Chapter 39: The youth group

Throughout this period I separated from the general social scene and became more deeply committed to my faith. Most of my friends thought I had left my senses, especially when I became a councillor in the 1959 Graham Crusade and was been one of three individuals instrumental in establishing a Presbyterian mission station in Eltham. I designed and built a small Mount Gambier stone hall at the same time, a building in which my old spiritual mentor Roy Merritt conducted services each week as part-time pastoral work he undertook in addition to presiding over the Melbourne Bible Institute in conjunction with the Rev John Searle. The third member of the cause was David Graham, a member of the adjacent Kangaroo Ground Church, which was destined to become part of a joint cause at the same time. I soon discovered that David was no ordinary man. He had lived in that district with his two brothers during his whole life, except for his war service. He was every inch an army-sergeant type in the best Australian tradition. He was as straight in his conduct as he was in his figure, and he exercised his special ability to communicate practical common sense without moving his upper lip. When I first knew him he and his brothers lived on the family property next to the church, the store, and the school house, which then formed the minute centre of habitation in that beautiful but windswept area. They were a traditional group of three brothers, forming the strongest family combination. After the war they developed a sandpit on their land which was part of an antediluvian lava flow that had stemmed from the nearby volcano and which later become the site of the war-memorial tower. This eminence, designed as a Scottish border tower, overlooked some three thousand square miles of the greatest landscape in Australia. It extended in an unbroken sweep from Geelong on the west to the Great Divide on the east, and virtually the whole course of the Yarra River could be traced from its parapets. Before 1960, the division between Eltham and Kangaroo Ground was very decisive. The latter was a major pioneering district of the State, peopled by hardy Scots who felt that modern Eltham would always be a very inferior location to their own, no matter how much it developed. Kangaroo Ground had once been the centre of the Shire, which then covered about one hundred fifty square miles, terminating at the top of the Great Divide on the ridge of the Kinglake Ranges.

he Billy Graham Crusade at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1959 he Billy Graham Crusade at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1959

I saw a significant change occur in our society as a result of the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade. The erstwhile casual or generalised Christian attitude had given way to a concerned, evangelical approach which emphasised that a 'faith' which ignored the necessity of being born again was not a Christian faith at all. No one I knew of had a clearer understanding of this essential fact than did David Graham, nor could they have expressed it more clearly and frankly. It was said that Calvin always spoke as though he were in the presence of Christ. There was something of this sort of integrity in David Graham. It gave him a special ability with young men who had been challenged about the seriousness of life. He shed a light on the recollections I experienced of my parents and blood relations. The Bible became the main source of inspiration, and I felt the carnal shackles slip away when I spent time in his transparently Christian presence. That same year, I began youth work with a Graham Crusade convert named Marion Huggett. She and her husband Pete were the first converts in our Eltham congregation. Marion was an Eltham girl ideally suited to the aims and attitudes of a local youth group. Her roots were deeply embedded in the local village soil. She knew everyone, and she possessed a splendid, outgoing nature. The kids who comprised the group were only twelve and thirteen years old, and our afternoon activities consisted of making a small rowing boat and playing tennis on our old gravel court. Neither Marion nor I had much of an idea about how a youth group should work, but we did know what we wanted to do. I also conducted a Bible class on Sundays, and it was decided we would all go for a hike and camp overnight on the Kinglake Ranges during the winter holidays. Marion drove us as far as St Andrews one pleasant winter morning, and the boys and I then started walking towards the mountains, a few miles further on. It was my first experience of such an activity, and I felt a little apprehensive about what might eventuate.

I suppose boys at that halfway stage towards manhood have never been much different, but some of my six or seven hopefuls evidenced signs of feckless insanity. I was a little nervous that I too might be suffering from the same condition, for it was I who decided to take them on such an expedition. The boys let off firecrackers at odd moments, disappeared into the bush on forays and excursions, and otherwise spread out over about a mile of the hilly, winding dirt road. After walking a couple of miles, we stopped to boil the billy and eat. I had taken the precaution of buying a large quantity of meat, which later proved a wise decision. The hike became a hitchhike when an obliging truck driver stopped to offer us a lift, and we did the mountain climb on his empty tray truck while looking down on the vast, slightly undulating plain that contained the landscape of Greater Melbourne. Port Phillip Bay, which lay beyond it, was glistening in the deceptively warm sunshine that gave no hint of what was to follow.

I had hired a local hall for the night; we found that it boasted a fire stove and a primitive generator that gave out a fitful, flickering light. Everything appeared to be settling down when the change suddenly hit us. Kinglake is a cold locale at any time, but when a winter gale blows up from Bass Strait, one might be forgiven for thinking he is in the Antarctic with Douglas Mawson. The air seemed to solidify itself into blocks of ice that shook our little hall with such ferocity that we feared they would demolish it without ceremony. I piled up the stove with firewood that was providentially dry enough to burn, and I feverishly started cooking chops and sausages and wished for the daylight. The wind and sleet closely resembled the storm in the southern ocean I had experienced on my first night at sea during the war. The boys became sufficiently impressed by the elements to stick close by. I don't know how many chops and sausages we consumed, but eventually it became clear that eating any more would result in their coming out of our ears and noses. But at last the boys were full, if not warm. We set out our bedding on an ancient strip of lignoleo (an imitation linoleum) near the stove in the kitchen, and determined to sleep. The cold, however, quickly penetrated our bedclothes, and instead we started to freeze. One by one, the boys got up and began running around the main hall to keep their circulation moving. The hall contained an out-of-tune piano, and the floor had a polished surface for dancing, so the boys, to keep alive, started great games of sliding up and down in their bedclothes and playing 'Chopsticks' on the piano. As each one left the kitchen for the ballroom sports, he threw his spare clothes on me - the last remaining sleep-seeker - until all that was visible was a contorted heap of old khaki overcoats in the middle of the floor. All I could register was the gradually increasing warmth their heterogeneous contributions provided and the heightened odour of decaying lignoleo an inch from my nose. The hopelessness of my well-intentioned zeal to do good for the succeeding generation struck me with considerable force. My folly could well have resulted in their premature deaths through pneumonia; I later was always poignantly reminded of this when I would happen to smell old linoleum or rotting timber floorboards. The fact that I felt it was the last time I would see them was my only comfort and support against doing away with myself without delay.

Daylight brought little relief, but continued elemental opposition did not prevent the Huggetts bringing out five of the girls to join in the outing. Lunch was a cold and wet disaster, and we retreated back to the plains early in the afternoon. As we descended the mountains, most of the group began to vomit - a consequence of the extreme conditions and lack of sleep, combined with a surplus of chops and sausages. I was sufficiently depressed to hesitate about attending church the following morning; I feared what would be said about my losing the youth of the congregation through the foolhardy overnight excursion. In the end I made the effort, despite the defeat of the camp. When I rounded the corner leading to the front gate, I was greeted by a chorus of cheers from the lost youth group. They were all there to the last man, Jack, and Jill of them. They told me that they had all determined separately to get there even though they were sick and dying. Doug Purnell, who later became a minister in the Uniting Church, averred over many years that it was the youth fellowship's finest hour and the best time they ever had. The lesson I learned was that the smell of mouldering lignoleo is the stuff of successful youth work.

The unexpected success of our one-night stand inevitably led to Christmas camps by the sea. We found a camping site at Somers, a quiet resort in Westernport Bay. Geographically it was ideal. There was only one store and no hotel, and in 1960 it was little changed from its former use as an army staging camp during the Second World War. The cabins had been quietly disintegrating ever since, and the general hall was not much better. But it contained the one ingredient that could not fail to make it work: it was just across the road from a steep bush-track descent to the beach, with blue water and golden sand visible through the ti-tree scrub just beyond. In addition, we had almost the entire beach to ourselves. It was the second camp, the following Christmas, where the real work began. Dave Graham and his wife Kath and their children were among those present for the first time. Dave had had great experience in Christian youth camps. His understanding of their administration was firm, but totally fair and compassionate. Underneath his impassive army-sergeant exterior was concealed a great sense of Australian outback humour that made him the camp commandant to end all commandants. The quality lay first in his Christian experience and then in the country lifestyle , which was the way they lived in Kangaroo Ground. His basic concern was to confront men and women, to make the Christian commitment challenging and understandable to our post-Christian age. He never sugar-coated the cost, but his example had a wonderful way of making it exciting and acceptable. To be counselled by David Graham left one in no doubt as to where one stood in relation to God and His Son Jesus Christ. David taught me to lose any remnants of pie-in-the-sky thinking and to realise that if a believer allows any concealed form of personal indolence to lessen his spiritual commitment, he will only discover that he is withdrawing from the vision of life.

There were sixty-six campers altogether, including ten leaders. Five of these ten had an evangelical bias, and five were 'broad' or liberal. The youth, discovering they had been released from their mundane home scenario, became almost unmanageable. It required all of Dave's disciplinary capacities to retain an outwards sense of law and order, and we could not yet begin to turn the discipline inwards at all. After three days, when Dave and I were clean out of ideas and hope, it came to me that the first hour in the dawn - when the five evangelical leaders met for prayer - should be increased to three hours if we really believed we were in the Lord's will, and that He would bless our attempts to glorify Him. Our burden was that we were convinced He had called us to His work, and that we were utterly powerless to carry it out. We asked that the Holy Spirit brood over the camp and that He convict, convince, and consecrate it to His purposes. Praying in the pre-dawn silence, and being aware of the tinder-box situation that was about to ignite around us, did not make this an easy task. We prayed around John 15:7, which says: 'That if we abided in Him and His word abided in us, we could ask what we would and it would be done unto us'. When we opened our eyes, the sun was already high in the eastern sky and the getting-up bell was about to go. There was nothing left to do except examine ourselves to consider whether we had fulfilled the requirements of the text and trust that God would honour His promise. We then had to start working. Dave always took control at mealtimes, so everything was done in army-sergeant fashion; since he was missing this particular morning, though, I had to stand in for him. He turned up about ten minutes later and quietly said to me, 'Ray Lethlean has been converted. There is no doubt about it at all'. I was under the misapprehension that Ray had already been converted; but when I saw him, I too could sense a change. And that change is still there twenty-five years later. Ray was a ringleader of the 'larks' division - a great boy and a great nuisance at the same time. Conversion made him even nicer, and a nuisance no longer. Some years later, I asked him whether he would give his testimony. He had since been married and left the district. The gist of Ray's experience was that, on that long-ago camp morning, he had remembered something Mrs Huggett had done the previous day. He had been talking and fooling around with the girls in their class out in the grounds, and Mrs Huggett finally became so frustrated that she got up and literally sat on him! This form of attack silenced him for a few minutes, and he actually heard what she was saying. 'I must find out what she meant', he said to himself on that fateful morning, as he caught sight of David Graham coming out of the bathroom at the far end of the camping ground. As Dave moved towards him, Ray suddenly had a vision of a man, with a great sack on his back, standing between the two of them. Ray realised that it was Jesus, and that his own sins were in that bag. He just ran over to Dave in repentance; and as Dave was able to counsel him, he knew that Ray had accepted Christ on the spot. An hour later, one of the girls talked to Marion as the spontaneous sense of repentance moved from one to another. Throughout the day and evening, those who were converted prayed for those who were not. A great quiet came over the once rowdy scene. Two days later, thirty-six of the youth who needed to had either made a confession of faith or had sought spiritual restoration. It was the nearest I have ever come to Revival because it was a true movement of the Spirit, unaided by man.

When we returned home, Dave and I knew that it was essential to institute instruction classes for the new believers. We used the Billy Graham follow-up material for this purpose. The group never looked backwards. We had to keep preaching for salvation and commitment, because increased numbers kept arriving who needed to be told about what it really was all about. They had never heard it anywhere else. Newcomers had observed a difference in their friends who had accepted Christ - a difference they didn't have, and which they said they wanted.

We quickly discovered that we were opposed by Satanic forces aware that inroads were occurring into their hitherto undisturbed domain. Our whole church building would fill up each Sunday evening until it became difficult to get in. Those who wished to meet for prayer at 5.30 in a back room then went over to the main hall at 6 p.m. for singing and at 6.30 for tea. At 7 p.m. precisely, our meeting would begin. To prevent latecomers disturbing the meetings, we would sometimes post two men at the gate, two men halfway down the path, and two at the door. The preaching format varied from week to week, but the eventual message was unvarying. In Bible study talks, including play-acting by the group, the theme always aimed to glorify Christ, who had died for our sins according to the Scripture and who had been raised from the dead to be our Saviour and Lord. There was always electricity in the atmosphere as one became aware of a spirit of good and a spirit of evil as they flashed back and forth from person to person across the hall. No one ever fell asleep at any of those meetings.

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