My school life extended from 6 to 14years. It took place in rural Victoria (Australia) and Melbourne. In all that time I never met anyone who was not white, including any native Australian Aboriginal. For most of my life, both in Australia and New Zealand I lived in a European bubble – surrounded by white people of British stock and a few from Holland. My international contacts really exploded in the last decade and this relates to St Heliers Presbyterian Church and Community Centre.
Here are some notes on just a few of my early international encounters.
In the aftermath of the second World War, between 1945 and 1966, Australia took in two million migrants.
When I was an apprentice, I worked on the construction of a new ‘D’ power station at Yallourn, in the Latrobe Valley of Victoria. The labour force for this power station was over 80% migrants. Three young Germans were assigned to our electrical workforce. Tall, blonde and athletic they impressed me and I went out of my way to talk with them. Despite the fact they had only a smattering of English, we soon became friends.
One named Hans was assigned to work in the cable tunnels, where I was working. The tunnels under the partially completed power station were depressing; always wet, always cold and used as toilets by some of the workers. On occasions, without warning Hans would pick up a pipe and hold it as if it were a machine gun. Then in some kind of trance he would start screaming and running through the tunnels shooting at enemies no one else could see. I was told he was suffering from shell shock. Later, using his broken English, he told me he had been a paratrooper and had been machine gunned as he floated to earth. His friends beside him were killed in their harnesses.
My relationship with the three young Germans did not end well. They indicated that I was cheeky and insulting. I don’t know how I offended them but probably I made remarks about the war that were derogatory to Germans.
In 1992 I was minister of Paeroa Cooperating Parish and by choice we lived in the Karangahake Gorge. The town of Paeroa was 30 % Maori . We soon had Maori acquaintances, all female, but we had no Maori male friends. The carved head changed that.
Visiting one of our parishioners, we saw a large carved head outside his garage. I asked our friend Rex, what it was and how did he get it. He had no idea. Cleary it was a Maori carving but as to its origin and meaning he had no idea. It had come into his possession because the river had washed it up on his farm. Seeing our interest he immediately gave it to us.
We located it in our entrance porch. Standing 75 centimeters (36 inches) its’ expression demanded respect. We asked a highly esteemed Maori lady to come and view it and tell us how we should care for it. She said we should sprinkle water on it and say a prayer for it and its maker(s). Pauline sprinkled and I prayed and the head became part of our home.
A month after this blessing a young Maori man pulled into our drive. He introduced himself as Alex. Without delay he launched into the reason for his visit. “You have something that belongs to me!” We were taken back. “I have heard you have my carved head”. When we showed it to him, he asserted his ownership. He told us that the head was on the prow of his tribe’s war canoe. An exceptional tide had caused the head to rub against a mooring pile and drop into the river. The river then floated it to my friend’s farm.
We gladly returned the head and as a result of this encounter we became friends. Over time we worked on a number of Maori and community projects together. I had and still have a sense of brotherhood with Alex.
At one community ceremony where Maori culture was central Alex and his tribe presented a powerful haka (Maori war dance). The assembled dignitaries clapped enthusiastically and thanked the Maori performers profusely. Alex came and stood beside me. Quietly he said to me. “Do you know what we were chanting? We were saying we would like to kill you and put you in a pot and eat you”.
When I was 56 a Korean family came looking for us. We were living in the Karangahake Gorge (NZ). Our first contacts were warm but awkward.
Eating food was a focus for those visits. They insisted on bringing food and the smell of kimchee filled the house. We tried to reciprocate with a kiwi barbeque. We didn’t realise but the raw meat and sausages on a blackened outdoor grill shocked them. They said that next time they would cook a barbeque for us. True to the Korean view of hygiene they proceeded to wrap the outdoor gas barbeque in aluminum foil and lay the food to be cooked on the gleaming surface. After a few minutes the barbeque exploded. Quick thinking saved the house but it was close.
They brought their parents to stay overnight with us. This was a great honour. As a courtesy we gave them our bed and we slept on the floor in my study. What followed was a dreadful night for all of us. Our bed was too soft for the Korean old folks and the floor was definitely too hard for us.
Every town in Australia and New Zealand has a Chinese take-away shop. The food they provide is neither Chinese (as eaten in China) nor European. However, it has a tasty tang and Aussies and Kiwis love it. Commonly at that time, the family who operated the Chinese take-away shop were the only Chinese in town.
In Paeroa we noticed that in our Chinese take-away the small children and even a baby played and slept on a bench at the back of the shop. The sight of the children motivated us to invite this family to our home. Language was a problem but eventually the parents understood what we were asking. They told us they worked seven days a week staying open until the pubs closed, usually about midnight. The only time they could come to our house was Saturday morning. These Saturday breakfasts were the beginning of our relationship with Chinese people.
In Pauline’s parish of Te Aroha we helped a recently arrived Chinese family set up a take-away business. We were soon friends and were welcomed into the back of the shop. There we saw two toddlers playing on a bench as we had seen in Paeroa. They came often to our house and to the Te Aroha Church. The friendship has endured and they today they are family.
We discovered that his family was related to the Chinese family we met in Paeroa – they came from the same village. An amazing story unfolded. In the 1860’s their ancestor had journeyed to Otago to work in the goldfields. In a mining accident their relative displayed great bravery and saved a number of lives. Because of this he was given New Zealand citizenship. For this reason, his relatives in his small home village are able to emigrate to New Zealand and many of them have.
When Anthony, the son of the Te Aroha family was eight he contracted an infection which was initially badly handled by the district hospital. A reaction to an antibiotic nearly killed him. He was three months in intensive care. His parents were told again and again there was no hope for him. When we visited him we wept. He had shrunken to the size of a baby and his skin was black. For 3 months his mother was at his bedside day and night talking to him, singing to him, caressing him. Along with others, our church in St Heliers prayed for him. He survived, damaged but alive. I believe he defeated death because of the power of his mothers’ love and the prayers of many. Now he is at the Auckland University Medical school. All he wants to do is to heal people.
When I am old I would like him to be my doctor.
Over the last decade, through the life our Community Centre, I have made friends with people from around the world – all over Europe, Russian, Mongolia, Sth America, Asia and many African countries. A few of these are Christians. Most of them are not. Many have no religion and some are fervent in their own religions. It in this way I met for the first time, Moslems.
Through a high minded but risky venture we hosted five young Moslem from Indonesia for a 21 day stay. Two things about them amazed me. One was how liberal they were. For one thing they fitted easily into the worship of our church. The second was their view of life and their spirituality. We had many long conversations about the meaning of life and the problems in the world. Their views were very close to mine. We were all committed to prayer and the healing power of love,. At times we prayed together, and they prayed for the same things I did.
It has been harder for me to relate to the young people from Saudi Arabia. The affluence of their country warps their view of normal life and the rest of the world. Not all have been pious but recently we have had extended contact with one young engineer. He follows the five times a day prayer cycle and is frequently at the Mosque. In what has been a very trying time for us he tells me he prays daily for Pauline and me.
What am I to make of this? Do the prayers of Moslems count? In answering my own question, I have to say I am very grateful for his prayers and I believe they have blessed us.
Anyway as an internationalist I am a late bloomer. At this point I have no plans for a world tour, but I am thrilled that the world is coming to me. Shortly I will wander up to the Centre. I wonder who I will meet?. Maybe someone from Timbuktu or Lap Land or Mongolia or Glen Innes? And another adventure will begin. I recognise that now I am a committed internationalist and in my experience the peoples of the world are one family. My ambition is to help us bless each other.