Making a late career U-turn for mission, community and simple living
CRUISE down the Rhine or up to Alaska …. buy a four-wheel-drive and comfy caravan and see more of Australia …. spend up big on your personal hobbies or anything else that grabs your interest …. Whatever you do, take it easy. You’re almost at retirement and you’ve earned the right to spoil yourself a little while you still can.
It’s a constant message and firm expectation for people my age, delivered through media of all kinds and embedded in the culture of our society. Closer to home, it was not uncommon among former work colleagues for someone to announce they were taking early retirement and heading off overseas for extended travel or travelling north in a motorhome. These leisure options were never ones we particularly aspired to during our working careers, but, these days, they are further from our minds than ever.
My wife, Anthea, spent 25 years as a teacher, breaking only for five years to care full-time for our two young children, and I have worked for 45 years in journalism. In many ways, we have followed a traditional path – nuclear family, full-time jobs, home owners, nice holidays, membership in mainstream churches, a private school education for our two kids and the requisite dog. We’d say we’ve never been lavish or wasteful – our upbringing saw to that, with parents who struggled financially and lived simply – but it was nice to be comfortable, to be able to pay for what we wanted and feel self-contained and safe.
All the same, when we briefly thought about our later years, we never saw ourselves becoming 'grey nomads'. Instead, we felt that once we’d raised the kids and seen them settled in worthwhile careers, and when we felt ready, we’d like to do something more for God – some sort of mission activity somewhere that would constitute a 'giving back' to the Father who’d given us so much.
It was that kind of thinking that spurred us to sign up for TEAR Australia’s annual exposure trip to India (TWESO) in January/February 2010. We’d been long-term supporters of TEAR, so it felt like a logical choice. Those seven weeks proved a revelation – not just in the startling Bible teaching on God’s heart for the poor from such remarkable personalities as CB Samuel, Mark Delaney and Steve Bradbury, but through the many unforgettable people we met through TEAR’s partner, EFICOR, in New Delhi and elsewhere.
No less a revelation was seeing, tasting and smelling, first-hand, what life was truly like for India’s countless and desperate poor, coping with the chaotic traffic, visiting slums, schools and hospitals, staying in a remote mountain village, enduring two interminable train rides across the country (one was 52 hours) and receiving undeserved, lavish hospitality in people’s homes.
That experience starkly and painfully illustrated to us where we’d been and where we knew we wanted to go.
We felt deeply convicted that we had chosen to read the Bible through our middle class lens and, in essence, had failed to show through our lives that God’s people operated under values radically different from those of the world. The only thing we knew for sure at that stage was that we needed to make a break from our previous lifestyle and physically place ourselves somewhere alongside people who were struggling, within the context of a community of like-minded others.
We spent the following year earnestly searching for alternatives as to where that might be. After many conversations and prayers, we felt drawn to Seeds Bendigo, a small and humble missional community living in Long Gully, a large public housing enclave in Bendigo saturated in generational poverty. We leased our house in Ballarat, quit our full-time jobs and rented a home on the edge of the housing estate to give it a try. That meant no jobs to go to and an immediate huge drop in income, but we were excited to have our feet on the bottom rung of the ladder where we believed God wanted us to be.The Seeds community – and wider Seeds network of the time – was warm and welcoming and our adult children were both supportive and encouraging.
What was obvious straight away was that we had entered alien territory. The gap between our life experience and that of many of our neighbours was immense. Their language, outlook, values, culture and expectations were totally foreign to us and all we could do was don the 'L-plates' and be open and willing to be affected. It was a learning experience one would not tackle alone. We certainly couldn’t, but, strengthened by the vision and energy of our Seeds companions, we joined in where we could.
By August of that year, we knew we wanted to stay in Bendigo with Seeds, so put our Ballarat home on the market. It sold quickly and we started house-hunting in Long Gully soon after. Housing stock in this area is generally old and in poor-to-average condition – it’s the cheapest place to buy a house in Bendigo and considered the least desirable.
We sought part-time work to keep more time free for involvements with local people and programs. In 2011, our combined annual income dropped from $150,000 to around $35,000. We were still far from poor in any sense, but found it stimulating and freeing to be making do with less money. We discovered more about sharing resources, becoming more thoughtful about food and purchasing goods, growing vegies, the joys of op shops, sharing hospitality and meals with others. We even began occasional forays into dumpster diving – something we would never have dreamed of doing before!
We have tried to be more open to asking strangers into our home, in response to the Bible’s call to practise hospitality. In time, that led to us becoming approved as foster carers, initially taking in children for weekends and emergency overnight stays. This developed into a long-term arrangement two years ago, when a 12-year-old girl known to the Seeds community was taken into care from an unsustainable family situation. She is still with us and we are re-embarking on the tricky journey through adolescence!
There have been times when we’ve looked back fondly on our former life, but those over-the-shoulder glances have been brief. Not for a minute would we want to go back. We still have old friends from the past, though some have fallen away. That’s been a disappointment, but this loss has been more than compensated by the richness of relationships we have enjoyed over the past four years and the joy of sitting with someone from a starkly different life experience, creating connections and learning from each other.
We feel that, in a very small way, we have experienced the deep truth of Jesus’ words in Matthew, chapter 19, addressed to the rich young man:
'Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for my name’s sake, will receive many times as much and will inherit eternal life.'
We didn’t leave children or farms, but did purposefully leave one life behind for another.
In one sense, that was easy. We’d already educated our children without restrictions and established rewarding professional careers, so what were we really laying down? When we look at other families we know who are seeking to raise their children in a more counter-cultural way, we feel like we’ve sacrificed very little. Nonetheless, God has been, and continues to be, true to his word.^ back to top