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.
In the late sixties I was invited to be an evangelist for the Churches of Christ in New Zealand. By this time I had been preaching in evangelistic crusades in each of the States in Australia, but this was the first time I actually went overseas. It was a great moment in my life. The New Zealand Churches of Christ had written to me many times and told me how much they were anticipating my coming. They would set up all the meetings in seven major cities within New Zealand, and I would conduct a week-long crusade in each city. Each crusade would be back-to-back – that is, starting the very day after the previous one ended. It would be a long haul for seven weeks without one day’s break, but we were young, fit and enthusiastic and the New Zealanders thought that we could cope.
I had a good team working with me. Not only were there crusade committees in each of the seven cities, but there was a good advance party working to get things prepared for my coming. This was headed up by one of my closest friends, Alan Avery, who was with the Department of Home Missions and Evangelism of the Victorian Churches of Christ. He was aided by the Director of Evangelism in New Zealand, Mr. Harold Bischoff. Alan and Harold worked ahead of me throughout the period of the crusades and spent a couple of months before my arrival setting up in each centre. So consequently things were well organised and I caught the Air New Zealand flight over full of confidence about the New Zealand crusade.
We met at Wellington Airport. This was going to become our schedule throughout the seven weeks. The Wellington Airport was our rendezvous. Because the major cities spread throughout the Dominion were tackled in the most un-organised fashion – we would go to one in the South Island, and then one in the North Island – we consequently had to fly each Monday into Wellington. We met in the airport cafeteria and over a cup of coffee and a doughnut discussed the next place I would be going to, and what had happened in the last place. Usually, they had had nightly reports telephoned in about the events of the previous crusade, but I was able to fill them in on many of the details concerning the highlights and problems that we had encountered. They in turn filled me in on what was expected during the next week at the next crusade.
Every week had the same pattern. We would start with our Monday morning meeting in the Wellington airport, and then fly off in different directions – Alan and Harold to prepare the following week’s mission in some city, and I to launch the crusade on the other island. I’d be met at the airport in the new city by a delegation from the committee and taken immediately to a local radio station and then around to the local newspaper office for some interviews, then to meet a gathering of clergy representing the various churches in the area. Each week I was expected to speak in half a dozen schools, to two or three elderly citizens groups, a youth gathering, a family night, a men’s breakfast, do one or two television interviews, record several radio broadcasts and a couple of radio sermons to be used later on, speak at women’s morning teas and afternoon teas, and in all of this still be prepared to be sparkling that night at an evening crusade usually held in some prominent theatre, civic hall or town hall. The local churches had gathered together Christians to form a large crusade choir, there were guest artists, soloists, people to be interviewed, prayer meetings to be attended, and all the last minute details of following up on counselling procedures and making sure the local church was equipped to handle the new converts who would come into membership.
My theme was the same in every city. The sermons weren’t, because I changed them to suit each local environment. I had written ahead to each of the local ministers and asked them to gather all the local papers for the previous five or six weeks. My first task after going to the radio station, newspapers, and meeting the local clergy, was to quickly read through all of the local papers and tear out appropriate pieces of information which would add local colour to the sermons that I had prepared. My theme was “New Life in Christ” and each night in the crusade meetings I would look at a different aspect of living and how Christ would give us new life. This would then be illustrated by various events from their local community and stories of people whom they would know.
But there was a down side to all of this. The constant round of activities – speaking, preaching, broadcasting – was very wearing and demanding. The grind, week after week, played havoc with our health. One of the problems was that the accommodation was poor. If you are on a long and demanding schedule like this it is very important that you have some time to yourself where you are not giving out, not speaking to other people, not asking questions, but in each of these New Zealand cities in order to save money the committee had booked me in with a local host family. Normally, it was the local minister. I found these ministers usually starved for a bit of Christian friendship with someone from outside their situation and all were desperate to tell me of the problems and troubles they were having and asked advice on different things including ministry opportunities in Australia where people seemed to think there was a land of golden opportunity.
It was all very wearing. It would often be after midnight and I would be encouraging the local preacher to go to bed but he was in earnest and slow conversation, wanting me to help him with the direction for the rest of his life. It just simply meant that by the following morning we would be exhausted with another full day of fifteen hours of activities and public speaking. And yet everywhere you went people expected you to be fresh and alert, bubbling over with good humour and Christian insight.
I will never forget the crusade in Christchurch. Christchurch was freezing cold. There was snow all about and the trees bent over groaning under the weight of ice. I had never seen icicles hanging down from trees before. I had never lived in such a frozen, cold environment. My clothing seemed to be quite inadequate for the kind of cold we experienced. Not only that, but the whole week was miserable. There was poor organisation of the crusade. Many of the local churches were not prepared and it had been a last minute hurry-up by Alan and Harold to get them ready. Choirs were only scratch choirs put together at the last moment and the ministers had not done their homework. There didn’t seem to be any contact lists of people who were not yet Christians whom we could visit and speak to about Christ. The only thing about the whole Christchurch crusade was that they did have a good public relations person and as I drove into the city from the airport I faced these large hoardings on the side of the road with a large caricature of myself preaching with Bible in hand, with the words “Hear Gordon Moyes every night – Civic Theatre – 7pm.” That certainly was good for the ego, but there was nothing else about the Christchurch crusade that built up the ego. Night after night I felt I was preaching to stolid heads that were grimly seated with hands thrust down into big overcoats. The cold weather outside seemed to put a dampener on the whole crusade.
The Saturday night was to be a big youth rally. This was their attempt to reach the young teenagers and older young adults who crowded around Christchurch city square every Saturday night. There were groups and mobs in those days, and one called “The Mongrel Mob” had been quite vicious in attacks on other young people. Alan and Harold had the idea we should reach out to those young people and so the advertising for the Saturday night was totally different.
It was held in the Civic Theatre right down town by Cathedral Square. They’d brought in a big Christian rock band from Dunedin and some youth singer who looked and sounded something like Susie Quatro. I was to preach in a leather jacket. This was to be an all-out attempt to communicate with the gangs which infested the heart of Christchurch and all of those young people who were at a loose end every Saturday night. There was no doubt about it. Nothing much happened in Christchurch on Saturday night and as we were in the Civic Theatre with plenty of lights and bright hoardings and loud music it would attract a great crowd.
There was only one thing wrong. The organisers did not look at the calendar. They had arranged for this big youth rally to be on the same Saturday night as the New Zealand All Blacks played Australia at rugby in Christchurch. You only have to meet one New Zealander to know that the All Blacks are the closest thing to God and that rugby is the national obsession. In Australia we at least take an interest in different football codes, but in New Zealand there is only one obsession, and that is to beat Australia at rugby. I had come from Melbourne and I had followed Australian Rules football, barracking over the years for Essendon. I had hardly ever heard of the All Blacks. But immediately you arrived in New Zealand all the talk was about the test match that was to be played that Saturday at Christchurch. I was going to be up against the All Blacks!
The Saturday night youth celebration was a calamity. Very few young people came. In fact, the people we were trying to reach were not there at all. And all of the older young people were still out at the ground celebrating New Zealand’s crushing victory over Australia. There were other great mobs of young people, mostly drunk, out in Cathedral Square but they weren’t interested in our Youth Celebration. There were groups of Canterbury University students who were carousing around the streets, but most of the young people we were trying to reach were still at the ground celebrating. The result? We had no young adults present and no older youth, and no youth gangs. It was an absolute disaster. That didn’t mean to say there weren’t people there. We had plenty of little teeny boppers, kids aged between eight and twelve years of age. They were brought in by their parents and Christian Endeavour Superintendents, and Sunday School Teachers. They thought the night was great, particularly the rock band and the Susie Quatro style singer, and me in a leather jacket. But the whole thing went over their heads. Everything we had prepared was totally inappropriate for such a young audience. I was talking on issues prepared for eighteen to twenty-four year olds – sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – and it wasn’t appropriate for eight to twelve year olds.
When the evening finished I was tired and depressed. All I wanted to do was to get out of the place and get Saturday behind me. At least tomorrow morning’s combined church service held some promise of finishing up on a bright note, but I didn’t want to go to my host’s home. I knew if I went home with him he would want to stay up and talk for the next two hours, having a post mortem of everything, and I was in no mood for a two-hour post morten. Not only that, the previous night when I had come home early, the wife had dished me up a local delight – a plate full of whitebait jelly. Whitebait! They were the little fish we used to use in Melbourne as bait to catch larger fish, and here they were eating them! Little fish with heads and eyes looking at you through the aspic! And it was cold! It really turned my stomach. I was not going to go home for another local delight.
As we stood outside the Civic Theatre downtown, where all the large hotels are, I saw some neon lights flash “Gym – freshen up with a workout!” That’s what I needed. To get out of the oppressive Saturday night environment and take out my energies and feelings of aggression on some weights and rowing machines. If I could have an hour in the gym I’d feel much better. I wanted to freshen up with a workout. So I asked my minister host if he would come back and pick me up in ninety minutes. I didn’t have a suitable tracksuit but I guessed there wouldn’t be many people in the gym at this hour of night. I had my red swimming trunks and towel in my bag because I had hoped to find a heated pool somewhere but there was the gym. There will be no women there. I will be OK in my swimming trunks.
That was my first mistake. Of all the nights of the week I could have chosen, I had chosen the wrong one. Because, from one of the nearby hotels where they had been celebrating came a group of Kiwi All Blacks for a sauna and a rub-down to ease tired muscles and bruises. Eight big Kiwis and trainers. And all of them had been celebrating for several hours their tremendous win. That meant they had all been drinking at some length and were now very noisy and in a great celebratory mood. A couple were lying down on the massage benches, being gently worked over by trainers to get rid of the pain from bruised muscles. Some of the others were just standing around with bottles of beer in hand, drinking straight from the bottle. A few others were working easily on some of the equipment, easing their sore muscles.
I walked out of the change room in a pair of bright red bathing togs, straight into the midst of this group of All Blacks.
“You an Aussie?” a big Kiwi rugby player asked me. I looked around to see if he was talking to someone behind me. He wasn’t. “We gave you a thrashing today. You Aussies are too soft. You can’t beat good old New Zealand boys.” I nodded my head. I should have walked out at that moment. That was my second mistake. I just warmly said “Congratulations. You’re the greatest.” I had assumed, or else had been told just prior to that, that they had won. I was there and so there was nothing else I could do but walk over to the vacant running machine.
The running machine had several dials on it where you could dial up a speed. I was fairly fit in those days and had been an athlete. I dialled up eight and a half miles per hour. That’s a relatively good speed and on the machine I dialled up the distance of one mile. The machine started off with a jerk and I started running along the never-ending black belt as it moved quickly underneath my feet. I was about half-way through the mile I had set myself, when a couple of the big Kiwi All Blacks gathered around and started to chat.
“Why don’t you go faster, Aussie? Can’t you Aussies run fast?” In between puffing I nodded, smiled and just tried to keep friendly. Then one of the fairly drunk players pulled the emergency cord which stopped the machine dead. I rocketed forward into the end of the machine. “I’ll show you” he said and stepping up on to the platform turned the dial up to twelve miles per hour and started off. That’s about four-minute-mile pace and he did well for a while. “That’s how we Kiwis run. You Aussies just aren’t fit!” He ran on for some time until he pulled the machine to a stop and got off.
I walked over to where one of the bench presses had no one about it. That was another mistake. You would have thought by now I would have learned my lesson and walked out of the gym. But I went over to the bench press, lay down and reached up for the bar. I visually noted that it had only about 75 pounds on the bar. I thought I could do some press-ups easily with that. By my newfound Kiwi friends, swigging from their bottles came over and while I was gazing at the bar, just getting ready to lift it off the rack over my chest, they clapped two fifty-pound weights on each end of the bar just as I lifted it off. The bar came down, nearly crushing my chest. Everybody laughed. The beer was making them cheeky. “You Aussies are too weak” one of the big fellows said and everybody roared with laughter. There was nothing else to do but beat a retreat.
I picked up my towel and walked over to the sauna. There already were a couple of men in there sweating it out, clad only in towels. As I reached for the door to go in I noticed on the wall the dials. They were set at ninety degrees Fahrenheit. That was hot, but not too hot. The sauna was made of Scandinavian birch and was beautifully appointed. It could easily fit about a dozen people. I walked in, nodded to the two Kiwis already sitting there with their towels about them, and threw a couple of ladles of water on to the hot rocks. Steam burst up and quickly took the temperature up. It was at that point that the other Kiwis who had been out around the equipment decided to come into the sauna as well. One of the guys just kept up the patter. “You Aussies – just can’t take the heat! You won’t stay in here very long.” It was strange. They were sitting there with their towels around their waists, sweating it out, with perspiration dripping from their heads, and yet at the same time holding beer bottles in their hands and drinking in the fluid.
I sat there for about ten minutes. There was a little sand glass on the wall just near the heater and it was trickling down, taking it’s time. I felt if I got up and left there would be roars of laughter from everybody else because we Aussies couldn’t take the heat. It was almost as if I was representing the whole of Australia. While we sat there sweating it out there was a continuing banter of criticism about Australia, about Australian policies, about this new thing they were talking about called “Closer Economic Relations” and about the general weakness of Australian rugby players. There was lots of laughter and everybody thoroughly enjoyed themselves, except I felt victimised and picked on. I tried to join in with the laughter but that didn’t seem appropriate. Each new person, as they came in to the sauna, threw another ladle of water on and the steam puffed up around our heads. The temperature kept rising and there were more comments about the Australians. As the temperature rose I noticed that something else started to change. The comments were not good humoured as they were originally, but rather fairly spiteful. I didn’t know any of the members of the Australian team that they were talking about, and yet they seemed to hold me responsible for what happened on the field. I decided the only thing to do was to retreat.
“Cheerio fellows. Congratulations on a great win. It was nice to meet you. This is too hot for me. I’ve got to go.” I was greeted with a chorus of replies “Get out you Aussie bum – Aussies can’t take the heat! We Kiwi boys showed you how. You should stay here half an hour like the rest of us do! You Aussies are too soft!” I beat a hasty retreat and as I shut the door behind me I noticed the controls on the wall. They were still set at ninety degrees. But that sauna was capable of taking the heat up to one hundred and fifty degrees. That was the hottest temperature possible in that sauna. I flicked the control around to one hundred and fifty degrees, stepped back in and threw a couple of ladles of water on to the hot rocks “See you guys later. Good to know the Kiwis can stand the heat!” I moved into the locker room, showered, dressed and was just walking out when six Kiwi All Blacks staggered out of the sauna. They were scarlet, sweat was running down all over them, eyes were glazed as they clutched towel in one hand and beer bottle in the other. They were swearing and talking to each other “Jeez, that was hot!” I looked over at the fellows as I reached the far door. “What’s wrong with you Kiwis? Can’t you stand the heat?”
I got out the door as quickly as I could. I hit the street below and the chill night air remarkably refreshed. My host pulled up a few moments later. I opened the door and said to him “It’s a great evening?” He looked at me and said “What’s up with you? You’re a changed man. What have you been drinking?”
I looked at him and said “Nothing, brother. It’s just great to be an Aussie here in New Zealand. There’s nothing like a good workout in a Kiwi gym!”
That night I wrote down some notes in my journal and later when I got home to my suburban ministry after seven weeks intensive work, recorded these events of an evangelist in New Zealand who was really just a suburban minister given an opportunity to preach in another community.
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.