Reporter Nicholas Boyack has known Paris Winiata since he was a young rugby league star at St Bernard’s College in Lower Hutt. The high-profile Destiny Church member refuses to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
A week ago, Paris Winiata stood on the steps of Parliament at a demonstration, organised by Destiny Church, and addressed the crowd. He appealed for an end to Covid-19 restrictions.
“During this Delta lock down my wife and I lost our 14-month-old baby,” he told the crowd, speaking about the death of their son Goshen. “Those are the hardest days – not just for myself and my wife as parents, mourning the death of their child, but for my family and friends who were not able to attend his tangi.”
Winiata told the crowd that he was just one of many ordinary New Zealanders who had “suffered” during the pandemic-induced lockdown.
Few in the crowd would have known Winiata’s backstory and how he became a member of the controversial church.
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So this week, I sat down with Winiata, who I’ve known for years through sport in the Hutt Valley, to ask him about it. I wanted to better understand someone who could easily be written off as a conspiracy theorist or member of a rowdy fringe.
Winiata had previously told me that, as a young man living in Pomare, he felt unloved. He had a difficult relationship with his parents and, after having to fend for himself at 15, he came in to contact with the Mongrel Mob. At 17, he was offered a development contract with the Melbourne Storm and moved to Australia, seeking to become a professional rugby league player.
It didn’t work out. He returned to New Zealand and, without parental support and with few life skills, he began selling drugs. A turning point came when he narrowly escaped being caught with a large stash of marijuana – the kind of stash that could have landed him in jail for some time.
At the suggestion of good friend, Chad Evans, he went to a service at the local Destiny Church. He was initially reluctant, knowing he “would have to give up the drugs, and the girls, and the booze.”
In 2018, I wrote a profile of Winiata. “Spend time with him and he displays a gentle side to his character that you might not expect. And that is the funny thing about Winiata, he is a contradiction. Destiny members distrust the media and Winiata is no different,” I wrote at the time.
“Yet the best way to describe him is engaging and respectful. He is articulate and answers questions intelligently, and without malice towards those he disagrees with,” I wrote.
What impressed me most at that time was his commitment to his family, in particular daughter Jireh.
She was born with Charge syndrome, a genetic pattern of birth defects that affects vision, heart, nasal passages and growth. Doctors told Winiata and his wife, Coral, that Jireh’s prospects were bleak.
But undeterred, Winiata raised money to help get cochlear implants for Jireh. A doting father, he learned sign language to help communicate with her. She has defied the odds and can now read and write.
When I sat down with him to discuss his views on vaccination this week, Winiata was visibly stressed but, as always, polite. He made no apology for his views and or for the fact that no one in his family has been vaccinated.
Asked why has he chosen the bible over religion, he responds thoughtfully.
“Why the bible? For me it is the essence of who I am as a man. It is my faith that has saved me from all the things I used to do,” he said. “It has brought me peace, it has brought me joy, it has removed pain and removes sorrow, science has done none of that for me.”
When I put it to them that the science speaks for itself and that the unvaccinated are much more likely to die, he says that does not worry him. “When it is your time, it is your time. You cannot control that whether it is drowning, whether it’s Covid, you can’t control it.”
It is easy to judge Winiata, but is hard to argue with his view that religion has been a game changer for him.
The challenge for us all is to find a way that allows people like him to retain their faith and see science, and the vaccine, as something that is beneficial to him and the wider community.