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.
When I was a young boy suffering from a very bad speech impediment I had to do daily exercises. There were all the normal tongue twister words designed to get gutturals and labials sorted out and correct pronunciations of Ls and Rs, D T and Z sounds, and then a whole lot of sentences designed to relax the soft palate and to discourage stammering. My childhood memory of daily repetition is one of constant misery. Scores of those exercises remain etched in my mind over forty years later. One which really never made much sense to me was used to teach the rising inflection. It was the sentence “Can the Ethiopian change the colour of his skin or the leopard his spots?” I must have repeated that sentence a thousand times. It was only twenty years later, as a young minister, that I discovered that this was a verse from the Bible and it had to do with the caution that was being exercised and the cynicism that was aroused towards people who claimed to be thoroughly converted.
Many people believe that ministers are gullible and that because they believe in conversion, they will easily accept stories of change in people’s lives.
That has not been my experience. I have seen many wonderful conversions but I was always the most sceptical of all. This came from a long history of being bitten by con men.
I hadn’t long been in the ministry at the Cheltenham Church of Christ when late one Friday night a well dressed man wearing a good quality overcoat against the late afternoon cool air and an Irish tweed hat knocked at my study door. He spoke with excellent diction “Good afternoon Padre. I’m sorry to trouble you at this late hour but the truth of the matter is that I have been caught in a very desperate situation and need some urgent help. My name is Ted Maverick and I’m a research chemist up at Dow Chemical Company in Chesterville Road. I’ve been working back after most of my colleagues have left when I received a phone call from my brother in Bendigo. It’s my mother. She’s had a very bad turn and is not expected to last the night. She wants me to come immediately and the trouble is I’ve been caught short. It’s payday today but my pay is paid by cheque into the bank and the bank doesn’t release the money until Monday and I had just made a significant payment in support of my children’s education and it has left me without any cash. I must get to Bendigo as soon as possible and I was wondering if you could lend me £8 … what’s that in these new dollars – about $16 isn’t it? ... I haven’t yet got used to this new fangled money and I still think in the old terms – but I need about $16 to get a rail ticket from here into Spencer Street in order to catch the 8pm train to Bendigo. I really need your help Padre and I would appreciate if you could give me a loan until Monday when the bank clears my cheque and I’ll be able to return it.”
I listened to Mr. Maverick very carefully and invited him into my study. I was anxious to speak with Mr. Maverick. “Your mother has been ill for some time has she?” Mr. Maverick shook his head sideways. “No. It was only less than six months ago that she developed this cancer but it’s gone through her body like a rocket. The poor dear, she’s very weak and feeble. Now my brother tells me that she’s had this bad turn and is unlikely to last the night. I would ever so much appreciate it. I certainly would be prepared to get there by borrowing a friend’s car, or even by hitchhiking, but with this leg of mine I’m no good at driving.” He indicated a limp in his right leg.
I said “Mr. Maverick, I am so sorry. You are obvious caught in a terrible bind. Is that problem with your leg something new or have you suffered from it for a long time?” Mr. Maverick replied “No Padre, it’s not new. I don’t like talking about it really. That’s why I never mention it. But it came as a result of what the Japs did to me during the war. I don’t normally mention this but I had some pretty bad experiences in Changi. However, that’s all behind me now. If you can only help me get a train ticket I’ll be off.”looked at Mr. Maverick with eyes of compassion and said “Sir, if your mother is dying in Bendigo as a result of a bad turn she has had, I will quite readily give you the money for a train ticket to Bendigo. In fact, I can do better than that. I know the Station Master on duty at Cheltenham and all I need do is ring him and he will organise the ticket for you and by the time you walk across the highway and go into the station he will have the ticket all ready for you and it will be made out to Bendigo and it will be a return ticket. I have this arrangement with the Station Manager and he will then sent the account to me. Thank you, Mr. Maverick, I am pleased to be of help.”
I moved towards the door. He put his hand on my arm restraining me, “No. I wouldn’t like you to do that. I know it sounds difficult but it took me a great deal of courage to come to you to ask for this money. I’m a very proud man Mr. Moyes, and I would find it very difficult to face up to a Station Master and receive a ticket as an act of charity. It would do my dignity good if you would just give me the cash and I could purchase a ticket in the same way as any other traveller.”
I said to him “Mr. Maverick, I am willing to give you a ticket to Bendigo but it must be on condition that you pick up the ticket at the Railway Station Manager’s office. I’ll ring him right now and arrange it.” I moved around the other side of the desk, flicked open my Teledex and went to dial a number. He again remonstrated with me. “Look Padre, that’s not the way to do it. If you would only trust me with the money until Monday I’ll be back to pay you. I swear solemnly on the Holy Bible that I will pay you next Monday. You have my word of honour.”
I went round the desk, leant back on it and looked him squarely in the eye. “If your mother is desperately ill in Bendigo I will give you a train ticket Mr. Maverick. I have, however, more knowledge of you than you realise. You might meet many ministers over the months, but I have met you twice before and I remember you quite well. In fact, only about six months ago you were Barney Lopez – I remember your name clearly. You told me in the Ararat Church of Christ that your mother had just contracted cancer and was dying in Sydney and you needed the money to get down to Melbourne to catch the train up to Sydney. On that occasion I told you I wouldn’t give you the money because two years earlier you came to me as Ascot Vale Church of Christ. You had then a story of your mother dying of cancer and you needed enough money to get up to Albury, or was it Mildura? All I know was that I was much younger in those days. I disbelieved you at first but you were such a good storyteller that eventually I gave you the money. However, I was still suspicious. After you left my house I did two things. I followed you at a distance and instead of getting on the tram to go in to the railway station you went into the Bricklayers’ Arms Hotel. I saw you what you did, Barney, or whatever your real name is. Not only that, I went back and rang the Station Sergeant at the Moonee Ponds Police and he told me you were well known to them and that you used about six aliases, half a dozen different stories, and was at that time on a warrant for failure to appear at Court.”
Mr. Maverick looked at me, his face changing into intense anger. He swore at me “Call yourself a Christian! You’re supposed to be here to help a man in time of need. You’re no Christian. Just kick a man when he’s down. I come to you in need and you won’t give me help. Call yourself a Christian? You’re nothing but a ruddy hypocrite!”
I looked at him quite firmly. “You needn’t try that approach either. That laying the guilt on me just because you were found out is exactly what you did up at Ararat. You’re not even a good man Ted – or Barney – or whatever your name is. You forget to change your story. You forget the people you spoke to. And you can’t sustain it. You’re just an old con man. Don’t ever come here again trying to tell me a story of your pathetic needs and your changed lies because I won’t be taken it.”
I didn’t have to ask him to exit. He reached across, grabbed the big door, flung it open and stormed out into the night. Apparently my conversation with him had a miraculous quality because as he stormed out the door and marched off down the path I noted that he had been healed from his limp. All that dreadful treatment in Changi prison camp which had left him permanently incapacitated had apparently disappeared instantly. However, I was much the sceptic and don’t lay any claim to that “healing”.
The fact was the Ethiopian couldn’t change the colour of his skin, nor the leopard his spots.
The problem with developing a healthy scepticism like that is that sometimes the leopard does change his spots, or in this case a whole pack of leopards.
The dramatic change came about with a group of most unlikely young people. As I have told you I had worked in the slum areas of Melbourne and also as a country parson in Ararat as a parole and probation officer caring for more than a hundred young men who had been convicted for car stealing, breaking and entering, violence and in one case murder. I was not anxious in a large and growing church such as the Cheltenham Church of Christ to spend much time in Court work but I found myself inevitably being drawn back to the Court at the request of parents, the local magistrate and the department of police, when young men from our community were in trouble.
Sometimes the call came from the Principal of the High School to indicate one or more young men in usually the third or fourth Forms – the time in life before young men have their career directions and personal values settled – who were being brought before the Courts because of car stealing, joy riding, reckless driving, house breaking and entering and the like. Rather reluctantly I did pre-Court reports at the request of the magistrate and accepted the oversight of probation of some of these young men.
I tried very unsuccessfully to integrate a group of these young people who were on probation into the rest of our youth work.
The youth work was a fever pitch. There were activities to keep young people busy almost every day of the year. Every Saturday, summer or winter, there were more than 250 young people engaged in all the church sporting teams – there were more than 100 in the callisthenics group; three lots of boys’ gymnasium activities; another three of girls’ activities; sub-teen age groups; teenage groups; young teens; older teens; young adults; football; cricket; tennis; netball – the list of activities was endless. Most of these young people were fine Christian young people who were a credit to their faith and to their families.
And then I had this small group of scruffy young criminals. Most of the Church members did not want this group mixing with their children. While they may have had every confidence in the way they brought up their own children, they certainly didn’t want this environment challenged by some of the roughest, rudest and toughest young thugs in our community.
So here was I expecting to minister both to my young lads in trouble who rejected society, the police, the school and their own families and who also felt rejected by the community at large, and on the other hand a huge group of hundreds of young people who were athletic, clean, studious, determined to have a lot of fun in life, and were a great credit to society.
By all reasonable accounts the two would never mix. Until Steve Benjamin came into the picture. In some ways it was a coming together of a unique occasion. It was July 1967. Melbourne was wet and freezing every Sunday night. The tradition of the Church had been that the evening Services in winter fell away dramatically. The year previously I had run a series of special winter evening services and packed the church out. In 1967 we decided to move out of the church down into the Cheltenham public hall, on neutral territory, bring in a Christian jazz band, a group of really up-tempo singers, a whole heap of interesting personalities for interviews and presentations, and dynamic preaching of the gospel. The result was the Cheltenham public hall, which was larger than the Cheltenham Church of Christ, was packed beyond capacity, people were struggling to get in, and the whole evening series over five Sunday nights became a tremendous evangelistic success with the highest attendances for the entire year. We managed to turn our weakest month into our strongest month.
It was at this time I decided we should invite our boys on probation to come to the special series of evening services. On the first night I was dreadfully disappointed. Nobody turned up except Steve Benjamin. Of all the boys I had hoped to influence for God and good during these Sunday evenings, Steve was the least likely. He was big, tough and dirty. He had a criminal record. He only came because I leant on him as his probation officer and he came with a chip as big as a forest tree on his shoulder. No-one else turned up and really he stood out from the rest of that crowd like a sore thumb. Fifty people made commitments to Jesus Christ over those five Sunday nights, and to my surprise Steve Benjamin was the first. I will always remember when I gave an appeal at the end of my address encouraging people to get their lives right with God, to clear up their past, repent of their sin and start off anew, that Steve marched with some sense of purpose down the front. He came so quickly and with such purpose that I felt he had a desire to interrupt the meeting or do something to draw attention to himself. I stepped forward to meet him and thrust out my hand in friendship. He thrust out his hand as well and I remember the feeling as my hand closed over a cold steel hook.
Steve had been in a bad accident that had killed his mother and rendered his father mentally insane. He had been badly injured and had lost the lower forearm of his right arm. From the time of that accident his personality changed and he had spent two years as a vicious criminal. That night he was coming forward to commit himself to the power of Jesus Christ to change him. As I held his steel hook I looked into his eyes and said “Steve, do you believe that Jesus Christ is your personal friend and Saviour who can make your life new and save you from your sins?” He answered very firmly “I do!” I held onto the steel hook and shook it in friendship. There was a long way to go but Steve Benjamin was starting out on the right track. But can the Ethiopian change the colour of his skin or the leopard his spots?
The next Sunday night was absolutely amazing. I had met with Steve each night during the previous week and started him on a very simple exercise of some Bible studies to show the difference that Christ could make in his life. On the second night he brought a group of other young thugs. They were not on probation with me but young men he had met in gaol. Grant—- was a surly fellow with long hair carefully oiled and combed up in a high fashionable style of such young men who wore tight jeans, leather coats and brylcreamed hair. Roy Flavell was another dark and surly looking person. Jim O’Hanrahan came from a State detention home and had been given special permission to come to this church service provided he was back inside the detention centre by 10.30pm. Peter Rooney had boasted of stealing 54 cars within one week and John Cable was an inadequate fellow who also had been in trouble with the Police. Jim O’Hanrahan was confined to the detention centre for another year. And Peter Rooney had outstanding charges for car theft. Yet Steve Benjamin lined up this group of people and they came and sat in the second front row.
That second Sunday night, when I gave an appeal for people to commit their lives to Christ, Grant—- came forward, and he had tears in his eyes. That night I asked Grant why he had come forward and he told me that the previous night, Saturday night, Steve had gathered them all together in the lounge room of the detention home where Jim O’Hanrahan lived, and had read to them the Gospel of Mark. I said to him, rather cynically and not believing all that Grant was saying, “Which part did Steve read to you?” I will never forget Grant’s reply. He simply said “All of it!” I said “All of it? You mean he read all of it?” “Yes. He started with chapter one and read through to chapter sixteen and it took him nearly four hours, and Mr. Moyes Steve can’t read that good either. And yet he read the whole Gospel out to us slowly and loud.”
Afterwards I raised the matter with one of the other lads who confirmed that was what had happened. To my surprise, within one week of making a decision for Christ, Steve Benjamin was actually becoming an evangelist to his own group of people. Grant—- now had committed his life to Christ and during that week I spent time with both the young men going through a basic understanding of what it meant to become a friend of Jesus Christ. BUT, can the Ethiopian change the colour of his skin, or the leopard his spots?
On the next three nights Jim O’Hanrahan, then Peter Rooney, and finally John Cable each gave their life to Christ. That night after the Service we went back over to the church gymnasium where about three hundred young people were having an informal supper. I took over the five young fellows led by Steve Benjamin. Those six young men had all made commitments during the five Sunday nights.
While we were having this informal supper another one of Steve’s mates came up to me and said “Mr. Moyes, I too want to accept Christ as my Saviour.” Another asked me to speak with him privately, and that he had a special need that he thought God might help him with. But the most remarkable thing came from Roy Flavell. While we were having a drink he said to me “My life has changed Mr. Moyes. Today I walked past three cars. They were unlocked – it was hard. I knew I could pinch any of them easily but I didn’t touch them.” He said it with such pride that he had not done something which he could so easily have done it was as if he was saying “I’ve passed the test.”
I had a tough job on my hands to try to help those young men become committed Christians and to integrate them into the life of the Youth Fellowship. But Dougie Hall who was one of our veteran members and a fine young fellow was himself pretty rough and Dougie became the bridge between the fine young people of our Youth group and this rough lot of young criminals. And I am pleased to say that over a period of time the influence of the fine young Christians completely confirmed the young men in their Christian faith and changed their total outlook to society and their future.
Over the next months one by one those boys thanked me for bringing them to Christ. But in fact it was Steve Benjamin who did all the work. Steve had further to come than anybody else. One day Steve came to me indicating he wanted a private chat. I complimented him on the way he had grown in his Christian commitment. He said simply “That’s what I’ve come to talk to you about Mr. Moyes. I’ve told God that I want to be a minister. Will you help me do the studies so that I can get into college?”
Steve Benjamin in fact became a minister. It was a process that took six years and in that time he got married, changed into being a caring shepherd of the flock, and as his first responsibility saw the other young men he had brought to Christ grow in their faith as well.
There are the Ted Mavericks of this world who try to con you and take you down and convince you that they are different people, but in fact they are leopards who have never changed their spots.
But what keeps a minister in evangelical work preaching the gospel are the miracles he sees in the lives of changed people where literally the Ethiopian changes the colour of his skin and the leopard his spots.
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.