Last Sunday, I finished a two week community outreach to the Central Coast of New South Wales. That’s right; I went on a mission trip to my backyard. Ministering starts at home right?
It was an amazing experience, one that I am so grateful to have had. But there were a lot of challenges that taught me some very hard lessons. All of which I will conveniently summarise into the following list, just for you, dear reader.
But before you do continue, I would ask that you watch this video: Keith Green‘s Asleep In The Light http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wKsIR5qlss – not because I love 80’s Christian power ballads (although I do!) but because it was my personal anthem for SummerSalt 2014, and it really sums up the spiritual climate of the Central Coast, a culture where success is self-made and Jesus is an optional extra. Here, we feel we can afford to sleep in the light.
Now to my list:
- The Central Coast is spiritually saturated and yet spiritually dead
There are more churches per capita than people here. Yet there are so few true believers.
It seemed to be the general synopsis around the Coast with those we spoke to – churches have done a lot of damage. Over two weeks, I saw a cross-section of the Central Coast, but one thing was common: everyone had been burnt by churches.
My heart broke for my fellow Coasties as I heard the horrible things Christians had done to them. And worst still, I had to agree with them. Churches and Christians have left enormous scares in my life.
When I was 12 years old, the pastor from the church we had just started attending told my family we were not to step foot back inside. I don’t even really know why. My family were then ostracised from Christians. Friends I had made now pretended they didn’t know me.
It was painful at such a young age to be treated like that, and to hear the lies that were being said about my family. I don’t want to detract from people’s pain, but I so desperately wanted to show them that Christians can act so un-Christlike.
I wanted to comfort them, I wanted to show them the love of Christ, but I had no idea how to remove the barriers the church has put in their hearts. The last thing I wanted to do was add to the hurt and administer false hope, but I wanted to show them that Jesus was worthy of faith, not the church – Jesus is not the church and He does not approve of what the church has done to hurt people.
We had partnered with a local church, and I was saddened to hear people’s opinion of this church.
“They take our hard earned money, and what do they do with it? They build these enormous buildings and monuments, for what?! There’s hurting people out there, how about sending some of that money their way!”
It grieved me, because I know there are well meaning people in this church, who give a lot of their money and attention to the world’s poorest people. I know that this church does do some good, but that hasn’t changed people’s perception of the money-hungry Christians walled up in their whitewashed tomb.
And worse yet, when we went to this church, I stood with the other Student Lifers and felt unwelcomed. It was a Seeker Service – they were encouraging people to invite their non-Christian friends, and I stood there giving awkward glances to people I went to school with, who wanted to avoid publically acknowledging me. We Student Lifers sat together and congregated together. Safety in numbers, I guess.
“All welcome” their sign read, apparently except for us. I went back to the Resort in The Entrance and cried in the bathroom.
How tragic that the Creator of the universe is tainted by the dirty brush we Christians wield so carelessly.
During my quiet time one morning, I took a walk along The Entrance Beach. As I placed my feet into the virgin sand, I was encouraged by how solid my footprints appeared against the soft sand.
“That’s what is happening when I talk to people about my faith, I leave an impression on them.”
Then I turned around, and saw how many others had walked this way and how many footprints had trampled the sand. How could I tell the difference between mine and all the others?
I was not working with blank canvases. I was working with soiled equipment, trying to un-write the wrongs before I could write in the truth. I was discouraged. But as I walked on, a slight breeze caught my attention.
How do the footprints on the sand disappear, except by the wind? A violent storm will render the sand clear of imprint. I had to pray for a violent storm to disrupt the hearts of the Central Coast and cause people to forget the hurt and focus on Jesus. That was my only hope, and I believe the God I serve is capable of that and much more.
- The Central Coast is filled with Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses
And we are not equipped to handle them…
So many of our team came back into debrief lamenting over conversations had with JWs and Catholics, who were so close to the truth but not quite hitting it.
How do we speak to those people? The ones who believe they have all the answers, and in the case of JWs, are so well trained in their version of the truth? How different would it look if we Christians took a leaf out of the JWs’ book and learnt the Bible as well as they do?
But there is a deeper problem here. Coupled with how saturated the Coast is with churches, the Coast is also saturated with bad doctrine.
The best lies have the most truth mixed in.
How do you develop a tolerance to a violent disease? You need to be vaccinated with a smaller or similar dose of it, so that you can build an immunity. The Western World by in large, and definitely the Central Coast, has been vaccinated to the truth by enough clever lies, now we have no desire to seek an Absolute, purely because we never knew it existed!
- Sydney-siders can quickly adapt a holier-than-thou persona
I loved the team of Student Lifers on SummerSalt 2014. The way they genuinely cared for each other brought a tear to my eye and left me changed.
But, I was saddened to hear how people would talk of the places I live. On the second Wednesday of Project, I organised community outreach with Harrison, from Macquarie Uni.
I decided to send a team to Terrigal Skillion – a major suicide spot on the Coast, that has claimed the lives of two friends and countless others – and to the Imperial Shopping Centre, Gosford. This is my local shopping centre. I get my haircut there, I catch the train from there, and I live in close proximity. So, I was personally offended to hear some of the team referring to it as ‘the dingy shopping mall’.
Sure, it’s no Chatswood Westfield, Castlereagh St. or Erina Fair, but it’s my home and talking about it that way will not warm you to locals.
Despite this rebuke though, I would also like to say how encouraged I was by the team who took the challenge and ran with it.Before heading out, I warned the team that they may encounter homelessness, spiritual depravity, mental illness and so on.
I then watched as Kenny and Vicki approached a homeless man, Sarah and Rosie entered a New Age Spirituality store and several other teams spoke with the mentally ill.
Then upon returning for debrief, I heard a vast majority of the team talk about how they wanted to go back to Gosford and continue the work they had started there that afternoon – including, if possible, volunteering in a soup kitchen.
I was so encouraged to see them step out in faith and minister to those who confronted their comfortable lives!
Of course, the most uncomfortable part of my day was approaching high school friends and evangelising to them, completely aware that if I said something wrong, the consequences would be felt in the form of egging to my house, graffiting my fence or tee-peeing of my car…
- Old emotions will come back to haunt you if not dealt with by God
This was my hardest lesson.
Before beginning Project, we were encouraged to spend some time with God and seek out our individual faith goals. Mine were a little different from everyone else’s purely because it wasn’t so much a mission for me as it was a walk around my backyard.
As I sat in the relative darkness away from the others, I remembered my primary school teacher’s name. I remembered how she publicly humiliated me, encouraged others to bully me and told me to ‘grow up’ when I cried in front of the class. I remembered how she would say my heart was black, my eyes were too dark and my skin would never be washed white as snow.
I remembered the physical and psychological abuse I was subjected to at that school – a Christian school I might add. And I felt God say to me “It’s time to forgive them.”
Forgive them? Of course. I already had, hadn’t I? I never thought of them. I actually thank them, because without the abuse they subjected me to, I wouldn’t have risen to the top and pushed myself to be an overcomer. I am who I am because of them, true.
Game on! I thought. I’ll come face-to-face with this person and show them how wrong they were.
But, on the last night of pub evangelism, I found that I had not forgiven them. The words that were spoken still hurt. I had not dealt with the past, but rather had buried it in a shallow grave that was uncovered as soon as the winds of memories blew the dirt away.
God, in His mercy, did not allow me to come face-to-face with the instigator of my pain, but rather an innocent bystander witnessed my regression back into the painful depths of my past.
David and I approached two young men – recent school leavers – at Florida Beach Bar, Crowne Plaza, Terrigal. They invited us to sit with them before their two friends came back from the bar.
I recognised one of the said friends, but I wasn’t sure where. I’m convinced he did not recognise me. He had attended that very same school, and was talking about some of the teachers there.
I began to panic, shake, hyperventilate and feel the shame wash over me again, so I quickly excused myself and went to the bathroom to call the prayer team.
Hannah answered and prayed for me before I resumed the conversation with this young man.
I went back out there to rejoin David at the table, but the shame had given way to anger. I launched into an attack on this poor young skeptic.
I needed to convince him that I was intelligent, that I have worth.
He hates your eyes, Emma! He thinks you’re disgusting! He knows you can’t read or write properly! He knows who you are and he’s laughing at you! Attack him before he attacks you!
The conversation quickly ended when he excused himself, apparently on edge at the aggression of this pocket-sized evangelist. He extended his hand towards David and myself. I struggled to take it in my own and gripped it tightly with clenched teeth, such was my irrational anger.
As he walked away, the anger dissipated and all I wanted to do was cry. I was ashamed of my behaviour and I fell into Emily’s arms as she walked past to check on us.
I still shook with the pain of the past – I had not been honest with myself. I had not forgiven. I had let the Enemy win. I had believed the lies then and I continued to do so now. I am so grateful to the prayer team that night – Hannah, Emily and Pete – for comforting me.
I am also so in awe of David and the way he handled the situation. I think he was shocked at what had just happened, but he showed no judgment. He listened to my painful stories and prayed with me, accepting that the experiences were traumatic, but assuring me that the words that were spoken were wrongful lies.
I don’t know what I would have done that night if I had not been with such supportive Christians. God is good isn’t He?
- Most of us have no idea what genuine Christian community looks like
I certainly don’t. I mean, I have had a particularly rough trot when it comes to experiencing Christ’s love through Christian community. I dare say, unless God had revealed Himself to me in other ways, I would have become an angry atheist many years ago. But as it happens, I’m just an angry Christian… But perhaps a little less antagonistic these days.
I was so blessed, yet still skeptical, of the love exhibited by the team.
Following the Weekend Away (https://usydstudentlife.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/summersalt-2014-central-coast-mission/), I got really sick. I left debrief and went for a lie down in my room.
As I lay on the couch feeling like death, Mel came in and made me some lunch (which I think James helped pay for!) Unbeknownst to me at the time, Pete had gone to the local pharmacy to pick me up some medicine too.
I spent the rest of the afternoon asleep, before emerging for church that night. I walked through the door, Sarah put her arm around me and asked me how I was feeling. What? People actually cared?! Amazing.
A couple days later, I ate some dodgy meat for breakfast and became violently ill during one of the morning sessions. Hearing my hurls, Vicky came into the bathroom to make sure I was still living.
She and David took me back to my room and let me lie down for a while. Emily gave me nausea tablets and Steph prayed for me constantly on our way to Terrigal Beach. Apparently vomiting is not a great evangelism tool?
It was amazing to feel their love, when perhaps I didn’t deserve it since I had risked my own health by eating the meat (I blame Roachie and Vicky a little though since they cooked it).
But I have a lot to learn about Christian community. Although they cared for me, I continued to wonder when it would end. What did they want from me?
Grace isn’t given for free you know… If Christ gave it for free, I guess it’s only natural we extend it towards each other. Wow. Mind blown.
But the love I saw extended towards those we met too.
At Erina Fair, I watched in awe of Kenny as he offered an elderly man a lift home – which was way out of Kenny’s way, I might add. I was genuinely touched by Ginny and Matt’s care for a homeless man they brought back to the Resort for a night. And I was inspired by the sacrificial love of David who spent way too much on another person’s drinks so that we could continue to have a spiritual conversation with him at Crowne Plaza. That’s certainly putting your money where your mouth is!
The respect we had for each other, the love we extended towards the others in our team, was out-flowing towards the wider community. That is exactly what the Coast needs!
Thank you SummerSalt Central Coast team of 2014, and supporters, you were a blessing to me and to my community! I love you all so much,
Emma – the cool one, not Roachie (teehee).
[Photos: Gareth Watkins and Emma Horn].