Who moved the finish line?

You’ve just about reached the finish line of your ministry life, two years away from retirement in a Melbourne church that you have pastored for 18 years. Another two years will make a nice round 20 and you can finally retire and take your foot off the pedal of life. Darrell and Pam McKerlie were in exactly that position but they chose a totally unexpected option.

The McKerlie’s accepted a call to Broome Baptist Church, the beginning of a new and unexpected ministry, including amongst asylum seekers in detention. Darrell writes: “It was what came next that took us a little by surprise. As we started telling people we were going to Broome, we got the same response, “Why Broome?!” It usually came across as though we must have done something terribly wrong and we were being banished to this far away place. Actually, Broome is the furthest place you can go by bitumen from Melbourne and still be in Australia, but that had nothing to do with it, we just knew God had something special for us in Broome.

Like Philip we travelled to Broome not knowing exactly what God had in mind for us, but we knew for certain this was where God wanted us. The church folk welcomed us with open arms and within no time we felt at home and at peace that this was where God wanted us to be. One thing I have learnt for certain through this move is that God never wastes a life experience. Looking back over our lives there have been so many experiences that God has used to prepare us for this adventure. The churches we have served in, the travelling we have done and the people we have met along the way have all contributed to prepare us for such a time as this.

The surprising ministry direction began shortly after their arrival in Broome. Darrell writes that “one day about three months after our arrival I received an invitation to meet some Immigration Officers from a Detention Centre being set up at the Curtin RAAF base – just a mere 200 kilometres up the road. They drove to Broome to meet the local ministers. Their appeal to us was clear. “Can you help us? We have a lot of unhappy, and in many cases depressed, men who are very uncertain about their future as they await the outcome of their request for asylum in Australia.”

On our first few trips we were accompanied by lay folk from two Broome churches and as many as seven travelled together, but it soon settled down to about three or four regulars. At that time most of the residents in the Curtin Detention Centre were from the minority Hazaras ethnic group in Afghanistan and all were men. (Curtin is a men-only Detention Centre.) These people have been persecuted for decades, more recently with a vengeance by the Taliban, and treated not much better by their own government which is made up of people mostly from the Pashtuns, the largest tribal group in Afghanistan.

In those early days we hung out in the open areas and chatted to whomever we encountered. Sometimes the temperature would be around 40 degrees, so under the trees was always a good spot. One of my first impressions was the politeness of the men, they were always friendly and they would greet you by putting their hand across their chest and nodding their head to you. They loved to meet anyone who would talk to them, and that was not many people, so every time we visited we had a good reception.

Once inside the compound every visit was different. Sometimes we would split up, some played pool with the men, while others were engaged in various conversations. I don’t know how to play pool so I usually ended up in conversation. The language issue was always a challenge, but usually there was someone among them who could speak enough English for us to have a reasonable conversation. Once that conversation started it was not long before a crowd would gather. Everyone was eager to ask questions through the one person who could speak English.

As time passed they came to realise that we were Christians. That tended to divide the men roughly into three groups. For some they no longer hung around us, others tolerated us, yet others were keen to learn all they could about Christianity without actually revealing their real interest. You see it is difficult for them to ask questions in front of countrymen who might disapprove of them showing even the slightest interest in Christianity.

Towards the end of 2010 the makeup of our team changed considerably; the Uniting Church minister moved away from Broome, others were unable to continue and that left just two other men from Broome Baptist, Murray and Michael, who visited with me when they could – both had employment responsibilities that made it difficult for them to attend regularly.

It has and continues to be a joy to visit Curtin, although one can never anticipate how the day will unfold. Often it starts slowly and you can’t help thinking ‘not much is happening here today’. Then, from seemingly nowhere, men would gather around us. As they got to know us their curiosity about Christianity ensured that became the subject of our conversations. The most amazing thing was there was always one of their own who could interpret.”

Darrell has found this unexpected ministry opportunity extremely rewarding, and late in life finds himself on a steep learning curve as he comprehends how to relate the Gospel to certain cultures. Due to the sensitive nature of ministry amongst refugees and also the risks associated with profession of faith in Christ for people from some countries, the inspirational stories that Darrell could tell are best kept out of the media glare.

Darrell and Pam are a classic example of the hidden potential of many older members of our movement of churches who are moving towards retirement and have a greater freedom than in previous stages of life, and can put it to good use taking advantage of the many opportunities that are available to fulfill the Great Commission. Many ‘grey nomads’ already do this with a range of organisations such as Mobile Mission Maintenance and other more freelance arrangements doing part time roles in churches that do not have the budget to employ staff. The Second Wind Network in Australia exists to ‘Help Aussie believers in their 40s, 50s and 60s engage with God’s global plan’, and they play an important role in linking need to availability. Retirement for many does not mean a gradual slowing down in God’s waiting room, but rather a whole new epoch of faith adventures.

The McKerlie’s have also joined in with many other Australian churches in meeting the needs of new migrants to Australia, in this case not-yet migrants in detention. There’s no shortage of people discussing the issue of asylum seekers, but this is a practical and direct way of ministering to those who want to engage, and in Darrell’s experience there is no shortage.

Darrell recommends his experience to others: “I would also love for you to discover your own exciting story. Not long before Pam and I left Mooroolbark Baptist Church for Broome Baptist Church I was led by God to preach on that story where Peter attempted to walk on water. Though it was a brief walk that required Jesus’ rescue, Peter is the only one in human history of whom it is recorded ever attempted such an amazing feat, even if he only lasted a few seconds – the fact is he did it! Peter should not be criticised but admired for this outlandish act! After all, many people get to the end of life and all that can be said of them is that “they might have done something if they had only tried something”.

What is it in your life that God can use for His purposes and His glory? Are you willing to trust Him in a new ministry – no matter what your age may be?

The first thing Peter had to do in order to try this unrealistic act was to get out of the boat. He had to leave the security of what he was totally dependent on. Okay, so he didn’t last long, but he did experience the wonder of something that was totally beyond his own power to achieve; and he was the only one in that boat who thought about it and was willing to give it a go – I like him. Jesus must have thought it was noteworthy, that is why it is there in the Gospels for us to read about it. In stepping out of our boat and accepting a repositioning call like Philip we have also discovered the excitement of something we could never have imagined.”

Stan Fetting is the Operations Manager for Crossover Australia. Darrell McKerlie is enjoying a different kind of retirement, serving as the Pastor at Broome Baptist Church in Western Australia. Prac12.