When I was studying to be a Minister of the Gospel my student churches were two adjacent wooden churches in the inner slum areas of Melbourne. For seven years, during the 1950’s and 1960’s, the people of these inner slum areas were my Parish.
Many of the families connected with our church were very poor. In spite of the fact that the husbands were in employment, they were nevertheless some of the unfortunates of this life who never get on top of their situation, never enjoy good health and who always are fighting against the effects of poverty. One such family was the Wilson family.
A finer Christian family you could not imagine. Yet they were always struggling with poverty.
The Wilson family were a remarkable family, in that there was only one young son, yet they went out of their way to open their home and welcome all the boys that I had brought to the church who were on probation to me.
As the only Probation Officer in the slum areas, I had the responsibility of trying to straighten out the lives of boys who were in trouble with the police and had been sentenced by the court. Over the years I had over a hundred boys, most of them sentenced to 104 weeks of probation, although some had been sentenced to 156 weeks.
What a colourful lot they were.
There was Joe, who was awkward and used his great strength to show off in front of other young people in the area. I remember one night after a youth club meeting when Joe walked up the street, and in order to show his toughness smashed every pane of glass with his bare fist, in every phone box along the main road. His fist was lacerated and bleeding but it did not deter him. He just went from one telephone box to the next smashing the panes of glass in succession. Yet after three years of persistence Joe committed his life to Christ, became a committed Christian, married a fine young girl and started an entirely new life. Such was the remarkable power of the Gospel.
Others did not respond in spite of all our best endeavours. I remember Reggie quite well. At 13 years of age he was a convicted car thief. By 15 years of age he had a long list of car stealing convictions behind him. He earned money from one of the major panel beaters in Mt. Alexander Road. Palmeri Motors would have a car in for panel beating. They would notify this young thief and say they wanted a certain make of car and model, right hand front mud guard or left hand rear door and he would steal the car, remove the part and sell it to Palmeri Motors for 120. His speciality was stealing Mini Minors for engine parts.
He had been in and out of remand centres and youth training centres where he had polished up his car stealing skills. The magistrate was at his wits’ end not knowing what to do with him. So he released him on probation to see if I could work in his life one of the life changing miracles that had occurred in the lives of so many other boys on probation.
We influenced Reggie but we never really changed his character. He went through a long period of time in his life when car stealing was replaced by other interests and we thought for a while that we had changed him. But it was always my conviction that only the changing power of Jesus Christ could make a long term difference to a person’s life. Reggie stopped stealing while he was under our direct care but the thrill of the crime and sometimes the thrill of the chase by police when he was driving a stolen vehicle dominated his life.
I remember giving him a final talking to after 104 weeks. I congratulated him on keeping out of trouble for two years. Now he had the chance to go straight for the rest of his life. He thanked me and my newly married wife profusely for opening up our home to him so regularly and for allowing him to find a place where he could come every week to talk with me. Then he produced his parting gift, a thank you present in appreciation for all that I had done for him. From behind his back he produced a brown paper parcel. As I pulled the thick twine undone and opened up the brown paper my heart began to sink. Inside the roughly wrapped unusually shaped parcel there was a metallic clink. Inside were four slightly used hub caps for my Volkswagon!
Years later I was sitting in my car at the traffic lights in Cheltenham, Victoria when a big white American Thunderbird convertible drew up beside me with its roof down. It was a striking car, so large and flash. I could not help but look at it. It was being driven by a young man with Brylcreamed hair swept back into waves and a large pair of sun glasses. He was leaning back behind the wheel with one hand on the steering wheel and the other waving out to me, “Hello Mr. Moyes, hello Mr. Moyes”. I stared at the driver, I could not recognize him.
I thought I had not seen him before but the big mirrored sunglasses made it difficult to see who it was. Suddenly he took off the sunglasses and called out, “It’s me, Reggie!” I stuck my head out the window and called to him, “How you getting on Reggie? What are you doing these days?” “I’m doing well, Mr. Moyes. I own my own used car yard in Frankston these days!” and off he drove in the big white Thurderbird convertible with a puff of blue smoke coming out of the exhaust. He was one leopard whose spots did not change.
Some of our boys were just mischievous. Lee had a souped up old Holden FJ with a straight-out exhaust. It made the most incredible noise. Lee was always being picked up by the police for having an unroadworthy vehicle with an exhaust that emitted too much noise. But almost every night after work Lee would drive his FJ down Epson Road past Flemington Racecourse, do a wheelie up Union Road and then stop in Munroe Street outside the police station. There he would rev his car engine to ear shattering noise. The police would inevitably stop typing or writing out notices for lost dogs and rush to the front door of the station, but a huge cloud of engine smoke would be the only sign of the disappearing FJ Holden as it roared around the corner.
The Wilson family understood what I was trying to do with these boys and they opened their home to welcome them. Reg Wilson was the salt of the earth. He was employed as a storeman at a small engineering works and received only a very limited wage. They owned a small house and drove a Morris Minor which was the pride of his life. Everything about them was small. The car was small, the single fronted house was only 18 feet wide, he was 5 foot and his wife who was called ‘Littlie’ Wilson was shorter than that. They had a long and happy marriage which produced no children. They had adopted a young boy and sought to give him a steady home life. He was a thin, gangling youth and was called by the other boys ‘Willy the weed’.
His mother, ‘Littlie’ Wilson enjoyed bad health. She would spend most winter days rugged up in a dressing gown, tucked into bed with a big quilt drawn up about her. Reg would make her a hot cup of tea before he left for work and he came home at lunchtime to check her progress. Reg was a genuine, warm hearted, loving man who dearly loved children and gave his time trying to support some of my boys. He would examine their car engines, and talk to them about mechanics, and advise them on what they ought to do with the beat up old cars many of them drove. His own little Morris Minor was a picture of neatness and cleanliness. The engine ticked over like a Singer sewing machine. At least once a month he would religiously remove the head, adjust the tappets, do the points and clean the spark plugs. With someone of such mechanical knowledge about the place, our boys were always coming to their home to ask him questions about their own vehicles.
His son, ‘Willy the weed’ never got into any trouble. He just skirted around the fringes of it.
He came to our boys club and Sunday School and then to the youth club. He never really understood the change in his life that Jesus Christ could make. I spent some time talking with him to work out why he felt so insignificant and had such low self esteem.
I came to the conclusion that a major factor was that he did not live with his own parents. He had been adopted by this little couple and had grown up so obviously not taking after them. He had a chip on his shoulder about the fact that he was not really their child and that he did not look like them. That chip got bigger and bigger over the years and his whole outlook became twisted. I was concerned that this young lad was going to move from being on the fringes of crime into becoming an active participant. It seemed that doing wrong and anti social behaviour were going to be his way of making a mark on the world.
His school reports were terrible. His progress was limited. His behaviour was getting worse. What could we do to help ‘Willy the weed’ pull out of this downwards spiral ?
I decided that I needed to give ‘Willy the weed’ a place of some significance or prominence in some activity so that he would find that he had capacities and abilities beyond what he currently saw, and that he could make a mark on society without becoming a criminal.
It was important not only to rehabilitate those boys that were already in trouble with the police, but to keep those boys who were not, with clean records.
After spending a lot of time agonizing about how we could get ‘Willy the weed’ with all of his limitations in a place of prominence, I decided that the best way would be by producing a drama.
It was a difficult task. None of our people had any dramatic or acting skill. I was convinced that ‘Willy the weed’ could play a part if I spent enough time with him. I recruited a number of adults to play the adult parts including my own Auntie Mabel who lived nearby in Moonee Ponds, and old Harry McEwen and a few others who were good hearted people. They understood what I was trying to do with these young boys.
Then I came to ‘Willy the weed’. I said to him “I have a difficult task for you to undertake which is going to require the very best person I can find. I believe you can do the job for me. I want you to play the part of a crippled boy in this drama. He has a twisted leg and it requires a tall, thin actor who will be able to play the part in a convincing manner.”
‘Willy the weed’ looked at me and laughed. He thought I was making fun of him. No one ever asked him to do anything important. “Willie, I mean it. It is an important part and I want you to play this young lad. In fact, the part in the play is the key character. I know you can play it well.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, always frightened to lift his head up properly. “Do you mean it ?” “Yes, I mean it Willy. It is an important part. In fact, it is the key role. I want you to be the leading actor”.
He looked at me from downcast head out of the corner of his eye “Do you really mean it ?” For a third time I stressed that I really meant it and that I believed that he could do it. Suddenly, his head snapped up and he turned round to his mates and shouted across the church hall, “Hey everybody, I’m going to be a somebody”.
He never realised the implications of what he was saying. All of his life ‘Willy the weed’ was trying to be a somebody, and at long last we had given him that chance of changing from a nobody into a somebody.
I did not realize, however, what a difficult task that was going to be. Night after night we rehearsed the lines. The boys who were taking part were all bad readers and seemed to have even worse memories. If ever anybody had the task of pushing back the rolling waves, or trying to roll a millstone up a hill, it was me. I went over and over the parts with the people, as a group, and as individuals. They found it hard to remember. They could not understand even basic English. I had to explain the meanings of words, the inflections of the voice and then try to encourage them into natural actions. They were all awkward and fumbling. They tripped over each other on the stage. Their actions were the most awkward that you had ever seen.
I despaired that this drama would ever be produced.
Little did I know it, but the key lay in ‘Willy the weed’. He tried, but honestly, he was terrible. He could not read. He could not remember the part. Any time anybody laughed at him he would be sunk in absolute despair. On one occasion trying to read his lines during a rehearsal, he stumbled over some words and when everybody burst out laughing at his mispronunciation ‘Willy the weed’ physically slumped down onto the floor in a heap.
I was at the end of my patience. Jumping up on to the stage I did something I had never done before. I shouted at the boys to keep quiet and to have more sense. I literally picked up ‘Willy the weed’ by his shoulders and shook him furiously. His head lolled from side to side as I shook him. He was like a limp rag doll. I shouted at him “Listen ! You are a good actor. You can understand how this boy feels. Everybody thinks the boy in the part is a hopeless, no good jerk just because he’s got a twisted leg and is disabled. You can understand what he felt like. This boy in the play is disabled. I have chosen you for the part because I think you are the most sensitive boy here. You can understand what it must be like to grow up all your life with a twisted leg.” Eventually the shouting and the shaking stopped. ‘Willy the weed’ looked at me in a different kind of light.
He did understand what it was to play the part of a disabled boy with a twisted leg. He could do it.
In a desperate gamble I asked the cast to turn to the last scene. This was where the crippled boy suddenly discovers that in spite of a crippled leg, he could run through the power of Jesus the healer. I told Willy to throw away his book and to say the lines that came into his head. It did not matter whether they were right or wrong but to just act out how he felt as a crippled boy who had just been healed by the power of Jesus the healer.
Everybody fell into their parts. Willy the cripple boy was touched by the hand of Jesus the healer. He acted the part superbly, almost transformed. I shouted encouragement as he repeated his lines without fault. Somewhere in the back of his memory he had retained those words and they now came out. At the point where the person playing the part of Jesus touched his leg and declared him healed, Willy slowly drew himself up, his hands rubbing his leg, touching it, flexing it and then taking one step and then another and then beginning to run.
At this point Willie surprised us. The actor in him took over. He began to add words and lines never written “I’m healed ! I’m healed ! I can run ! Praise God I can run. Thank you Jesus. Thank you for all you’ve done to give me new life”. He ran across the stage twice. He faced the audience, stretched his arms, and shouted out the words. He then added some actions which were again not in the script. He suddenly jumped from the stage and ran among the empty seats where the audience was going to sit, crying that he had been healed and that Jesus had made a difference to his life. Then he ran out the front door of the church hall and up the street. A couple of actors on the stage wondered what had struck them but a couple of others naturally fitted into acting the most extraordinary natural responses.
The moment was electrifying. Suddenly I realised that we had not only a transformed drama but a transformed actor. ‘Willy the weed’ came back in and everybody burst into applause. From that moment on the drama was transformed. Everybody found life and vitality. A couple of weeks later a packed house was gripped by the emotion and the realism of the play and ‘Willy the weed’ became the centre point of an incredible amateur production.
His great success in that role flowed over into the rest of his life. Crowds of people crowded around him afterwards proclaiming his success and marvelling at his ability. His father Reg, seemed to grow a foot or two in height and ‘Littlie’ Wilson, his mother, suddenly felt better. He was the centre of a crowd of people. Several people spoke with tears in their eyes about what had happened in the drama to move them so.
It was the greatest night in the life of ‘Willy the weed’.
What he did not realize was that when he played the part of a disabled cripple who was transformed by the touch of Jesus Christ, he was actually playing out his own life. He made a commitment to Jesus Christ. His own life received a healing touch. The chip on the shoulder disappeared. He was baptized, became a member of the church, a regular reader of the scriptures in church services, a leader in the boys club and eventually elected into office in the youth club. Years later I married him and he became a productive citizen in society.
It was not long afterwards that short Reg Wilson suddenly died and ‘Littlie’ Wilson was left a widow. But ‘Willy the weed’ had grown up and in more ways than one stepped into his father’s shoes. He became the support and solace of his mother.
A miracle had occurred not only in the life of the boy on the stage whose twisted leg was healed by a touch of the Master’s hand, but the tall gangly youth who had had such low self esteem had been changed too. ‘Willy the weed’ died that night on stage and Terry Wilson, his real name, was born. He no longer was a nobody. From that night on he was a somebody. He lived up to the level of the expectations of people because of the life changing touch of Jesus.
Well, that was one miracle that I did not really expect to come out of that drama. At least that was what I thought that night as I walked out of the church hall into the heavy air with the wind blowing from the abattoirs, started my motor bike and headed back towards the College of The Bible to train as a young minister thinking of my meeting with some of God’s children in the slums of Newmarket.