On Saturday, I joined a group of twenty-six Student Lifers in an outreach across the Central Coast. What made this experience particularly memorable for me was that I was able to share it with two of my closest friends. My soon-to-be sister-in-law Gemma and her best friend Emma. Together we formed the trio of ‘Emma, Emma and Gemma‘. Such fun!
Both these girls are locals with amazing hearts to see the Coast come to Christ. They have strong missionary backgrounds and I was so honoured to see how welcomed Student Life made us all. I was pleased to see my two worlds – home life and uni life – interacting so well.
Perhaps the most helpful part of the day was the morning worship and mission statements. Macquarie Uni missionary, Gareth reminded and encouraged us that God is ultimately sovereign and the day’s results belonged to Him. If we let Him take control, we are freed from any sort of guilt or pride depending on the outcomes.
Gareth reminded us that a ‘no’ is to be celebrated in as much as a triumphant ‘yes’. How counterfeit and conceited it would be if seven people are used by God to bring one person to Christ, and only the seventh person is allowed to celebrate it. The seventh person has merely reaped the harvest, but only God knows the amount of work the former six had put in the ripening process.
God is sovereign even over a violent declination.
Why did this speak to myself, Gemma and Emma so much? It is because we’ve grown up on the Coast. We know these people well because we’re part of them. We knew a lot of us would be facing some hard no’s and this would be otherwise very discouraging if we did not grab hold of this perspective.
But something did disappoint me a little on Saturday. I looked at the list of outreach locations. Terrigal, Tuggerah, Avoca, The Entrance. All affluent areas.
Who is bringing the Good News to those who need it? Sure, the rich need saving too, but it pains me to see that once again the broken are neglected. Are we the doctors who only come for the well and not the sick? (Mark 2:17).
I’m a Coastie. I’ve lived here since I was born in Gosford Hospital two decades ago. I’ve seen a lot of changes here. Some good, but unfortunately mostly not.
On our way to our outreach spot on Avoca Beach, I was chatting to Gareth and Chris, my partners, about the spiritual climate of the Central Coast. I was struck by a sense of shame. I’ve never been one to share the ‘Coast pride’ that keeps this place together, but this was different. I was genuinely embarrassed of the world I grew up in.
What’s happened to me? The Coast is so beautiful. I love the train ride home marvelling over God’s handiwork as I leave Sydney and enter the picturesque landscape of the Brooklyn, Hawkesbury River region. I love the relaxed atmosphere of Wamberal Beach on a calm spring day. I love the Coast. Don’t I?
At Avoca Beach, we split up into groups. Emma and Pip, Ginny and Gemma went their separate ways. Chris, Gareth and I spoke to a couple groups of teenagers. The normal types I see everyday on the Coast. Caucasian, brightly coloured hair, smoking teenagers.
Although I felt about as useful as a chocolate teapot, I hope something I said resonated with them. My lack of words to speak to these fellow Coasties hurt my pride.
The stories they told, I could relate to. I nodded my head in equal disgust as they explained the local phenomena of ‘Woodport Wednesdays‘. The disgusting cesspool of sleazy values and fogged, drugged out memories. These guys and girls were no different from most of my friends in high school. Broken families, searching for work, down and out, looking for happiness in all the wrong places.
Happiness. That is what drives us isn’t it? The pursuit of happiness.
The Coast is a popular tourist destination. People come here to find happiness. So why aren’t we who live here happy? Because we can’t escape. For nine months of every year, we’re forgotten until summer roles around and Sydney decides our worth again. The tourists come, armed with their sunscreen and Vodka. They take up space on our beaches, they eat at our cafes and they pity us.
All we ever get from Sydney is pity in the form of their finances. Oh, you have a problem? Your roads are covered in potholes? Teenage pregnancy and suicide is at an all time high? No jobs? Throw some money at us and we’ll keep quite for a while. It’s so convenient that the help comes in summer, what else do we have to offer but pretty beaches and tanned bodies?
I remember going to a careers expo in high school. The teacher asked where I saw myself once I finished school. I told him I wanted to study law at Sydney Uni. He smiled and told me it’s nice to have dreams then handed me Ourimbah campus brochures.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing intuitively bad about studying at Ourimbah. But the action spoke to me. Our hopes of a better life seem just like that: dreams, fantasies, irrational thoughts we best keep to ourselves.
Truth is, although I’m not studying law, I did make it to Sydney Uni. It can happen! But we are not encouraged to do it. Instead, we’re force fed a lie that we don’t belong in Sydney. We’re better off staying here, where we’re safe.
Safe? I live in Narara, affectionately known as ‘The Ra’ to locals and ‘The Ghetto’ to Sydney-siders. It’s actually quite affluent compared to the surrounding Wyoming (‘The Ming’) and Gosford (‘Gossy’).
Within walking distance from my house is Narara Station where countless young people have taken their own lives. Even some of the people I went to high school with have met their end there.
When I was in year six, a girl from my school was murdered on her way home from school by a disgruntled ex-boyfriend. They were sixteen-years-old. Even still, it hardly dented the news world. No-one cares about the Coast.
As I head to work, I drive down the main road, Manns Rd, past two brothels. I don’t want to think about the girls who work there. How many of them have been sold false hope, likely trafficked here in search of a new or better life? How many of these girls do I know personally?! How many of their clients do I know?
But it doesn’t stop here. I know where to buy drugs. I know who’s taking them. I know people who have been abused by their own families in horrendous ways. I know that Gosford CBD is never a place you want to be alone. I’ve seen vicious street brawls between young women as I avert my eyes and pray the traffic signal changes colour so I can get away and forget what I’ve seen.
I see the homeless, the hurting, the broken and the mentally unwell on a regular basis.
One day as I was coming home from uni, I stepped of the train and saw two young women, no older than myself. One was passed out on a park bench, the other was shouting incoherently. Both wore alcohol and vomit as their perfumes. It was 3.30pm in the afternoon. I walked past them and into my comfortable middle-class life.
I wish I could say this is the underbelly of the Central Coast, but unfortunately it’s not hard to find. You don’t have to go looking for this. It finds you.
So what is being done to fix it? We have plenty of churches, how are they ministering to the broken people of the Central Coast? Sad to say, most of them aren’t.
There are some I can name who are doing valuable work in soup kitchens, op-shops and Christmas hamper drives. I know many with a heart that yearns for the hardest hit to come to Christ. Myself included. But unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working.
So what’s stopping it? Ignorance? Lack of resources? Not enough manpower? A combination of all of these I’d say.
I remember a girl in Sydney asking me about the Central Coast. She had heard that a new church had started up here when a major Sydney evangelist moved into the area.
“Great things are happening on the Coast” she told me. I smiled politely. If only you really knew.
Sydney preachers and church planters come and go quickly on the Coast. Each of them believes they are going to be the newest prophet to bring our simple people to a God-centred revolution.
I want to believe they will, but as far as I can see, they haven’t brought much change yet.
All it’s done is made us more skeptical. We’re hardened to scandals in the church because we’ve seen so many that we expect them. Effectively, Sydney preachers are generally just soaking up the sun before they head further north to Newcastle or back to Sydney with a sense of defeat.
How do we reach people who have a preconditioned position to resent Sydney or Newcastle Christians? I think the answer is in our attitude.
Don’t be ignorant of the problems on the Coast. A simple ‘peace be with you’ will not help the plight.
The apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church explains that we must become like those we are trying to reach (1 Cor. 9:19-23). This is the key.
I’m not saying you need to try drugs, get horribly wasted, cover your body in tattoos or get some strange piercings, just don’t be ignorant.
Gareth explained that this was the reason he got his tattoo. I respect that a lot, but I’m by no means saying it’s for everyone.
I don’t have any tattoos or strange body art. I wear glasses and hair bows for goodness sake! I’m hardly ghetto by anyone’s description.
All I’m asking is that we do our homework. Find out the local hangouts, the problems that face the Coast, the local jargon (e.g. ‘The Ra’ and ‘The Ming’!) and above all else, listen to the locals!
You don’t have all the answers and by-in-large we just want someone to hear our struggles. You have something valuable to impart, but you will not be heard if you enter acting like you’re the saviour of the Central Coast. That’s not your place.
I have no doubt that whatever God is doing on the Coast and indeed in the world, is amazing. But leave it in God’s hands.
It’s a Student Life mantra. We keep saying it: Success in witnessing is taking the initiative to share God’s love in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to Him.
Do you really believe that? Can you really do it?