I was 26 when I left my work as a country parson to take up the prestigious position as the Minister of Cheltenham Church of Christ Victoria. This Church had the reputation of being a very large and alive Church. But that was a mirage. The reality was quite different as this young country parson was soon to discover. The life of a suburban Minister has some real surprises.
I received a letter, written on the letterhead of the Mentone Girls’ School. It was signed by the President and the Secretary of the school’s Inter-School Christian Fellowship and asked me to address their Christian lunch-time group for girls in Form Two. The church at Cheltenham at this time was growing and expanding very rapidly and I had so much to do that talking to Form Two girls outside of my local area was not really on my agenda. But the letter signed by the Secretary, Judy, underlined the word “would you please come”. I felt I ought to go.
And that’s how it was one Friday lunch-time I attended the Mentone Girls’ School and met with the President of the class group, and the Secretary who had written the letter. They were a couple of nice kids about thirteen or fourteen years of age. The President, Josephine, was tall, quite beautiful in appearance with long hair. She was already developing as a statuesque young woman even though she was in the second form. She was a vivacious personality and a very attractive person all round. The Secretary, Judy, was obviously her close friend. She was short and stocky and quite a plain girl with short reddish hair. Before I met the lunch-time Inter-School Christian Fellowship they took me to meet the Head Mistress. She was a very professional confident woman and immediately put out her hand and greeted me. “Mr Moyes, I have heard much of you. I encouraged Judith to write to you. I am so glad you came. I am a Christian myself and if you don’t mind I would like to sit in on your class, just to show the girls I support them in what they are doing and I approve of your being here.”
That wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I was probably in my late twenties or maybe had turned thirty at this time and I had a residual fear of Head Masters of either sex and to have one sitting in on the class during a lunch-time talk to the girls was not what I had prepared for. However, I presented what I had prepared to the best of my ability and the girls obviously liked and responded well. After class the Head Mistress invited Josephine, Judy and myself to a cup of tea in her office. She spoke glowingly of both girls and then dismissed them. Then, turning to me, she said, “We do not have any religious education in this school and it is something that concerns me. I am wondering if you would take responsibility for speaking to all of the girls each week. Obviously I cannot ask you to take all of the classes, but if I arranged three assemblies grouping the girls from Forms one and two into one assembly, Forms three and four into another, and the girls from Forms five and six into another, you could talk to all eight hundred girls in just three sessions. I’m quite sure you’d be very capable of doing this and it would make a great difference to our school and what I’m trying to do here if you would so help me.”
I was very awed by the confidence she had in me and by the earnestness of her request and that’s how it came about that I spent every Friday morning in the first three periods after the morning recess speaking to the girls on the great issues of life and faith in three classes each of roughly two hundred and fifty girls. I used a lot of audio-visual aids, overhead projectors and movie film each week and had a talk, a presentation of film, carried on some discussion, had a bible reading and prayer and somehow the whole thing worked. I continued those Friday morning seminars at the school for the next ten years.
And every Friday from Year eight until they left in Year twelve, Josephine and Judy, together with a few other helpers, would meet my car when I arrived in the car park and help carry the movie projector and other materials for the seminars over to the Assembly Hall. They were good helpers and very eager to help me set up. Josephine blossomed over the years. She was tall and beautiful with long hair and a figure that would be admired anywhere. She was a sports loving girl with a vivacious personality and great gifts in music and drama. How so many competencies and blessings could be in one person I didn’t know. In just seemed unfair to the rest of us. In her final year she was the school captain and made an excellent student representative, confident and sure with a wonderful Christian faith.
At her side always was Judy. Judy continued to be short and plain and nature had not helped her with her short reddish hair. But not only that, she was uncertain about most things and needed to follow Josephine’s lead. I don’t know her sporting record, but probably she was not good at sports, or debating and I am quite certain that her name never reached any honours board. She was just a quiet, hesitant and uncertain lass. But Judy took confidence from Josephine and was obviously happy just to bask in the warm glow of her friend, and Josephine, to her great credit, enjoyed Judy’s friendship and always included her in everything. After a year or so of getting to know them they became regular attenders at the Cheltenham Church. Not only did Josephine become a member of our church, but she brought her mother and father and brothers as well. Judy likewise became a member of the church and very soon, because the church was filled with young people, they were active in our youth activities, sporting teams and soon into Sunday school teaching, the youth choir and generally having a full and happy life. It was not long before Josephine rose to the top and became a leader in youth work. She’d already been Prefect in her school, School Captain, and eventually Dux of the school. Boys gathered around her and she flirted outrageously. Judy was loyal, supportive, always there, in the shadows unseen.
Judy started to come to me at this time seeking counselling. Why was it that she had no boy friends? Why wasn’t she smart like other girls? Why wasn’t she an achiever in this life? Why did she have so many doubts about herself? Why was it that she could never be really happy?
I spent many hours counselling Judy. One thing was sure, time spent with Judy wasn’t wasted. She listened carefully, weighed up the situation and, guided by what we both felt best for her, undertook certain actions which certainly made a difference in her life. She accepted her limitations, stopped trying to compare herself with Josephine and sought to be herself.
In 1972 Josephine turned twenty one and there was a tremendous party thrown by her parents. I guess more than two hundred people attended the party. There was lots of music and dancing and good fun. And through it all Josephine just glided, taller than all the other girls, more regal and more beautiful and around her a whole swathe of broken hearted young men. She was a queen bee attended by drones on every hand, waiting for her smile of approval.
Judy of course also turned twenty one that year but I cannot remember if she had a party or not. Josephine’s birthday party was certainly a great celebration and only this week I looked up the notes of a speech I gave at her twenty first birthday which reminded me of a number of these events.
It was about this time that Josephine started going out with Doug. He was the son of a market gardener in our church, a quiet dour market gardener who had a son who was quiet and dour like his father. In a way Doug was everything that Judy was except in a male version. Doug was quiet, reserved, faithful, with all the qualities of an old cocker spaniel. Everyone wondered when Josephine chose Doug. “What does she see in him?” they asked. But Josephine was absolutely certain and confident. She had chosen Doug and Doug followed faithfully behind with Judy trailing even further behind. Over the next two and a half years there was a constant stream of activity over Josephine’s wedding plans. It was to be the wedding of the year, fashionable, beautiful, and Josephine’s mother was as excited as any mother of the bride. Like Josephine, she also was a tall and handsome woman with very regal posture and although it sounds funny these days when we have been used to seeing Dame Edna Everage, she wore a blue rinse in her hair and diamante spectacles that went up on the outside corners. They were a fine family and good friends to us. Certainly the wedding at which I would not only be minister, but also at which we would guests, would be a highlight of the year.
On the night before the wedding I conducted a rehearsal for the bride and the bridal party. Everybody was around wishing them well, and giving them presents. Some time after midnight that night there was a knock at my front door. It was Josephine and Doug. They wanted to talk to me they said. Josephine came in with Doug following quietly behind. She took up the matter straight away as we sat in my study, “I don’t think I love Doug. I think I should call the wedding off.” Josephine went on to talk at some length about her feelings for Doug in front of him. Poor Doug just felt devastated, he sat silent, defeated and humiliated. Josephine talked on and on and I was quite sure that every sentence must have been like twisting the knife blade in his heart. I suggested that Doug leave us in the study and go and sit in the lounge where my wife was waiting for me to finish talking to them before we went to bed. I knew that she would entertain Doug and try to get his mind off the issue while I tried to calm Josephine.
I counselled Josephine that I had met a number of brides who the night before the wedding had reconsidered the situation about their suitability for each other. I asked her to try to identify what the basic problem was between them and asked her to try to clarify her feelings. Was it Doug’s personality? Was it some feeling of inadequacy in him? Or was it some inadequacy within her? Was it the fear of sexual intercourse? Was it the fear of limiting her life which, up to now, had been so full of life and vitality and moving from one person to another that she wasn’t ready to just entrust herself into one person’s hands. Did he satisfy her own needs for stimulation and excitement? As I asked those questions her mood changed. Yes, she did love him, but she just didn’t like some aspects of his personality. Yes, he did satisfy her needs and yes, he was all that she could want in terms of faithfulness and loyalty and consideration.
I asked, “Do you think your love for Doug could grow given time?” She thought for a while and replied firmly “Yes, I will grow to love him. I’m going to give this marriage my best endeavours.”
I called Doug in and suggested that they talk with each other for a while and I went out and sat with my wife. I could hear her speaking, “Doug I need you to help me. I will be a faithful wife. I will try to love you with all my being.”
They left that night holding on to each other more closely and intently than I had ever seen them before.
It was a wonderful wedding. Josephine looked radiant and Judy was there as bridesmaid, fearful and timid. Before we went down the aisle I thought I was going to have more problems with the bridesmaid than with the bride. “Are my flowers okay? Don’t start yet, I’m on the wrong foot.” But she was glowing in the reflected glory of a beautiful bride.
Doug and Josephine made a good couple. They have been faithful to each other ever since the day I married them and she certainly tried to grow in love. They came to our home and had meals with us on several occasions. The Young Adult Fellowship were frequently welcomed into their home. Doug worked hard and built a beautiful home and then eventually Josephine became pregnant and had the first of their daughters. Over the years since we left Melbourne we have received occasional letters from Josephine and Doug, always appreciative of the time that we spent with them as a suburban minister. And then one day a letter which said, “I have left Doug. I do not love him. I have tried hard. He has been absolutely kind and wonderful to me in every way. He is a good father, a good provider and one who’s been absolutely supportive in everything I have wanted to do. There is no other person involved. Doug is kind and considerate but I’ve decided that I will be better off bringing up our children by myself.”
When I read that letter in Sydney I felt really devastated. There was no other person involved, just the decision of an attractive woman now in her late thirties deciding to live on her own.
After the wedding Judy was really lost. She came to church by herself and went and visited Josephine and Doug in their home but it wasn’t the same. I decided I had to try to help fill her life by activities in the church, so I asked her to help us with a number of needs. Especially with running the Girls’ Club and supporting one of the most difficult classes of Sunday school scholars. She was loyal and competent but still uncertain. Many a night a knock would come at the study door when she would want to ask about some problem, some issue she was facing, some uncertainty, if she could just discuss it with me. When she was about twenty five years of age she met Emmanuel. He, like her, was hesitant and unsure but she slowly led him to faith and into membership in the church. But once more the counselling session, “Is he the right one?” Emmanuel was, and I married them just before I left for Sydney. I received an occasional letter or two and that is how I heard that Judy and Emmanuel shared the delight in the birth of twin daughters, then a son. Emmanuel got a job which took them interstate and I lost contact with them.
Then not long ago on a visit to Adelaide I spoke at an annual meeting of Tele-Friend, a telephone counselling service. There was a gathering of about fifty tele-counsellors present at luncheon. And there was Judy. She came up to me, “They call me “Judith” here. I was so helpless years ago but I went on and did courses and graduated and now I teach others. Emmanuel and I are busy in the church and with our family and with Tele-Friend.”
When we had a moment to ourselves I asked, “Do you still keep in contact with Josephine?” “Yes, poor dear, I feel so sorry for her. She’s struggling on her own. I try to help her where I can.”
And that’s the end of the story. Except the other day in the post came this letter: ”
Dear Gordon, I just wanted to send a note saying how thrilled I was to see you and to catch up with you for a few minutes. I wanted to say so much but knew there was not much time so I thought I would write. While space does not allow a lot of details of my past twenty years, through the struggles of the past and the present I have learned so much and I know I have so much for which to be thankful. God taught me some painful lessons but I know He has been there through all of the dark times and given me many opportunities to turn some negative experiences into very positive outcomes.
I have been privileged to just quietly support people through their own difficulties, particularly families who care for relatives with disabilities and parents who have lost children.
Seeing and hearing you again moved me to reflect on those difficult years when you gave me so much support at a time when I could not express clearly what was happening to me and it was not until years later that it all began to make sense.
I want to tell you how much that support meant to me, although at the time I doubt if I earned it, and the impact of your work with me did not really tell until years later. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to grow and your patience with me. While you may not see it, all those times you spent meant a great difference to me. Our love and may God bless you both.” And it was signed “Judy”.
That is the reward of a suburban minister. Often never seen, often only being expressed years afterwards. I still think about the girl friends and about the notes I first made when I went to the study.
That night in my study I spent some time writing up my journal and looking out of the window at the never ending stream of cars stopping at the traffic lights at the corner of Nepean Highway and Chesterville Road, that wide intersection that was dominated by the lovely white Church with the high white tower noting down the events of another day as a suburban minister.