. Michael, their eldest son who was 11 at the time, took on a greater responsibility for his siblings and they all spent many afternoons, and most weekends, at our place. We have an enormous respect and appreciation for Michael and love him dearly.
His commitment, love and loyalty to his family remains outstanding and his faithfulness, wisdom and incredible hard work during the arduous years from Andrew’s arrest and imprisonment to his execution, was epic. Almost every year, Andrew and his siblings joined us for family holidays and adventures.
From the first year, our boys refused to go on holidays and leave the Chans at home. So started a beautiful Soper/Chan tradition. In the last months of Andrew’s life, the lasting memories from these holidays were often spoken about and gave us plenty of cause for story-telling and laughter.
After four years at Enfield, we were transferred to Bathurst, but the families remained united and the children continued the tradition of Soper/Chan holidays and visits. In later years, Andrew also joined many a camping trip or sporting adventure with other Salvos youth, that David organised.
SW: What was your role with Andrew, once he had been arrested?
SS: Our role became one of support, ensuring that he got back to God whatever the outcome. Our boys kept doing what they had always done and remained close. Luke left for Bali immediately with Michael and stayed several weeks. Then Mark tag-teamed. They were like brothers, hence their deep pain.
Mark was Andrew’s friend and mentor, making 15 or so trips to Bali in the 10 years that Andrew was in prison. We kept up the family connection with the Chans ... and we shared together in many family celebrations. Andrew often introduced David as his “Aussie father” or “Big Dave” and informed one and all that the Sopers introduced him to Jesus!
Throughout Andrew’s 10 years in prison, God raised up several other amazing men and women who nurtured Andrew. They invested themselves and helped him to grow and mature as a mighty man of God. We thank the Lord for the godly influence and outstanding support given by each one of them.
David was in Cilacap (the closest town to the execution site) for weeks before the execution in April, and had made three trips (to Indonesia) from January. Before he left for that third and final time, there was some question as to whether Mark might go instead, as David had not been very well.
On the morning we were expecting the call to say the execution was to go ahead and it was time to leave for Indonesia, it did not appear that David was well enough. As I waited, praying for God to release him from this, the Lord gave me a very strong word that he had more for David to do. It wasn’t what I wanted for David and yet I longed for Andrew to have David with him.
I had assurance that the Lord would reveal to David his final word and would give him the strength for every aspect of his life. It was only a few moments later that David said: ‘I am going! My job isn’t finished yet.’ This was a confirmation for me, although I did journey in great grief over that time as the enormity of the task began to dawn.
David left for Cilacap, taking Helen, Andrew’s mum, with him. I knew that when David left, I wouldn’t get the same man back but the “rightness” of his role was confirmed over and over by the Holy Spirit through prayer and many other people. There was a deep awareness that God was working mightily in these terrible circumstances.
SW: What was the hardest part of the journey for you?
SS: Seeing David and knowing his heartache and how much he loved Andrew and the Chan family. I saw him on the news a few times being pushed around in the crowds and trying to protect the ladies in the group and I knew this was a tough journey. He did it with great resolve and a sense that he was where he needed to be.
We have many questions, disappointments and “what ifs” but somewhere deep inside we know there is victory in this story. David is back and now, almost two years after the execution, he continues to restore. He has journeyed silently with his grief. He has been physically unwell for a few years now, and the heartache of the Chans’ journey has made life more challenging, but he remains close to the Lord.
SW: How was David able to support Andrew just prior to the execution?
SS: There are so many layers to this story and this is not something David speaks about. It is still too painful. David was with Andrew until just before the end. The Indonesian authorities gave the prisoners and their personal chaplains 90 minutes to spend together before the execution.
David and Andrew were moved from the stifling cell to a garden area. They were surrounded by many armed guards with machine guns and the guards appeared shocked when Andrew and David at times laughed and joked together. When it was time to go, Andrew shook the hand of every guard and hugged some of them. Some shed tears.
There were precious moments following this, including a discussion about Andy’s wedding ring, which had been David’s. Then, of course, standing in front of Andrew at the killing field when he was strapped to the pole. Three precious minutes. David placed his hand on Andrew’s chest and prayed. Andrew spoke quietly, ‘I love you, Big Dave’. ‘I love you too, Andy.’
The chaplains were led into a tent. Andrew was leading the prisoners in singing praise songs and the chaplains joined in loudly so the prisoners knew they were there. David just kept bellowing the songs so Andrew could hear him. When the singing faltered, Andrew called out, “Come on fellas, you can do better than that!”
They sang Andrew’s theme song, 10,000 Reasons. Part-way through, the rifle shots rang out. Silence! In a few seconds the chaplains picked up the praise again and continued to sing. Praise God! There are many layers of this story which are yet to be told but a couple of days after the execution, David came home with Feby (Andrew’s wife) and Helen. Family, friends and supporters swung into preparation for the funeral.
SW: How did you feel about the injustice of the situation, and the imposition of the death penalty?
SS: We don’t believe in the death penalty but we do believe in redemption. In God’s economy, there is repentance, forgiveness and transformation. When people do wrong there is a price to be paid and we all understood that. However, we knew that incredible and authentic rehabilitation had taken place.
Andrew had repented and changed his life and much of the prison had been transformed because of Andrew and Myuran (Sukumaran – also executed with Andrew). We continued to seek for a late reprieve and mercy right to the end. It seems contradictory to say this but there was a definite knowledge within that God had everything in hand and we could trust him with the final outcome.
SW: How do you explain a loving God to people who ask why didn’t he save Andrew?
SS: Our reality was that we’d allowed for God to have the final call. We realised that to be saved from execution may not have been God’s ultimate plan. I could not doubt that God’s hand was on the whole journey, the way Andrew’s life changed, the way his faith became so powerful, tangible, and his relationship with the Lord strengthened people around him. David attests that, in those final moments, Andrew’s faith and certainty in Christ showed on his face. He radiated the beauty of the Holy Spirit and had no fear, just incredible love and peace.
On the night of the execution, Mark and I went to the Chans’ place and stayed with Ken, and Andrew’s sisters and other close family. We talked, told stories, we prayed, we grieved and ultimately we surrendered Andrew into the Lord’s care. Nothing has ever changed for us with the Chan family. We remain close, and celebrate special occasions together. We love them dearly. Michael is also a much-loved uncle to the next generation of Soper children.
SW: What was the impact on your family after Andrew’s funeral?
SS: We knew and loved Andrew from when he was three and celebrated his return to Jesus. To witness that change, his influence on thousands of people and to see salvation come to the lives of others has been faith-building and inspiring. God has been glorified – our greatest desire.
David is now serving in men’s ministry as part of The Salvation Army’s NSW/ACT Division. He enjoys connecting with young fellows, officers, some folk who have concluded their officership and also meeting with men from the community. He builds relationships, speaks life, encouragement and truth. David views life quite differently now.
I see a new determination in him and see that he is certainly a “father in the faith” to many young and even older men. It has deepened and strengthened his faith and although he found it hard to read God’s Word for some time, God is very present and active in his life. David’s main spiritual gift is mercy, so to go through all of this, seeing so much hypocrisy and no mercy, has made it even more difficult for him.
My faith is stronger and I am more determined to be intentional in faith and practice. Whatever seeds were sown, God has nourished and continues to grow. In the worst of circumstances God usually does his best work. In the first weeks after Andrew’s arrest we were able to get a Bible to him. In the back of the Bible we had pasted a family photo and “Three reasons why you need Jesus!” This remained Andrew’s “family” Bible until the end. Andrew came to love and cherish the Word of God. Andrew was resilient in spirit. His strength was not bravado. His faith was strong to the end. In this, God gets the glory.