Wollongong is a coastal city of about 300,000 people about 80m south of Sydney – the third largest city in the state by population. The city is on a narrow strip of land between the ocean and the Illawarra Escarpment – a ridge of hills up to 750m. This means there are beautiful views pretty much everywhere – of the ocean, the hills, or both. Wollongong gets its name from a local Aboriginal language; there is some debate over the meaning, but it’s probably something sea-related. The beaches are beautiful – I went to North Wollongong Beach a few times (although not to swim!)
I mentioned in a recent post that I recently spent a week in Wollongong with a group of students (and a faculty member) from my college. Every year all the full-time students from SMBC spend a week helping out at churches around the country (and a few go overseas). It’s like a work placement for people thinking about full time ministry.
I was a little apprehensive about all the time with people, but it went wonderfully. My homestay hosts were wonderful – I felt so at home with them, like I was family. Having a restful place where I felt at home helped me stay relaxed (read: sane) throughout the week. They really looked after me – we watched cricket and classic TV shows, had fish and chips, and they even took me out for a wonderful lunch at a great restaurant at the beach.
Our team did a number of different things during the week. We did various things at their Sunday services (helping with music, giving messages, kids’ talks, and testimonies, etc.). Different team members spoke at small events and visited different high schools in the area, and attended events at Wollongong University. We got a chance to listen to and learn from people working in different places – the pastors and elders of our host church, people working with the Christian group and the university, and two guys working as hospital chaplains (which was really interesting). It sounds busy, but it was actually a nice schedule – neither boring nor hectic.
One highlight was spending time with a group of grade 7 and 8 students at a lunch time group. The woman who teaches the scripture classes at their high school also hosts two lunchtime groups. The day I went was their “question and answer” group – where students discuss questions they have as a group. One young man told me his grandparents were very religious but his parents are not, and he is investigating a number of religions. I really enjoyed engaging with him, and the other students, and they shared their thoughts and questions. We had a great conversation about whether the Bible is trustworthy.
I also enjoyed attending an international student dinner at the university. Wollongong University has over 20,000 students, including a large international student population. I ended up sitting between two Chinese students. The guy was from Shijiazhuang – the capital of Hebei province – only a few hours’ drive from Langfang, where I used to live. The girl was from Anhui province, and we got along famously! Although she is technically enrolled at Wollongong Uni, she does the experiments for her PhD research at CSIRO. That’s in Canberra, where my parents live, and we agreed that next time we’re both there she’ll come over to my parents’ place and we’ll cook Chinese food together.
Another fun event was the church’s youth group – a small group of really fun students, including quite a few from immigrant families. I really enjoyed meeting the kids, especially a Chinese girl attending high school in Wollongong (and planning to attend an Australian university). She lives with extended family – her parents are back in Kunming. It was a great connection, and I really want to go visit her sometime, although realistically it probably won’t happen until after this semester is finished.
I also visited a Christian high school, advertising the Bridge, and spoke at a few small gatherings. I was amazed at how many international connections there were at the groups I spoke at. There was a woman who had grown up overseas and really enjoyed talking to someone who understands that life. There was a woman who has grandkids growing up overseas and had questions about what sort of life they could have inside an expat bubble. There were several women who had lived overseas as missionaries, and one who had travelled to China many times. Our host church has several non-English congregations (I visited their Chinese service – mostly Cantonese with some translation into Mandarin) and it was fascinating for me to learn a little about the difference between these immigrant congregations and the expatriate congregations I was familiar with in Beijing.
The other really fun thing I did was SING. I sang at all three of the services our team attended – twice with a band for congregational worship, and once singing with the church’s choir for their Easter cantata performance. I joined them with only one practise and in a borrowed outfit, but it was a lot of fun! It was a fairly simple arrangement and I didn’t make too many mistakes.
I wasn’t stressed ahead of time by the tasks assigned to me – I’d done the same sorts of things before. Actually, a lot of it was things I’ve been paid to do in the past! I felt so at ease, and I wasn’t sure why – til I realised I was in my element for the first time since moving to Australia three months earlier. It was like a sigh of relief, a relaxing into the comfortable – doing things I’m experienced at. Spending time with teenagers. Singing and leading songs. Sharing with small groups. Chatting with international students. This is my comfort zone!
I think that’s probably the opposite of what these service weeks are really intended to be. I think the goal, for most students, is to try new things, to get outside one’s comfort zone, to be stretched and challenged. Yeah, not so much for me. But I think it was probably what I needed. To be reminded that I have useful, practical skills. That I have practised these things enough to be comfortable and competent without any stress. That I actually love doing these things! It was nice to feel competent again, to feel useful again. I’ve missed that these past few months.