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 those inner slum areas were my parish.
I had started preaching in those two little inner area churches before I even went to theological college. My first sermon there was just after my 18th birthday. Before I even commenced university studies and theological college studies I was already preaching week by week. It was most unusual for someone so young to be appointed as a student minister. In fact I was consistently reminded that I was the youngest ever to be so appointed and that if I did not perform consistently well in my studies then the church work would be withdrawn from me.
However I was totally committed to the idea of being a pastor and therefore worked very hard both at studies and at being a student minister.
Like everything else I was ever to undertake, I went full bore taking on far too much but always accomplishing far beyond my expectations.
I had won a scholarship to Melbourne University and I was committed to studying full time at the College of The Bible in Glen Iris. The College regulations prohibited me from taking any further studies but I wanted to get as much completed in as little time as possible. So, without telling the College authorities, undertook additional subjects in classical Greek, a language I had never previously studied.
In one year I attended a private coaching college plus evenings with a private tutor and decided to sit both for Year 11 and Year 12 exams at the one time. Commencing without knowing one word of Greek and passing at the matriculation level of Year 12 all in one go was going to demand a lot of effort. I carried Greek verb endings around on pieces of paper in every pocket and made translations of the simplest speeches of Plato and Socrates in the back of other books. I wrestled with the reading of the history of Heroditus and the marvellous wars and marches of Thucydides and Xenophon.
At the same time I was heavily involved in athletics and playing several sports.
My girlfriend Beverley, with whom I had been going steady since we were 13, used to ring me faithfully every day during my lunch hour and I would slip away from lunch to spend a delightful 15 minutes in the telephone box away from the prying ears of the 60 other students in the College. We only saw each other on weekends and she helped me by typing up sermons, essays, and long university dissertations.
At age 19 we were engaged and planned to get married just after our 21st birthdays. Our birthdays came within one week of each other.
The four weeks at the end of 1959 were probably the most hectic in our lives. I was completing my final year at theological college and desperately trying to beat a record of receiving honours in every single subject. Although I would not be Dux of the College in my theological subjects, my aim was to attain honours in every subject, which was something that no other would achieve. That was accomplished at the same time I was doing university exams in classical Greek. These were the exams that the College did not know I was sitting for. The year before I had sat for Year 11 and Year 12 simultaneously and the results caused a great deal of mirth among my two tutors, for I failed Year 11, but passed the much more difficult Year 12, for which obviously I had done more work.
In the middle of these 1959 exams we celebrated our 21st birthdays; I was ordained in a most moving ceremony attended by about 700 people, and we had a hectic round of parties and kitchen teas which culminated in our marriage.
If any series of activities was designed to cause a breakdown, that series of exams, marriage preparations, 21st birthdays, ordinations and the like was designed to be it.
Yet what was to happen immediately after our wedding was to surprise us all.
In those days every local church gave marvellous kitchen teas for each young person to be married in the congregation and our Church of Christ at Box Hill was no exception. All of our young friends and older members of the church who wished us well arrived and some 200 people sat round the big hall beside the church. The Sunday School Superintendent compered an evening of social games with a great deal of laughter and hilarity. Lifesavers on toothpicks held in the teeth, were passed down rows of people alternating male and female. Many a young couple took advantage of warm embraces while the Livesaver was maneuvered from one toothpick onto the other without hands being used.
There were ridiculous races the length of the hall while holding one or two balloons between the thighs, and then finally supper and the opening of presents. All the people present had brought gifts for the young couple and we were overwhelmed with the generosity and kindness of people who helped set us up in our married life. Being a full time student I had very little money. In fact, as I was to discover a few weeks later, I possessed absolutely nothing at all except for a car, a new bride, a host of kitchen tea and wedding presents, a theological certificate, a university scholarship not yet fully taken, an ordination certificate and a marriage certificate. We started with absolutely nothing else except boxes of books.
Our two student churches at Ascot Vale and Newmarket were excited for their young couple and people showered us with good wishes and gifts. A coffee table made by the Church Secretary, Basil Sterling, survived 20 years in our home until four children later, the legs eventually gave way under the onslaught of childhood frolicking and shifts into four manses.
After the kitchen teas and parties, the 21st birthday celebrations, the riotous ending of our college life, the end of university and college exams and the spiritual height of ordination, came the last few days to our wedding. Wedding rehearsals, suit fittings, and visits to relatives were all squeezed in.
The service was absolutely marvellous and the Box Hill Church of Christ was packed with relatives and friends. It was a rainy day and Beverley arrived under the umbrella of a chauffeur in a magnificent white dress over a hooped petticoat with long train. Her mother had made all the dresses for the bride and bridesmaids. Four bridesmaids and two flower girls met with the four groomsmen.
We had a large wedding reception in the church hall catered for by the ladies of the church. We made our speeches and then it was off on the honeymoon. What a honeymoon it turned out to be!
Some of the wedding guests had lifted my brand new Volkswagen, a gift from my Mother, up onto the footpath and carried it between two trees so that we could not drive away. The hub caps were filled with stones and long lines of tin cans trailed from behind with white painted “Just Married” signs all over it. Eventually we were off in our best going away clothes with the bride wearing the expected picture hat and gloves.
For two impecunious people just starting out on married life, a honeymoon was no extravagant affair.
The first night of married life was spent fifty miles away in a seaside cottage owned by my Mother. I then took my young bride overseas – over the San Remo bridge onto Philip Island in Westernport Bay. It was as far as our limited money would take us.
Our honeymoon cottage had been advertised in a Christian magazine and the main feature about it was that it would only cost us about $10 a week for two weeks.
According to the advertisement it was:
“Charming beachside cottage.
Homely and comfortable.
$10 per week.”
It was something altogether different when we got there. It certainly was homely, if you can call some bare cement sheet walls homely. It had a tin roof. As for fully furnished there were three chairs, a table, a couple of the oldest lounge chairs you have ever seen with springs and stuffing sticking out, and a very romantic bed with drooping wire and lumpy kapok mattress.
The place was dreadful. Philip Island turned on its worst weather and it rained day after day. But to make matters worse all the effort of final exams and wrestling with classical Greek authors and the strain of 21st birthdays, ordination and marriage suddenly took its toll.
It started with an abscess growing in the front of my chin underneath a bottom tooth, the result of a whack on the point of the chin from a cricket ball. The pain was intense and day after day the whole jaw throbbed. The little holiday island dentist only visited once a week and had only the most primitive equipment. He drilled away through the base of the tooth and through the jaw bone until eventually he struck the troublesome spot. He left a large open hole into the inside of my jaw bone through which he hoped the abscess would drain.
Something was seriously wrong because I then started to vomit continually. Day after day went by with our honeymoon being spent with my wife nursing a continuously sick husband. Christmas Day arrived, our first together. Beverley spent it alone in the kitchen of the cement sheet cottage in the pouring rain trying to enjoy somewhat of a Christmas dinner, while I spent the day in bed retching constantly.
The next day we drove back to my Grandmother’s house in Moonee Ponds where we were to take over her bedroom and share half of the little workman’s cottage at No.15 Vine Street. However, the sickness took hold and became worse, and late that night I was rushed into the Royal Melbourne Hospital for surgery. Ten days of hospitalisation followed.
My new bride went home in tears to stay with her Mother!
When the time came for me to be discharged the social worker looked at our bank account and all of my resources and formerly declared that I was an absolute pauper. I started married life with the official term “Pauper” written beside my hospital admission. At least, should I die, I would have the benefit of a rather cheap State funeral.
Such was the first three weeks of our marriage. But brighter days were ahead. I was now an ordained minister and was continuing in part time ministry with the two little churches at Ascot Vale and Newmarket. I needed to recover quickly because I had enrolled in an intensive university course in the Summer School during January and February to increase my proficiency both in New Testament Greek and in classical Greek and to take up the rest of my university scholarship until graduation.
Now the churches were really mine. With my young wife I would be able to preach in both at the morning services, to visit the people during the week, and to go with the young delinquents to the Court as their Probation Officer each Monday. Now I had a home and a wife to return to after the evening service, and never more would I walk out into the heavy air blowing from the abattoirs and start my motor bike to head back to the College of The Bible to continue to train for the ministry thinking about my meeting with some of God’s children in the slums of Newmarket.