My early twenties were a crazy mix of rehearsals, administration and university readings… before and after more rehearsals. I spent most of my time at church. And I’d recommend that, overall, as my peers were generally tipsy in the backyard of Sydney suburban houses, and fumbling in the dark with each others’ clothes. Which sounds fun until you’re there with them, which I was a couple of times, and it just all felt so boring, to be honest.
It’s not that I was a better person than them, far from it. But I valued church as community-building. You know, where you learn the names of eighty year olds, and smile and wave at them on your way to rehearsals. Where the excitement of dancing along to pentecostal beats turns into watching lives change, like literally transform before your eyes. Drug dealers turning into legitimate business men, and shy little teenagers becoming leaders. It was like cicadas emerging and leaving their old shells behind on a tree.
But these passions of mine were odd. And I admit it now.
There were times later where I realized that these “boring” conversations in the backyards were normal, and that all the people talking matured into their next life stage, and that my involvement in youth group in the “naughties” decade had ruined me forever at holding the two worlds in tension. I had a terrible feeling that my train had come off the rails – but by this time it was too late, and my peer group had moved on. There was no way to reverse time to sit by a Winter fire with a beer and ask my friends how they found wisdom, and how they built community, or how many old people they knew, or which musics inspired them to dance in a crazy, happy blur. I never asked them what they knew of God.
I may never have had the conversations I imagine. I realize that. It could just have been me, rolling my eyes as they smoked joints and talked about nothing at all. But there were a couple of times when these worlds collided in the strangest of moments, and I saw something profound, and I believed it may even still be possible.
One of those was a Saturday night. During this season of my life, I was singing by night and working at high speeds by day, and I was exhausted. Literally so tired, I often couldn’t fall asleep. And so we decided to go for a late dinner at a place in Parramatta. It was an enormous restaurant, and always empty, but it somehow managed to stay in business. We often met there on Saturday nights because it was big enough for my huge group of friends, and we’d found a back entrance with a carpark. So, after a night dancing in church, all my Pentecostals and I used to park and come in through the sleazy back corridor. I always secretly wondered if this place doubled as a brothel. It doesn’t really matter where you are if you’re with the shiny, happy people of God.
But this time, it was just me and one friend, and I can’t even remember exactly who it was (I only have a guess). We sat in the front window of the restaurant, and we ordered pasta, and I stared out towards the road with a tired, tired stare, and tried to make conversation fun and trivial enough.
And then I saw her. A girl, drunkenly stumbling around, trying to jump in front of cars. And I stared more closely, because I knew her face. She was a girl from church. Not from my immediate circle of friends, but I remembered her because we had matching fake fur jackets and we’d laughed together, and because we liked the same boy with the spikey hair who was so kind to the girls.
Before I knew what I was doing, I screamed to my friend “call an ambulance”, or maybe this is a revision of the story and she just knew to, because heaven knows I wouldn’t do something practical like that. But I was there, in the middle of the road, and screaming the girl’s name. And she turned around, and the look in her eyes was unbelievable, the most pain you could ever imagine.
And I asked her “what are you doing?”
And she pulled out a notebook and it had so many scribbles in it, but the last page had the words “I’m going to kill myself”. And she looked at me and said “let me do this”.
And I looked back at her in the face, and I said “hell no”.
That night, after the ambulance assessment, they called the police. And the girl was so drunk she wouldn’t stop trying to die, and even her bag strap was dangerous to her. So I travelled in a paddy wagon back to the station with her, partly to stop her, and partly to prove that she wasn’t going to get arrested. My first and my last time ever in a police van.
Back at the station, she was completely inconsolable. The police put her in their office, and between the paperwork they had to do she sobered up slightly and we talked about life and choices, and our missed opportunities with the spiky haired boy. I found out she had been through a pentecostal program for eating disorders, and was an “ambassador” for the program for a while, but still felt she was ugly and fat and hated herself. And I told her that most girls I knew hated their bodies, if they were really honest. And we sat in silence for a while. And then she was drunk again, and wild and angry, and she told me that the minute she was away from me, she would kill herself. The police informed me that if she didn’t calm down, that they would have to lock her away for the night, and she heard this and got worse and worse, so they showed her the cell. And finally, she was curled up under the police woman’s desk, and she was crying.
Finally everyone else was out of the room, and I, like a good Pentecostal reached out my hand and touched her with my palm, and I prayed to God like I have never prayed before. In tongues, for those of you who keep googling me and accusing me of faking pentecostalism. There. I prayed in tongues.
And I felt a presence heavy on the air, and it was strongest around her, and after a few minutes, she opened her eyes and she looked at me, and she said “Ok. I want to go home”.
I was so, so grateful. We got in the police car, and delivered her home to her mother at 3am in the morning. They lived in one of the poorer Western suburbs, in a weatherboard house. Her mother was wearing a fluffy pink bath robe, and freaked out when she realized there were police on her porch. But her expression after seeing me was priceless. It was like I had jumped off the church stage to rescue her daughter. Then she became slightly hysterical as she realized what had happened, and started yelling at the girl, so a policewoman said “I think maybe it’s time for her to get to sleep now, hey”, and I nodded and assisted the staggering girl to her bedroom. It was one of the prettiest I’d ever seen, with hippie fabrics and fairy lights on the ceiling, and I told her that I wish I had seen her bedroom before now. She agreed, and after struggling, finally asked for help to get into her nightie.
I left her, and returned to the police station with my (amazing!!!) friend, and got into my blue Charade called “Jehoshaphat” and drove back to my house, and I’ve never seen her since that day. Not that I didn’t try, multiple times. We chatted a bit on facebook, and then I lost touch.
Today I found out it was her funeral. And I scrolled through each of the messages in fear with tears running down my face, but it turns out her death was a natural event. And while I was sad, I read that she had gone on to be a nurse, and touched so many lives. There are literally hundreds of people who thanked her on her Facebook page. She rescued kangaroo joeys and she looked after people. She had a great life.
And I’ve never really told anyone about that night in the police station until now.
The theologian Michael Frost recently said something that caught my attention,
“The missional movement is to the church what Uber and Airbnb are to the taxi and hotel industries”
And I’ve thought a bit about the quote since reading it. I think this was perhaps my first experience of being present and “on call” for Christian mission in the wider sense. Not the “Christianization” of Africa in huge altar calls. Just me simply being there, right time, right place, participating in what God was doing at the time. It’s a type of presence made sacramental by the Salvation Army.
And it makes me wonder whether I will get to a place where I will find God’s presence as easily outside of the worship service as inside. And if I could someday sit by a fire in a suburban backyard and have the same experience as jumping up and down for two hours to frenetic music. And if I can, I’m pretty sure that I can watch people transform there like cicadas without ever stepping into a church building. Not that I’ll stop attending, of course, or for that matter inviting people.
But I think it’s shown me a different way of being Christian. So I also have a lot to be grateful to this girl for.
Thanks so much A___. RIP.