During my sophomore year at Southern California College, now Vanguard University, I had the opportunity to travel to Australia on a short-term mission trip. My knowledge of geography was severely limited back then. I did not know that it was summer during our winter here. I didn’t even know Sydney had beaches.
The price of the trip was nearly $2500, a price which I alone could not afford. I sent support letters out to friends and family. My home church, Christian Life Church, in Long Beach, California, also announced my opportunity. During a Sunday night church service, I came to accept that I probably wasn’t going to be able to go. I found out the next day that my trip had been paid in full.
We left Los Angeles International on December 26, 1980. Somewhere along the way, our plane crossed the international dateline. It was an unusual experience, losing a day, but we arrived in Sydney and were greeted by our hosts.
It was a bit surreal to see window decor picturing Santa in the snow in the middle of the summer. The weather was perfect, and the beaches sublime. I was assigned to do youth ministry on Manly Beach. What I was not expecting were topless beaches. There is nothing quite as shocking as turning around in line while at a snack shop in seeing an elderly woman in a bikini bottom, no top, and silicon-based sunblock applied to very delicate areas! I still shutter with thinking about it forty years later. I have told a story about I studied for a sermon and was interrupted by a beautiful topless blonde asking me for directions; one day, I may work up the nerve to share that story.
Many of the guys stayed at the home of two elders in the small church we were working. It’s a misnomer to call them “Elders” since these men were in their early 20s. They were both postal workers and had received quite a bit of gifts from people on their routes. It was a bit shocking to this 19-year-old when I open the fridge to see a ton of alcohol. At the time, alcohol was taboo in Evangelical circles. I remember shaking my head and saying I can’t believe they are so liberal! Sometime in the next day or so, I was reading campus life magazine, a magazine targeted at evangelical youth. One of the guys asked to read it, and I handed it over to him. He also made a gasp, and I ask, “what’s the matter?” He was appalled that a Christian magazine had ads for women’s make up. They were OK with alcohol, but women’s cosmetics was out of the question.
I was asked to preach a sermon in a town about an hour away from Sydney. I took the train and brought my very first CS Lewis book, The Great Divorce. It was the first book besides Jonathan Livingston Seagull that I read in one sitting. It is still among my CS Lewis favorites today.
When I arrived at the church, someone asked my age, and I said, “19.” Their response was “fair dinkum,” a term Aussies used in place of “really?” After asking for the definition and how the word should be used appropriately, one of our hosts gave me two words that I should use in my sermon that were exclusively used by people in Australia. I remembered the perplexed look of my audience when I used these words. Unknowingly on my part, these new friends made up those two words as a joke. I’ve since replayed that joke on others!
One of my team members, Toria Cole, was a girl I had known on campus reasonably well. She had, at the time, an annoying habit of touching me when she talked. I began to think she had ulterior motives. When we were walking down the street one day, she looked at me and said, “I am sorry I have been so touchy on this trip.” My reply was something like, “thank you, Toria; it bothers me when you touch me like that.” She looked downcast and said, “I meant my feelings.”
On the last day of our month in Australia, our host took us to the diving cliffs. We were up about 50 feet and looking out over the beautiful Pacific when we received instructions on how best to enter the water. Toria decided she wanted to be first and prove that she can do anything the guys could do. We reminded her that she needed to go in very straight, and she nodded in agreement.
As she leaped off that point, she held her nose and lifted her legs. It sounded as if someone had hit concrete when she entered the water. She came up and was obviously in distress. Everyone top just looked at each other in a confused manner. No one was jumping to her aid, so I let my Boy Scout life-saving training go and play. I drove down and swim out to her. At the time, she was heavier than my 120-pound frame. I struggled to get her to the shore but found out the only way was to go through an underwater cave and then of this year face of that cliff. I honestly don’t remember how I did it. Toria would spend the next few weeks in the hospital while we departed to go home.
I learned a crucial lesson on the flight home. My team members were embracing our hosts and crying. They do not want to say goodbye to their new found friends. All I could think of was going home. I had not let my heart become entangled in relationships hindered brlong distance. I was proud of the fact that our departure did not hurt me. On the 18-hour flight home, I was struck with the fact that I had lost out on meaningful friendships. To this day, I still make it a point never to sacrifice relationships to avoid pain.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in the school cafeteria when Toria bounding in. She threw her arms wide open and proclaimed me loudly, “my hero!” She then planted a kiss on my lips in front of all my friends. I was beet red at all the attention.
These days, I am proud of that rescue. Every once in a while, I will get a “my hero” from Toria over Facebook. I am no longer embarrassed but remember that time fondly.