'The thing that helped me most was going to church'
Gill’s story | Out of Africa and into parenting
“My big conversion was in Tanzania. Before that, I knew all the facts. I’d gone to a Billy Graham crusade in 1961. I went to Tanzania in 1974 as a missionary with CMS, and that’s where I understood grace for the first time. I worked as a secretary for two different bishops. But just before I left for Tanzania, someone had given me a copy of Knowing God by Jim Packer.”
“I still remember the day. I was in my bedroom and I got the book out to read, and I suddenly realised that the God of the universe had chosen me before the foundation of the world … and I had to do nothing. Before that, I’d seen Christianity as a list of things I had to do, and I didn’t always measure up. I’d tried to be the good daughter/good missionary and it didn’t always work. But that day, I suddenly saw that it wasn’t about me being good, or anything at all. Jesus had done it for me. It was as if I’d never heard the Gospel before. I got down on my knees and I prayed. And afterwards, I kept going back to that chapter … as well as the Bible!
“The rest of my years in Tanzania were really positive. After three years, my language was good. I could listen to Swahili and ‘hear’ what it meant, without translating it into English. All my close friends were Africans. I was involved in a girls club, and in one place I ran the local church bookshop. In other places, I just helped out wherever I could. I was planning on staying in Tanzania for life.
“Then, after 17 years in Tanzania, my twin sister called me from Australia. It was January 1991 and she was struggling. She said, ‘I have this sense that I need you at home, nearby.’ Her husband had died ten years earlier and she had three teenage children. She’d also had Hodgkin’s Disease as a newly-wed, many years earlier, and her health was deteriorating.
“I talked with my boss and my bishop. They agreed that I should return to Australia, so I left in April after a most amazing farewell. When I arrived, I went more or less straight to my sister’s place to look after her kids while she went to Sydney for an assessment. It turned out that her heart tissue was [fibrous] from the radiotherapy and she couldn’t get on the list for a heart transplant. She died three months later, in July that year. She was 45.
“I inherited the kids and they inherited me. It was actually more like we chose each other. But it was a hard start. I was known to them, but I knew nothing about teenagers … and we were all grieving. I was juggling everything, and working out boundaries. It was very hard. I’d never even changed a nappy.
“For a long time, I just put one foot in front of the other. I’d wake up, get out of bed and then do it all again the next day. The thing that helped me most was going to church. People there were very helpful. And that’s where I cried. We would be singing a song or a hymn and I would just cry. There was one hymn in particular. ‘How good is the God we adore, our faithful, unchangeable friend! … We’ll praise Him for all that is past and trust Him for all that’s to come.’
“That hymn sustained me every single day. It reverberated in my heart and mind. I’ve asked my friends to play it at my funeral. And good things happened as well. I got a job, which was a miracle. Then many years later, I became involved in a church that had people from many cultures. One day, a new family came from Africa. I went over and greeted the lady in her mother tongue. It turned out she’d lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania before arriving in Australia. She was amazed! She thought she’d never hear her mother tongue spoken ever again!
“And it’s now been 30 years since I returned to Australia. The kids are all in their 40s and we’re all such good friends … it’s amazing!”
‘For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.’ (Philippians 2:13)