My Dad grew up in a drovers’ camp in outback Queensland. Both his parents died before he reached the age of 10. He was as tough and as honest as the land he made his living from. Considering everything, he was a good dad to me. But we didn’t have any time for religion in our home. My mum had a bit of Lutheran faith in her background, but out in the bush it didn’t seem relevant. Maybe there was a Man upstairs, but we weren’t bothered with Him.
By the time I was 15 years old, I was making a living working at the local bacon and pork sausage factory. Eventually I got married, had three children and settled down on a share farm in Queensland. The hours were brutal, the rewards meagre. As the years went by, my drinking got out of control. I was having a couple of bottles of beer before breakfast. I knew that was excessive, but it was a way to handle the pressures. I loved a good smoke, too. I could roll my own cigarette while I was riding along in the bush on my horse. It took years for me to get that little trick down pat.
My life in ministry has been full of unexpected surprises.
And my idea of a good meal? Steak. If the steak didn’t fill the plate, then we hadn’t eaten, full stop.
My wife, Cheryl, was watching TV one evening and saw an ad for some spiritual lessons. At the time, our lives seemed so hard and so pointless, and I think she was also getting pretty fed up with my drinking. So she responded to the ad. Pretty soon, the local Adventist pastor showed up and started Bible studies with her. When he moved on to a new district, Pastor Murray and Bev Chapman took his place. Murray and Bev used to study with Cheryl and then Murray would come down and help me milk. I thought the bloke was crazy for coming down and working for nothing. I wasn’t interested in his faith. But I sure could use his help!
When my wife got baptised I didn’t attend. Our farmhand went and so I docked her a day’s pay. I still feel a bit guilty about that—I was firmly opposed to this religious stuff.
Even though Cheryl tried to share with me what she learned about God, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I completely shut her out. I believe it was her prayers that made the difference in God getting through to me. Two years after Cheryl was baptised, I was out ploughing one Sabbath morning when I was overwhelmed by a deep conviction that what I was doing was totally wrong. I got off the tractor, kneeled down on the freshly ploughed earth and opened my heart to Him. I promised that my days of working on the Sabbath were over and I committed my life to God.
Now I had to tell the owner of the property I was managing that I was going to keep the Sabbath. This was a problem because when I was hired, I committed to working a seven-day week. I was so nervous when I asked if I could talk with him. We met in the old machinery shed. I felt I had to lean against the metal work table, just so my legs didn’t buckle. He came in and said, “What is it, mate?” I replied, “You know how Cheryl goes off to church on Saturdays, well, I’ve decided to go too.” I’ll never forget his response: “Is that all? I reckon if we can’t make a go of this place working six days a week, we won’t working seven.” I walked out of that shed like I was walking on air.
Later, after I was baptised, I was called to be a literature evangelist (LE) in Gympie, Queensland. There was a three-week transition between moving from the farm and starting to knock on doors. We were down to nothing in the bank and so, for that three weeks, my family survived on pineapples that were too ripe to go to market and some watermelons from a kindly nearby farmer. My kids’ mouths were raw and their tongues bleeding from eating so much acidic pineapple. It was really rough. The first day I went out with Graham White knocking on doors, I was amazed by God’s graciousness as I came home after making a number of cash sales. We went out that night to the grocery store and bought food. Bread never tasted so good!
Here I was, a bloke who only knew how to talk to cows and machines, but during the four years I worked as an LE, we never went hungry. God took care of us, and through our LE ministry a number of people found Jesus. I’ll never forget the people we met. Like the lady in the old Queenslander home who, when I arrived on the front step, was out in the back praying, “Lord, if You’re really there, send me someone.” Can you imagine what it’s like to be used by God to answer someone’s prayer?
After a stint in secular employment I felt a call to the ministry. But that seemed impossible as I hadn’t finished high school. Nevertheless, the calling was so strong I filled out my application assuming I’d be turned down. I wasn’t.
So we put our home on the market, but it was in a downturn and the real estate agent said, “Not much chance you’ll move your place anytime soon.” We went ahead in faith. We were packed up ready to roll out of the driveway at quarter to five on a Friday afternoon, when the real estate agent came rushing in with a contract on our place. “Someone’s looking out for you,” he said. He was right.
My life in ministry has been full of unexpected surprises. For example, when I was general secretary of the Eastern Highlands Simbu Mission, in Papua New Guinea, there were problems at one of the schools. It got completely out of hand, with a group so enraged against the school treasurer and two other teachers that their lives were threatened.
I was able to get them out of the area and took them to a Lutheran facility in town, where we arranged to have them airlifted to Lae. When the time came to evacuate them, we drove out to the airstrip, they jumped out into the plane with its engines running and they were in the air within seconds. It was a challenging experience and I was so thankful to God for protecting us.
It was a long journey from outback Queensland to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and now to the beautiful surrounds of Auckland, New Zealand. I feel like I’m the most unlikely guy to be president of anything, let alone a union of God’s special Church. From a very tentative step in a machine shed through to my current role, God has been right there beside me. He used me in a way I never could have dreamed of. I have nothing special to offer God, but God has everything special to give to me. And I know he’ll use you, too, if you put everything on the line for Him.
Pastor Jerry Matthews is president of the New Zealand Pacific Union Conference, and recently announced his plan to retire.