With My Own Eyes

Cyclone Debbie

We had TNT on the beach at night, led by two brothers. One brother shared about his experience overseas in a third-world country and the other brother shared some theological perspectives on poverty. I was moved and it got my mind swirling with thoughts.

I felt God speaking to me and doing something to the inside of me. I got the sentence: ‘I need to see the need with my own eyes.’ In that moment, I knew that I needed to see more of the world, get to know different people, and experience the needs people had.

Hearing about people’s needs wasn’t enough for me. I needed to see the needs. I had a heart for people in poverty but I always felt I didn’t care enough to put anything into action. But if I saw the need with my own eyes, I knew it would affect me in me some way. Either my heart would be moved into action or I’d realise my heart was called somewhere else. Either way I had to know.

That night I knew I would go overseas one day and that I would go on an overseas mission trip. The timing hasn’t been right so far but I still know one day I will go overseas and I will be affected in some way.

In the meantime, I’ve been learning that ‘see the need’ doesn’t necessarily mean seeing other people in need but being in need yourself. That’s when you really see a need with your own eyes.

Just last month I experienced my first cyclone. Cyclone Debbie was a category four cyclone headed directly for Bowen. I tracked its path on the weather bureau website and followed the updates on the news. One report said Cyclone Debbie could flatten Bowen. Two days before the cyclone hit, dad and I received a text message warning me to evacuate because I was in a red zone and was in danger of being flooded by a storm surge. The next day dad and I moved to higher ground and struggled to get to sleep. The next morning, the power went out and I watched wind and rain whip the tress, collapse part of a wooden fence, and smash three windows.

Later that night, when the cyclone had passed, my dad tried to drive home but it wasn’t safe. Trees and powerlines were down and ‘it looked like the end of the world out there.’ We made it back home the day after and thankfully the house was fine. We thought it was over but that night there was a massive storm and we were flooded. When I looked out the windows, the whole house was surrounded by water and the road was a river. Water came into the house and dad and I were on our hands and knees until midnight bucketing water. It was one of the scariest times of my life and the worst night of my life.

The lake in the yard after the storm

Still, the ordeal wasn’t over. For five days the town was without power and for two days without water. The local IGA ran on a generator and when we went there, there was no bread, no water, no cans of spaghetti or baked beans, no packets of chips, no cheese. We had sardine sandwiches for meals and were running out of clothes to wear. I was getting a glimpse of what it was like for people in poverty without power and water and a glimpse of what it was like for people recovering from a natural disaster.

For five days it felt like I was living in a different time and place. Thankfully, Cyclone Debbie ended up hitting south of Bowen, and even though most houses received some damage, lots were flooded, and some were destroyed, Bowen is still standing strong. But that’s also largely due to the teams of people who came to help. We had the Red Cross, the SES, the army, government workers, electricity workers and wood chippers from other states, and other crews helping the town clear up the mess, get the town back up and running, and doing what they could to support the people. There was a mobile washing service, hot meals, and, water, and financial help for anyone who need them.

I was amazed and touched by all the support and was thankful for them because without them, the roads would have been blocked for longer, people would have been without power and water for longer, and some families would have been in real trouble without food or finances.

Cyclone Debbie was a hot topic on Twitter at the time and among the tweets with supportive messages offering thoughst and prayers, there were some messages about how money and resources shouldn’t be going to Bowen to help with the recovery.

Before Cyclone Debbie I wouldn’t have given those tweets about money and resources any thought. I simply wouldn’t have cared, and if anything, I probably would have agreed with those tweeters. But now that I’d experienced a natural disaster firsthand and ‘seen it with my own eyes,’ I cared a lot and was all for support.

I was thinking, ‘Yes, please send money and resources. We’re going through a rough time and it’s nice to know people care and are helping.’ Obviously, we weren’t going through anything life-threatening and we didn’t need anyone to go overboard with money and resources, but we still really appreciated the help.

Those messages about not money and resources seemed cold, sterile, heartless to me. It showed me that’s exactly the state I’m in when I hear of people’s needs that I haven’t experienced myself. It also showed me the difference experiencing a need for yourself can make. I thought about people who are hit by a natural disaster in third-world countries and how their needs would be so much greater because they wouldn’t have the instant money and resources that we had to help. So straight after Cyclone Debbie, I made sure I donated to disaster relief funds both in Bowen and overseas, and I will keep donating every year to help people recover from disasters.

This idea of seeing the needs of others by being in need myself makes me look at my own needs with new eyes. Instead of feeling bad for not caring enough and being active about needs I haven’t experienced, I can take the needs I’ve already experienced and get active in doing something about those ones.

It’s got me thinking about what needs I’ve experienced but have dismissed because I don’t think they’re as important as global needs like poverty and oppression. Now I’m seeing the importance of all needs and taking seriously the needs I’ve experienced: the simple needs of being encouraged, accepted, valued.

If everyone took the needs they’ve experienced seriously and was active in doing something to meet those needs in others, then maybe all needs would be covered. Maybe we are given our specific needs for a reason, to experience them firsthand so we will care for those who have the same needs and be moved to action.

I want to be responsible with the needs I have ‘seen with my own eyes.’


Head Fake

One of my favourite books is The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and in it I was introduced to the concept of the head fake. My personalised definition of Pausch’s particular head fake is when you think you’re being taught one thing but you’re actually being taught something else, or when you think you know what you’re getting out of something but come out of it with something else.

That’s what beach mission is: a head fake. I went into it thinking I would learn how to run a smallgroup and work with kids, but I learnt so much more than that. I learnt so many skills—life skills, people skills, leadership skills—and I learnt about God, faith, church, mission, and myself.

You can’t not grow at beach mission. You’re with people all the time, doing tasks you wouldn’t normally do, and living a different way, and it moulds you without you even knowing. It stretches you, challenges you, teaches you, and shapes you.

In the book Desiring God by John Piper, I was struck by the idea that when we serve God, it changes us. And maybe the whole point of serving God isn’t so much in what we can do for others, but in what God can do in us. As we participate with him in serving, he makes us more like him, and that’s the way the world changes: by people becoming more like him.

It makes me think God is the master of the head fake and beach mission is one of the greatest head fakes.I go to beach mission thinking it’s all about the work I can do and how much I can serve and give, but I come out of it realising that God’s been at work in me and he’s changed me and given me so much. You put so much into it and get so much out of it.


Find the Gold

As I read beach mission journals I was reminded that in my first years of beach mission, I had conflicting views about people. Sometimes I thought poorly about people when I saw their cruel or shallow sides. It made me think people could be so horrible and a waste of time. But other times I thought the world of people and I felt so lucky that I could know them or even see some small part of them.

The conflict was a real struggle for me to handle, but I forgot about this conflict because now I only think the world of people no matter how they seem on the outside or how they may hurt others. I don’t think anyone is a waste of time and I want to know everyone.

Beach mission helped me change my views. Every year I always loved the people on the team. I thought they were amazing and in the early years I was blown away by how amazing I thought they were. I simply loved that I could be with these people who loved God and chose God. I loved that they wanted to know him, spend time with him, and serve him.

It blessed me in an overwhelming way where I couldn’t explain or comprehend how much I loved these people. Being with them showed me the reality of God and I was so glad and thankful to be part of the team. It was a privilege to get to know them and an even greater privilege to work with them in unity.

There were people in the team who I was surprised that they would want to do beach mission and people who I was surprised were even Christian. It made me realise just how much I stereotyped people and assumed I knew them based on personality and appearance. There was every type of person: loud, quiet, outgoing, shy, optimistic, pessimistic, emotional, calm, rebellious, authoritative, intellectual, sociable, eccentric, reserved, energetic, contemplative. Each person could choose to go anywhere, be with anyone, have anything, and do anything they wanted, and yet they chose God. They chose to give up their time and money to serve God, love people, work with a random bunch of strangers, and grow spiritually.

It showed me not to put people or Christians in a box, and it showed me not to put God in a box. It showed me that God can call anyone and that everyone is amazing no matter what they’re like.

I’ve always been intrigued by people but at beach mission I was exposed to so many different personalities, opinions, desires, and backgrounds, that I became intensely interested in all people. I saw so much depth in people and I appreciated them all in their wonderful diversity.

I’m now the kind of person who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, who sees the good in people no matter how bad their actions may be. And I see so much goodness in who they are. It might not always be easy to see the goodness but my default belief is that it’s there in everyone. I always want to find it and acknowledge it because I simply love it and it amazes me.

I caught up with my friend Emily C after my last beach mission while I was in the middle of writing this book. She gave me a beautiful gift: a handmade card with a quote on the front that says: ‘Anyone can find the dirt in someone. Be the one who finds the gold.’

She said when she read the quote she thought of me because I always see the gold in the people. She wrote: ‘Thank you for having the eyes to see the gold in others and the boldness to share it with them and others.’

Her gift means a lot to me because even though I know I love looking for the gold, it’s always encouraging to have that recognised and valued by others. Emily is a person full of gold and I’m so thankful she gave me a piece of her gold and identified the gold in me through the card she made me.

Her gift showed me that not only is it great to look for gold in others and acknowledge it but to remember I am a person too and there is gold in me. I’m encouraged to keep looking for gold in people and to give people the gold in me.

My hope is that everyone looks for the gold and gives the gold in them too.


The Best Case for Christ

There was an atheist man who came down to McCrae to see what beach mission was all about. His wife was part of the team, but he seemed to be sceptical of it all.

He spent the majority of the time sitting under a tree with a book while we did our mission thing in the park: playing games, making crafts, singing songs, acting in dramas, sharing bible stories, and connecting with kids and families.

One of the books he was reading was called The Case for Christ. It’s a book written by an atheist who became a Christian through his journalistic research into the historical Jesus. The author approached the case for Christ like a legal cross-examination and he went through the evidence for why it was credible to believe in the biblical accounts of Jesus.

The man under the tree couldn’t see anything wrong in the book, but it didn’t convince him of anything.

‘The book has good points,’ he said, ‘but it really has nothing to do with belief in Jesus. It misses the point because from what I can see at beach mission, Christianity is a relational thing.’

Wow, I thought this guy just said the most profound thing about Christianity, and it made me see beach mission with new eyes. We weren’t on the beach telling people all the evidence for Jesus or why they should believe in him based on archaeological history or medical science. We were simply loving campers, valuing our relationship with them, and sharing our stories with them. We shared our love for Jesus and shared our relationship with him with others.

This atheist man helped me see that Jesus was all about relationship and it was relationship that we were offering to others. We can have all the evidence and facts and information and knowledge about Jesus but it’s only through relationship that we get to know him. It’s through relationship that we know his existence, his character, and his love.

Beach mission showed me that the best evidence for Christ is relational. It’s all about relationship.

This was brought home to me one year at team weekend. Just before I left to go to the training camp, I received a package in the mail. A long white tube with plastic white stoppers. I popped one of the stoppers out of the tube and pulled out a thick roll of parchment. I caught my breath. I knew what this was.

As I rolled open the parchment my heart thumped with excitement. I stared at my certificate of graduation. There was my name in fancy script writing. There was the large red Monash University Seal. And there was the name of my course. Bachelor of Environmental Science.

Holding my certificate in my hands, I realised this was the moment I’d been waiting for since I was eight. I had dreamed about this and worked towards this for fifteen years. When I was eight I decided I wanted to work with animals and become a zoologist. It was my one focus at school as I got the marks and did the subjects I needed to get into the right uni course.

Now here I was with an environmental science degree and a major in zoology. But as soon as I realised I’d made it, I also realised it didn’t mean as much to me as I thought it would. In fact, the certificate was meaningless to me. I was shocked. This wasn’t how it was supposed to feel when you reached a dream and achieved a goal. Why wasn’t I dancing round my room?

I rolled up the certificate, slid it back in the tube, and put it on a shelf. It’s been in storage ever since.

Later that night I was in a church hall, sitting in a circle on couches with twenty other people. We’d had a blast already on the camp: joking, laughing, learning, worshipping, working together. Now as I chatted with these people, I had this moment where I sat back and was overcome with contentment. I thought, This is what really matters.

I was struck by the contrast. The Bachelor’s certificate meant nothing to me but being here in relationship with these people meant everything to me. It was a moment that told me what was really important in life. People are more important than achievement. Relationships are more important than work.

Yet I love that beach mission doesn’t dismiss achievement and work. We work hard and we encourage each other to do well, and we cheer people on when they excel and we celebrate when we do well together. But the focus is always on people and relationships first. Within this context the achievement and work means so much more.

It wasn’t an earth-shaking, momentous moment sitting with the team on the couches, but it was one of the most meaningful moments of my life. A moment that showed me the value of coming together with other people and doing life together.


The Background Story

I first heard about God from my sister when I was five or six. My sister is almost seven years older than me and back then she was the only family member who went to church. She read me bible stories and told me about God and told me he loved me. I liked God and believed in him straight away. My sister also told me about heaven and I liked the sound of heaven. I pictured a place with fairy-floss clouds and lots of lollies, but also a place without pain or suffering.

I loved reading my children’s bible with its colourful pictures, but I didn’t think much about God until high school. There was an afterschool program I went to that was run by Christians. They had a knack for bringing up God in our conversations and relating him to everyday life. It made me start thinking seriously about God. I told my sister I liked talking about God with these Christians, and later she gave me a student life-application bible.

Another day when my sister and I were talking about God, she asked me if I would like to ask Jesus into my heart. I freaked out. I had no idea that’s what I had to do to become a Christian. I pictured my heart as a dirty, ugly black heart and there was no way I could ask pristine, glowing white Jesus into my heart.

I wanted to be a Christian and I always knew I would become one eventually, but I thought I’d try making my heart white, first, by cleaning up my life with good deeds. Of course, that didn’t work. But I still really wanted to become a Christian so one day I sat on my bed with my bible determined to figure out what I had to be saved.

The bible my sister gave me was the right one for me because it had question-and-answer sections that were exactly what I needed.

I looked up every question I had, and each answer section referred me to relevant scriptures and finally I understood that salvation was a gift from God and all I had to do to be saved was believe that Jesus died and rose again, and confess with my mouth that he is Lord.

I had no problem believing in the gift Jesus offered. My problem was that I couldn’t receive it.

I pictured myself in Jesus’ place about to whipped, and I knew that when the whip was lifted into the air about to be brought down on my skin, I would have yelled out, ‘Stop!’ I’m so glad Jesus never asked me to die on a cross to save the world because I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

There was no way I would willingly let myself go through that much pain, so and there was no way I could ask Jesus to go through that pain either. But he never yelled ‘Stop!’ when he was whipped. Or when he was beaten. Or when he had nails driven into his hands and feet. I didn’t understand why he didn’t stop it, especially when he was the only one who had the power to stop it.

I remember kneeling on my bed with my head in my hands trying to understand why Jesus died for me. I pictured myself back in Jesus’ time. He was walking with a crowd on a dirt road towards the cross. I made my way through the crowd, pulled Jesus aside and whispered, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t die on the cross for me. I’m not worth it.’

Jesus looked at me with compassion in his eyes. He said, ‘If it wasn’t me on the cross it would be you.’ And that’s when it hit me why he died for me. He loved me. He loved me so much that he took the punishment that I deserved. He knew I couldn’t do it and he never asked me to. Instead, he spared me from pain and separation from God because he loved me.

It was as if in that moment Jesus looked at me, he discerned where I was at and what I needed to hear. He spoke a simple sentence but it changed everything because it was in a language I could understand.

Still kneeling with my head in my hands, I cried. I was overwhelmed by God’s love and gratitude for what he did for me. Then I thought, If Jesus can die for me, I can live for him.

And right then and there, I asked Jesus into my heart. It was the year 2000 and I was 14. I thanked Jesus for dying on the cross to forgive my sin and for rising again to give me eternal life. Then I asked him to help me live for him.

When I first became a Christian I was too scared to tell my family and I walked the Christian life alone for three years. Even though I knew my sister would be happy and I could go to her church, I was afraid of the expectations people might have for me now that I was a Christian. Plus, I didn’t want to be known as ‘the little sister’ at my sister’s church where people could have assumptions about who I was.

When I got to Year 12, I realised I wasn’t growing in my faith and I felt like I needed to go to church. I prayed my first real prayer. I prayed that God would give me a Christian friend who would lead me to a church.

Amazingly, within the week I found out one of the girls in my class was a Christian. Giselle and I became close friends and she invited me to her youth group at Hills Church. After walking the Christian life alone for so long, I was so excited to talk about God and was blown away by being with other people who loved God. I started going to youth every Friday night, and the next year I started going to church on Sunday mornings as well.

It was through church that I first heard of beach mission: a family holiday program run by a team of Christians over the summer. The more formal name is Scripture Union Family Mission (SUFM) and there are lots of SUFM teams in Victoria. Giselle and a bunch of others from youth had been part of the McCrae SUFM team, and my youth pastor had been one of the directors in a previous year.

A beach mission team is made up of people from multiple churches, but each year there’s usually one church that stands out with more team members than the others. As team members leave and new members join, a transition happens and a different church becomes the standout church when the new members recruit people from their church.

At that time, the standout church for the McCrae SUFM team was Hills Church. With so many people I knew on the team, I’d often hear them talk about beach mission. They always raved about it and it sounded fun, so I thought I’d like to give it a go one year.

In my second year at Hills Church, now that I’d settled in, I decided to go to the next McCrae beach mission with five other people from church.

I wanted to go for two reasons. The first reason was to serve God and try out a new area working with kids. The second reason was to give myself a challenge so I could grow further in my faith.


Camping at Section 6

Beach mission always begins with Set-Up Day where we turn our camping sites at Section 6 along the McCrae foreshore into a home.

In winter it’s hard to imagine just how densely tents can be packed into the grassy spaces between the trees. When we arrive in summer, it’s a thriving, bustling tent city with caravans, gazebos, TVs, and BBQs. Some of the families camp for the entire six-week school holiday period at the same sites every year and they had mastered the art of camping.

We had the same site every year on the corner of a crossroad near the entrance to the Section 6 camping ground. The site looks small and when you’re just looking at grass and trees and wondering how all the tents will fit in between the trees, but once the tents are up our home looks big.

In my first year we put up eleven tents. At the centre of our home was our large, white, rectangular dining tent. The eight-man sleeping dome tents (that were really six-men tents) were behind the dining tent next to the fence along the main road. An equipment tent and a props tent that we called the Boutique were set up at the right side of the dining tent along the entrance road. A kitchen tent was set up in front of the dining tent across the road next to a tap. A teens tent with couches and bean bags was set up further down the road to the left.

We lost some camping sites in later years which meant some of the team slept at different sites, losing the kitchen tent, and sometimes losing other tents. When we no longer had room for a kitchen on site, meals were cooked at a local church a short walk away. When we no longer had a props tent, we had a minibus that we called the WOW (Wardrobe on Wheels).

Past the kitchen tent there is the Section 6 toilet block with showers and a laundry, and past that there is a road and another lot of camping sites. The dirt road is a giant circuit that runs the length of the foreshore. Cars drive slowly along this road that is shared with people walking their dogs, kids on bikes, and serious runners.

On the other side of the camping sites, there is a wall of scrubby vegetation. Sandy paths through the vegetation lead to the beach so it can be accessed from each Section. It is a beautiful beach. This wasn’t the white and grey, swirling, freezing beach I had imagined. It’s more like the tropical beaches in Queensland with calm, crystal aqua water.

There are lots of shells and often schools of little silver fish can be seen in the shallow water. It’s no surf beach but when cargo ships and the Spirit of Tasmania sail by, it gets small waves. In the summer boats are anchored close to shore and on hot days the beach is packed. For as far as you can see to the left and right there are coloured beach umbrellas and bright beach towels.

This beach has classic McCrae sunsets where the sky turns hazy purple and the ocean looks like a watercolour painting, all soft with blues, pinks, and purples. With no tall trees, the stars are bright and many and mesmerising to watch lying on the sand at night.

I thought beach mission would be run on the beach, but it was actually run in a park. On the opposite corner of the crossroad where the camping site is, and to the right of the toilet block, there is the Section 6 park. It’s a grassy island rimmed by trees and surrounded by dirt road. If you follow the road to the right you head towards Section 5 and the lighthouse at Section 4. To the left is Section 7 and the pier where the Sections become part of the Rosebud foreshore.

Back at our camping sites, the tents were separated from the main road by a wire fence where we hung our bathers and towels to dry. On the other side of the fence is a narrow section scrubby vegetation, then a dirt footpath, then the asphalt road. On the other side of the road there is a Coles, a bunch of caravan parks, and the famous Hamburger which is a fish and chip shop we often went to at least once each year.

The camping environment is so different from a sturdy house with four walls and a roof but once you’re in the tents, it feels pretty much the same as being in a house and we go about living as normal. We still have three meals a day at the same times, we still sit on chairs at a table and eat with knives and forks, we still accumulate a growing pile of dumped odds ands ends in a corner somewhere, we still wash dishes and have showers, and we still sleep with a pillow and (hopefully) something warm covering us.

I’m always amazed how just putting up a tent gives me an instant sense of permanence and comfort. How odd that we can so quickly and easily transform a patch of nature into a living space with just a piece of material, some rope, and some poles. Humans have an amazing ability to adjust to the environment and make ourselves a home wherever we are.

After we finish setting up, we go Tent Knocking where we split up into groups and go to different sections or caravan parks to let people know who we are, what we are doing, and give them a program flyer. Some people are interested, some brush us off, some have been waiting for us.

For some families, it’s their first time at McCrae and they’ve never heard of SUFM, but a lot of the families have been camping there for years. Grandparents would tell me that they went to SUFM when they were kids and now their grandkids were going. Because of the legacy of McCrae SUFM, being part of this team made me feel famous. It made me excited to be part of this long history of beach mission at McCrae.

Every year when I went back I was amazed at how smoothly we were able to slip into the McCrae community. Even though everyone was a year older, we picked up right where we left off with the friendships and connections we’d made with campers. We were always welcomed and appreciated at Section 6; it is a second home to me.

Reflections · Writing journey

Book update after the cyclone

All the journals with something to do with beach mission written in them.

Book update: Took a bit of a book writing break due to the cyclone and being without power for five days and then the clean-up and exhaustion from the stress.

So I decided to do some housekeeping: typing up the rest of my journal entries to do with beach mission. Also, collated all the blog posts and articles I’ve written about it too. So now I have one giant folder for the beach mission book, all in one place. Hopefully it will now be easier to do a marathon effort of getting this book done.

Also, just bought a new mini laptop (with some of the money I got from the government for flood relief) so I can take it to cafes since I work better in cafes. It will be my writing project laptop, for one project at a time.

So life is pretty much back to normal now after the cyclone. Was pretty terrifying with the worst night of my life tucked in that week, but feeling very blessed and lots of good has come from the cyclone. A bit of a forced break to reassess and got a much greater appreciation for those who go through emergency situations. Aiming to donate half of the money I got from the government to charities. Thanking God for the wider perspective and the greater appreciation.