For at-risk youth at a Taiwanese Christian boys home, unicycles are character-building vehicles
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On a 100-degree summer afternoon, several giggly middle-school girls in New Taipei City, Taiwan, attempted to mount blue and yellow unicycles, gripping a metal pole in their school’s basketball court with one hand and their friends with the other. Repeatedly, the one-wheeler slipped out from beneath each girl as she lost balance and tried again.
The girls’ unicycle instructors for the day, four teenage boys, stood off in a group chatting, too shy to approach the girls. The boys were from Faith, Hope and Love Academy (FHL), a Christian boys home in Taipei, while their pupils attended an all-girls boarding school. To help break the ice, I finally asked Sam Gu, a skinny sixth-grader in glasses, to teach me to ride. He wheeled over an adult-sized unicycle and told me to hop on.
I held on to the metal pole and Sam’s shoulder to mount the contraption: A unicycle has no handlebars, so I worried about tipping over to the right, left, forward, or backward. One fall left my calf with a bloody scrape from the unicycle’s pedal. Riding a unicycle, I quickly learned, takes focus, balance, and perseverance: Even with Sam’s help and instruction, I couldn’t go more than a few feet before tipping over.
As I leaned on Sam’s shoulder, he shared his own story of perseverance: His mother died when he was an infant, and his father beat him. He bounced around five foster homes where he says he suffered abuse until finally coming to FHL. He liked the boys home because no one hit him there. Also, he was no longer alone: At the academy, boys attend Bible studies together, learn to play the guitar, and practice riding their unicycles at a local park.
Focus, balance, and perseverance. Those are the values Pastor Ming-Cheng Huang wants to instill in the boys at FHL, some of whom are juvenile delinquents and others who, like Sam, come from broken homes. Huang says it takes 100 falls before a rider can master the unicycle. In the process, the rider learns the payoff that comes from hard work and determination. Huang believes that boys who conquer the unicycle will carry that confidence into other areas of life: finishing school, finding a job, and facing the trials of life head-on. Those skills are important for anyone, but especially for troubled kids. For the past 10 years FHL has been using unicycles as character-building tools in its Christ-centered youth program, with impressive results.
THE UNICYLCE was born of the penny-farthing, a bicycle of the mid-1800s with an oversized front wheel and small back wheel. The back wheel was mainly for stability, but soon inventors developed a contraption without the back wheel or handlebars. The unicycle proved much more difficult to ride than the bicycle and became the favored mode of transportation for clowns and circus performers.
As the design of the unicycle improved—with some models even suitable for off-roading—unicycling developed wider appeal, although only a small number of enthusiasts still take it up. Studies done in Japan found that children who learned to ride the unicycle were more successful in school and in life, presumably because riding the unicycle engages different areas of the brain and requires immense concentration. As a result, in 1989 the Japanese education ministry added unicycling to its elementary school physical education curriculum. Today, you can see children in Japan zigzagging around during recess on unicycles purchased with donations from the Japan Lottery Association.
In 2006, Su-wei Lu, a probation officer in Taipei, read about the Japanese studies and told Huang that if his boys wanted to learn to ride, he would give them five unicycles. Once the gleaming vehicles arrived at the boys home, Huang offered a challenge—anyone who managed to stay on a unicycle for 10 minutes without tipping over would receive $300 in scholarship money. At first the boys eagerly tried to master the one-wheelers, but as they kept falling, they grew frustrated and gave up, leaving the unicycles to rust in a storage shed.
A while later, Lu came to the home to teach the boys to ride personally. To further encourage the boys, Huang, then 62 years old, declared he would learn to ride as well. “If I, an old man, can do it, then you can too,” he told them. After one month of consistent practice, not only Huang but all the boys had learned to ride the unicycles.
Slowly, the new riders increased their mileage: First they rode 5 kilometers, then 10, then 50. Then Huang decided to do something that might have seemed a little crazy. He determined to take 30 boys on a grueling 1,000-km (621-mile) ride that summer to circle the island of Taiwan in 20 days.
As the boys trained, news of the trip spread and a film crew showed up to make a documentary of the adventure. Cameras followed the boys, ages 7 to 20, as they rode their unicycles in a line, arms outstretched, on the shoulder of busy roads, with a medical van and pace cars rolling alongside. Bystanders cheered as they passed. The boys sometimes tumbled off the unicycles—once even getting into a multi-unicycle pileup—but Lu and Huang encouraged them to get back up and keep going.
At one point, the boys took on the challenge of a 5-mile uphill mountain climb on their unicycles. Remarkably, every one of them completed the ride. Afterward, a few boys refused to continue riding, saying they were too tired. Tension rose between the staff and the boys, and that night Lu told the group that if anyone wanted to leave, he should raise his hand and they would send him back immediately. The boys, some in tears, kept their heads down, but none raised their hands.
The boys kept riding—through a typhoon, their wheels zipping through puddles and their bodies struggling to keep balance against gusts of wind. Fights broke out, and one boy briefly ran away. But in the end, all 30 crossed the finish line. There, cheering crowds welcomed them and smiling police officers handed them medals and watches commemorating their accomplishment. After the trip, according to Huang, every one of the boys went back to school.
“It built up their will, their persistence, their self-confidence, and their courage,” Huang said. “If they can do the most difficult thing, there’s nothing they can’t do.”
I SPENT A FEW DAYS with the 50 boys of FHL in 2015 on their annual summer trip to see firsthand their unicycling performance—this time at Pingtung Prison in southern Taiwan—and the results of FHL’s distinctive blend of unicycling and Christian compassion. Between the prison visit and free time spent snorkeling, swimming, and visiting a night market, the boys were well-behaved, waking up at 6 a.m. and obeying their strict but caring teachers.
The evening before the performance, a group of older boys stood under the balcony lights of their hotel to practice a song and dance routine, flanked by guitarists and cajón drummers. “Smile,” barked their singing teacher, warning of consequences if they refused. “Once we get this right, we’ll go get sodas from 7-Eleven.” Most of the boys wore the pained expression of a typical teenager being asked to perform a dance number, but one 18-year-old with a faux hawk and skinny jeans stood out with his enthusiasm. Kenneth Liu said FHL has turned his life around.
Liu had run away from home in middle school, joined a gang, and started selling drugs to support his own drug habit. By age 15, he was on the run from police, hiding at a fellow gang member’s house until someone snitched on him and officers arrived at the front door. They gave Liu a choice: go to juvenile detention, or spend two years at FHL. Liu chose the latter.
At the boys home, Liu had a schedule for the first time in his life—Bible studies every morning and evening, school during the day, unicycle and music practice in the afternoon, and a 10 p.m. bedtime. The first time he took a test in school, he was surprised to find he got the second-highest score in his class. “I guess I’m capable of studying,” Liu thought. Yet old habits clung on: He still fought, smoked, and drank in secret.
Once, he snuck out for a New Year’s Eve party and returned the next morning to find a blurry-eyed teacher awaiting him. But rather than yelling at Liu, the teacher hugged him and said: “No worries, at least you’re OK. Don’t do this again: We were just worried.” Liu felt guilty and confused—why had they shown him compassion? He decided he wanted to change.
Liu stopped fighting and became a leader to the younger boys. He professed faith in Christ and learned from church volunteers how to play the piano, violin, guitar, and bass guitar. He reconciled with his mother, with whom he’d had a poor relationship, after learning how much she had gone through as a single mother with only an elementary school education. Even after his court-ordered two years were up, he determined to stay at the boys home until graduating high school in 2016.
‘God allowed these things to happen so that I could come here, I could learn the guitar and the unicycle, so that I could see new worlds.’ —Kenneth Liu
Looking back on his life, Liu believes that God “allowed these things to happen so that I could come here, I could learn the guitar and the unicycle, so that I could … see new worlds.” In 2015, he left Taiwan for the first time on a trip to America with several other boys to share their testimonies at Chinese-American churches and ride unicycles along the U.S.-Canadian border.
THE MORNING of the unicycle performance in southern Taiwan, a bus packed with FHL boys in matching bright orange shirts stopped in front of the imposing Pingtung Prison, its barred windows glinting in the sun. Inside the penitentiary, the boys and their teachers set up a stage while more than 1,000 prisoners in gray button-up shirts and black slacks filled in row after row of plastic chairs, under the eyes of alert prison guards.
Three teachers—one a former inmate at the prison—took to the stage to speak of how God brought them from wearing prison uniforms to mentoring vulnerable youth. Afterward, Huang invited anyone in the audience who wanted to attend college after leaving prison to get in touch with him: “We don’t show you [these testimonies] to say how good they are, but to show what you can become.”
The boys then performed songs about praising God in the desert, while some of the prisoners sang along. Next, four students brought their unicycles onstage for their choreographed presentation: With dexterity and skill, they grabbed one another’s arms, unicycled in tandem, and weaved between one another, their feet pedaling back and forth.
The performance wasn’t just a display of skill. It was a powerful illustration of transformed lives: Former inmates had turned from paths of crime to invest into troubled youth—and now, those youth were defying the odds and investing back into the lives of prisoners.
The day ended with Huang challenging the inmates to envision their lives after leaving prison and noting that only Christ can bring true life change. As he shared the gospel and made an altar call, dozens of hands went up. Tears rolled down some prisoners’ faces.
DURING LIU'S TIME at FHL, he hasn’t only seen prisoners’ hearts soften. He’s seen students around him change under the tutelage of teachers and the perseverance gained by unicycling. One of Liu’s FHL friends loved to fight, but eventually matured and found better ways to resolve his conflicts. Others went on to graduate college and find decent jobs.
Not that every case turns out positively. Some boys have ended up back in prison after leaving the home. Liu said the determining factor of whether a boy will succeed after leaving FHL is whether he came to believe in Christ while staying there.
Now having left a difficult childhood behind him, Liu wants to put into practice all he has learned, leading a life that, like a skillfully ridden unicycle, is balanced and upright. A few months ago, he started college classes to pursue his dream of becoming an actor.
“I’ve found that ‘freedom’ isn’t real freedom,” he said. “Real freedom is found in having rules.”
Faith, Hope and Love Academy is an offshoot of Taiwan's Born Anew Prison Fellowship, and all of the teachers at the home are former convicts who have come to profess faith in Christ. These men know firsthand where the boys will end up if they continue down their path and want to point them toward something better.
During the group’s visit to Pingtung Prison, guards recognized and greeted one FHL teacher—Longquan Chen, a soft-spoken, white-haired man in his 50s. Chen knows the prison well: It was there he first heard the gospel more than a dozen years ago while serving time for selling heroin.
Chen remembers a group of Christian amputees visiting the prison to share their testimonies. That night, Chen couldn’t sleep. He thought back to all the times he should have died but didn’t. His limbs were intact, yet he didn’t have the joy the amputees had. So he prayed to God, repenting and resolving to change his life. He spoke with a pastor at Born Anew, and at the age of 38 decided to complete his middle-school and high-school education. After Chen’s release, he lived at Born Anew’s halfway house, then began working with the boys home while continuing his studies. Today, he’s a college graduate.
Chen says he didn’t want to work with kids but felt God was telling him, If you don’t do it, who will? They’ll end up in prison. “Not everyone,” he says, “can manage these kids.”
Another teacher and ex-con, Lin Zhenhong, had similar feelings when he first started mentoring boys at FHL. He’d never interacted with kids before, and felt afraid. But once he met the boys, he realized they were younger versions of himself with one big difference—they had men in their lives to tell them right from wrong.
Lin grew up in a broken home where his parents were busy fighting instead of providing for him, so starting in the third grade, he gambled to obtain enough money to eat. By 17, Lin started shooting heroin and by 35 had been imprisoned three times. During his third stint, Born Anew pastors came and spoke about the gospel, and Lin professed faith in Christ. He began reading the Bible and decided to join Born Anew after his release, knowing that old habits die hard.
The drastic changes in Lin’s life shocked his mother and Buddhist sister, who had become accustomed to his false promises to get clean, and they too came to profess Christ. Lin got his GED diploma, studied at a seminary, and started serving at FHL. There he met, and later married, a Christian elementary-school teacher. Today Lin, his wife, and their two young daughters live at FHL full time as house parents to eight boys.
Lin noted that, walking out the prison doors, he never knew what his future would hold. But “God accompanied someone who was a druggie and gave me so much grace,” he said. “With these kids, I feel so moved knowing that God has allowed me to find the meaning of my life.” —A.L.
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