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From Australia With Love
February 10, 1980

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

I spent over four months in Australia with the family on a ministerial exchange. You can't help living that long in a country to be exposed to another culture, to be partially assimilated into that culture, to learn many things, and to bring back some of those insights to share with the rest of you. I enter this sermon with fear and trepidation because Nell is here, and she's a native of Australia, and Catherine Lauritson just got back from a trip to Australia. How many of you have ever been to Australia? Raise your hand. Oh, look at all the experts! And I'm going to talk about Australia this morning! Well, from my point of view, and from my perspective of living in St. Lucia, I’m bringing back some insights to share with our church and with our community, realizing how difficult it is to learn from the experiences of other people.

If you're a parent, you know how difficult it is for children to learn from the experience of their parents. They want to repeat the same mistakes and “do it myself”. How difficult it is to actually look at another person or another culture or another country, and learn from that experience and apply it to our own. 

One of the most repeated phrases that I heard was, “Australia is a generation behind the United States.” People said over and over that they’re behind us. And my response was, “Do you really want to catch up? Can you look at the mistakes that America has made?” If you imagine what the United States was like 20-30 years ago, that's about where Australia is in many ways. I gave a talk to the senior graduating class of the high school in which we had religious training once a week. Ministers from Catholic, Uniting Churches,  Episcopalian, Anglican and lay people together cooperatively, ecumenically talk to high school students in their weekly religion class. I was invited to give the last talk of the year to the seniors, and I used the  theme: Do you really want to catch up? I said, “Your skies are still blue. The Brisbane River is relatively clean. Your air is clean. Do you really want to catch up, being a generation behind? The United States contains 6% of the world's population and uses over 50% of the world's resources. Do you want to catch up?” 

Very few have dishwashers, very few have air conditioning. I didn't see any electric knives and all those “mod cons” as they call  modern conveniences. I saw them drinking tea and taking time out for tea in the middle of the morning and in the middle of the afternoon—not just a coffee break but a ritual at home. The pace is much slower, and I said, “Do you really want to catch up?” I loved to listen to an elderly retired man who had a very thick Irish brogue. He was now taking care of his invalid wife. He had to do all the housekeeping, all the cooking and so forth. We asked, “Do you keep all these meals?  He said, “Oh, yes. We have breakfast, we have morning tea in the middle of the morning, we have lunch, we have afternoon tea, we have tea at the evening meal (they call the evening meal “tea”), and we have supper just before we go to bed.” Six times a day they eat! He said, “I have to get up early in the morning to get all those meals in.” What a great way to live! 

“Do you really want to catch up?” I would ask.  Australia's crime rate is low. The streets in the cities are safe. Sunday is still a day of rest. The shops close on Saturday noon and do not open till Monday morning, even the shopping centers, even the vintage fairs close on  Saturday noon, and do not open till Monday morning. You can't buy gasoline except from the coin operated pumps if you have enough 20 cent coins, and it takes a lot them to get any amount of gas. They close because they believe in family life. They believe in taking their rest. New Zealand is the same way. We were in New Zealand at the height of the tourist season, and restaurant after restaurant were closed. “We’re on holiday.” 

“Do you really want to catch up to our pace? And our crime rate?” It seems like old greed was just a little more contained and controlled there. A youth in one of the high school classes one day was talking about suicide. He had read about the high frequency of teenage suicide in the United States. He said, “You know, Australia is behind.” I said, “Do you really want to catch up?” 

The same question can be asked of us here in Manteca. Our skies are still blue. We still see clouds. Our water is relatively pure. Our streets are relatively safe, but our crime rate is increasing. Our teenage suicide rate is still relatively low, and the number of teenagers on drugs is still relatively low. Do we want to catch up to the rest of the cities in this country? Or, can we make some decisions and take some responsibility about our community? Can we learn from the experiences of other people, or do we have to commit to this road that is leading to the destruction of human life, and to the undermining of the quality of family life and marriages? And crime and violence and pollution? Do we have to go that same route, or can we learn from the experiences of others? 

I commend to you some of what I observed in Australia. I was very impressed with their concern for children and youth, a concern which we used to have in this country, but it seems to be lost. I saw a concern for the children's education. They have devised some unique ways of responding to particular needs. As you know, most of Australia is in the outback with very little rain. With sheep stations sometimes hundreds of miles apart, the population is very low, and to respond to the educational needs of the children, they have devised correspondence classes and a unique School of the Air where once a week a child in the outback gets on his/her CB radio and talks to the teacher. There'll be three or four other students talking to the teacher at the same time. They get a half hour a week. Then they send in their lessons, the teacher corrects and sends them back. When they're old enough, they go to the towns and the cities to boarding schools. Many of the dormitories and homes were built by churches to provide good care for the children going to school away from home. 

I saw a concern for children and youth through the International Year of the Child which they really observe on radio and television programs. It’s a nationwide effort to emphasize and lift up before us the child. We saw an education system and participated in an educational system that was superior. It was excellent. Youth can leave school after the 10th grade if they do not want to go to college and go into trade schools, or they can go to work, which leaves the high schools free to provide a quality educational experience for the students who want to be there. Some elementary schools are based upon excellence of academics, arts and music. In our elementary school there were two orchestras in that little school and an excellent choir program. The schools are not neighborhood schools, at least in the city where we lived. Children can choose to go any school they want to for high school or elementary, and they ride the city buses to get there. I saw a school that wears uniforms as a leveler among the students so no student could dress either too smartly or too sloppily as our students like to do. 

We are progressing so rapidly in our country it seems to me we've lost a concern for the children and  youth. Our educational system is in deep trouble, and as our schools go, so go our country. If kooks like Jarvis keep putting initiatives upon us, the public school is going to be destroyed. I heard Wilson Riles a year ago. As Superintendent of Schools, he hoped he did not see the demise of the public school in California. It's coming fast. As schools run out of reserve funds, what are they going to use? We will see increasingly our poor teachers burdened down with 30 to 40 in a room with counseling help pulled off, with music and other extracurricular activities pulled off because we can't afford them. Our public school is going down the tubes. The Assembly of God is building a church school, maybe the rest of us will also have to, for what will happen to our children and youth, and who cares? Our administrators and our teachers can only provide a school system that is dependent upon the support of the community and the way California is supporting its schools is tragic. I saw in Australia a concern for children and youth that is being undermined and destroyed in this country. We should care. 

I was impressed in Australia with their spirit. It reminded me of the spirit of our ancestors when they came to this country, tamed it and made this a great nation. Australia did the same with even more severe conditions. The geographical environment in Australia is hostile, like we don't experience. The first explorers declared Australia as not fit for human habitation. But, when England needed another place to send its prisoners, when they lost the United States with the Revolutionary War, they needed another place to send its prisoners and build a penal colony. Based on the favorable reports of Captain Cook, they set up a penal colony in Australia. Those early settlers of Australia were usually uneducated people, caught in crimes, caught in poverty. They were the early ancestors of Australia and look at the nation they built! They had a great spirit of determination. 

One of the secrets of their spirit is their sense of humor. Those old ballads, those old songs, those old stories exhibit a tremendous sense of humor. I thought the best example of the Australian spirit and sense of humor is  Alice Springs. The city is in the center of the country with very little rain. The people decided, “Everybody else has a boat race, why can't we? We can have a boat race, except there's no water in the river.” So what did they do? They put six men in a boat to row and they knocked out the bottom of the boat, so they run the race. That spirit made Australia great. Such a sense of humor. They had a little problem a year ago, because there was a lot of rain. There was water in the river and they didn't know what to do! 

And I was impressed with the churches in two ways that I commend to you. First, I was impressed with the Uniting Church, which is a new denomination, a merger of the Methodist Presbyterian and Congregational denominations. I’m impressed with their concern for their people and with the love and fellowship they develop within their congregations. It’s largely in part due to the elder system, which they brought into the Uniting Church from the Presbyterian Church. Elders are assigned the responsibility of relating to about 12 other families in the church. The elders are expected to visit in the homes of all the people in their flock once every three months. In the old Presbyterian system, they took Communion tickets to the people, and when the people came to quarterly Communion, they brought their tickets back. This system of fellowship within the church was very beautiful, and it's something we can always be improving in our church. 

Secondly, I was very impressed with the social conscience of the Uniting Church with its concern for the society, and its outward reach. The Uniting Church became an ardent supporter of the Aboriginal cause. The Aborigines of Australia and the Indians of America have a similar history in their relationship to the white community—a lot of strain and tension. The Aborigines who have not been assimilated into the Australian way of life have been pushed onto reservations. One of these communities is an island community upon which was discovered recently, some minerals that the state government of Queensland would like to take. They began to put pressure on this Aboriginal community to get the mineral rights, but the community refused. The government in Australia is very centralized. All tax money goes from the communities to the central headquarters, and then it is dispersed back to the communities. So the state government of Queensland proceeded to cut off the funds to the Aboriginal community to force them to agree with the government policy, but the Uniting Church of Australia took on the funding of the community. For several months, they supported the community to the tune of several million dollars until the government backed down. It wasn't too popular with some of the other people and it certainly wasn't popular with the governor who calls the Uniting Church a bunch of Communists. But they won the support of the Aboriginals. I heard an Aborigine man stand up and say that this was the first time that any institution or any group of people that was strong enough and had funds stood by us. As a result, there is a great missionary movement now among the Aboriginal communities. They are joining the Uniting Church. 

I share these insights with you today from Australia with love. If we can get a spirit that is indomitable, unbeatable, unquenchable and well seasoned with a sense of humor, I think we're unbeatable. If we can get that kind of a spirit and apply it to a concern for children and youth, to a concern for our environment, to a concern for the oppressed and for equal quality of life for all people, we can be unbeatable. Whenever we get discouraged, even with all our wealth and all our resources, whenever we get discouraged, remember Australia, and what a determined spirit made of that barren, unfriendly, hostile land, settled by prisoners. 

We too, can be unbeatable in whatever we decide to do.

© 1980 Douglas I. Norris