Life of danger, providence and service leads to Australian honours
The incredible life of a former Scripture Union leader and missionary
When Oceans Roar by Ernest F. Crocker is a collection of remarkable testimonies, such as David and Robyn Claydon’s. Eternity is pleased to feature David’s story here. David was the former Scripture Union National Director, Director of the Church Missionary Society (CMS Australia) and served as International Director of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (Lausanne Movement). He has been awarded the Order of Australia medal in 2018 for his service to the Anglican Church of Australia, to inter-faith relations, and to refugees.
The front door was guarded by the largest and most beautiful cymbidium orchid that I had ever seen. Bracts of luminescent ivory blooms swayed in the cool morning breeze.
“We keep giving them away,” said Robyn, “but they just keep growing.”
The orchid was symbolic of this couple’s life. It was rare, exotic, and beautiful. David and Robyn had given themselves unselfishly to others over a lifetime, but the more they gave away the more they thrived.
“My life to that point had not been easy.” – David Claydon
It seems that David had been delivered from near-certain death at the hands of Congolese soldiers during his time as a missionary in Africa. I needed to check details.
We settled into comfy chairs armed with strong brewed coffee and Robyn’s specialty, a lemon lime slice.
“The story is remarkable,” he began. “But that was not the first time that God rescued me and please understand, my life to that point had not been easy.”
David was born in Bethlehem sometime in 1936 by his reckoning.
His parents, British citizens, had been killed in crossfire between the Zionists, British and Palestinians and all records regarding his birth, family and citizenship had been destroyed by bombing. A fairskinned boy with red hair, he had no name, no birth date and no family. He was totally without identity and as such became a ward of the Bethlehem Orphanage on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Arabic became his first language.
“I thought if Jesus cared that much about a lost lamb, He must care about me.” – David Claydon
With the coming of war, the German matron was interned and the orphanage closed. Lora Claydon, an Australian social worker, was assigned the duty of finding homes for the children.
Suffering from measles and pneumonia, and without proper medical care, young David lapsed into a coma. Lora wrapped him in a blanket and took him by taxi to the Church Mission to the Jews Hospital on the Street of the Prophets. Here the two doctors with Lora and her friends prayed fervently for his recovery. He remained in a coma for two weeks but by the grace of God recovered without deficit.
“A man would come in on Sundays to show us glass lantern slides,” he said. “One image was of Jesus with a lamb across His shoulders.
“I thought if Jesus cared that much about a lost lamb, He must care about me. So . . . I belong to Jesus.” He was four-and-a-half years old. When David was fully recovered, Lora decided to take care of him.
But this was not an easy transition for either party. At four years of age he spoke only Arabic with the occasional Arabic swear word!
When Lora suggested that he should learn English, he responded that she should learn Arabic. She recalled that when she gave him an order he climbed up onto the table where they were sitting and slapped her squarely across the face. But it was through Lora that David developed a deep sense of trust in God’s presence and provision that would stay with him through life. It was at this stage that he took the name of David, which seemed appropriate for one born in Bethlehem. He still had no family name.
“Most of the time we were desperately hungry and there were times when we nearly starved.” – David Claydon
Within twelve months Lora accepted an assignment in Ethiopia teaching English to the children of Emperor Haile Selassie, Amha and Princess Tenagnework. She left David in Jerusalem in the care of the Christian doctor who had nursed him through the coma.
Eventually Lora returned from Eritrea and once again took over David’s care.
“Most of the time we were desperately hungry,” he said, “and there were times when we nearly starved, but God always provided. One day with no money to buy bread we went out to find food. ‘Lora,’ I said, ‘we have no money.’
“‘God will provide. Pray, David,’ she said. As we approached the market gate a raven overhead dropped a silver coin just in front of me.
“I dived on it. That coin paid for bread and eggs that morning.”
Lora was appointed warden of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem where many believed Jesus had been buried. One day, as they sat praying for food in the garden, David heard the postman.
“Lora,” he said, “there is something in the letterbox.” It was a Palestinian £10 note in a letter from a Christian bank manager.
Depth charges and anti-aircraft guns were made ready…
After the second battle of El Alamein and Rommel’s recall to Germany, Lora decided it was high time to return home to Australia with her charge. The protectorate government advised that if she could make it to Cairo with David, then there may be room on a troop ship back to Australia. But David would need a passport and, indeed, a surname. On the advice of a British official she signed an affidavit stating that David was her nephew and he adopted her name of Claydon.
At the military HQ in Cairo, David and Lora were assigned to a small ship which was to transport officers back to Australia. The battle against Japan was imminent and the government needed to repatriate these men from the Middle East without delay, for reassignment.
The captain took a zigzag course across the Indian Ocean towards Australia on constant watch for U-boats and enemy planes. After stopping briefly in Fremantle, they entered the Great Australian Bight heading east for Melbourne, only to learn that a rogue U-boat had sunk Allied shipping in Port Phillip bay.
“That U-boat will pass you in the night on its return journey,” they were told, “and will no doubt torpedo you.”
That night officers met in the saloon and prayed for protection.
Depth charges and anti-aircraft guns were made ready, but no attack came. As they finally sailed into Port Phillip Bay, David saw the masts of the many sunken ships that had been torpedoed.
“I dedicated my life to God and told Him that I would serve Him. I was eight years old.” – David Claydon
“As I stepped onto Australian soil,” he said, “I recalled all the things that had happened to me and I thanked God that I was alive.”
“I dedicated my life to God and told Him that I would serve Him. I was eight years old.”
God’s hand of protection was clearly upon David. He had saved him from crossfire, from starvation, illness, drowning at sea, aerial bombing and U-boat 862. He had rescued this small nameless boy without even a birth date from a coma, which I suspect may have been an expression of measles encephalitis, and brought him to the other side of the world to fulfil a purpose and a destiny that only He could have designed.
So, you might ask with expectation, what plan and purpose did God hold for this young man just eight years of age?
Arriving in Australia, David and Lora first settled in Sydney where David attended Knox College using monies provided by the Palestinian government. But when funds were exhausted they moved to the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, where he attended Katoomba High, taking on casual work after school to help pay for food and lodging.
‘If this is for real, and Jesus really wants me, I’d better go and see what this is all about.’
David later went on to study economics, education and theology and eventually became the National Director of Scripture Union Australia, training youth workers throughout East Asia and establishing Scripture Union ministry in the South Pacific Islands. He served as Rector of St Matthew’s Anglican Church, West Pennant Hills, for six years and then headed up the Church Missionary Society of Australia, also serving as president of the United Mission to Nepal. But if you were to ask David what had been the most joyous and productive event of his life, he would no doubt refer to meeting and marrying Robyn. Together they find identity and purpose in God’s leading and provision.
Clearly David’s heart remains in the Middle East. “I often come across people who have come to Christ through a vision,” he said.
“Some of these visions are quite amazing, not at all straightforward.
“As an example, there was a Muslim man in Pakistan who was fishing and had a vision of Jesus walking to him across the water. Jesus showed him a picture of another man standing in front of a shop in Hyderabad. He recognised the street and the shop but not the man’s face.
“‘If this is for real,’ he thought, ‘and Jesus really wants me, I’d better go and see what this is all about.’
“Catching the next bus to Hyderabad he walked down Jacob Road to the shop that he had seen in the vision. And there was that man standing outside. It was the Bishop of Hyderabad.
“‘Jesus told me to come and see you.’
“‘Yes, I’ve been waiting for you,’ said the bishop, who took him to his home and later led him to the Lord. “When the man’s father heard that his son had converted, he sent dacoits to kill his son. The man invited the dacoits into his home, sat them down, fed them and told them how Jesus had called him across the water and why he had become a Christian.
“The dacoits did not feel that they could kill this man and returned to the father who was furious and sent them back to complete their mission.
“But this time they could not find him and eventually gave up.
“Christian friends took the man into care for his own protection.
David has arranged for many converts whose lives are at risk in the Middle East to come to Australia …
“He met a Christian girl and they were married. For safety, CMS sent them to Bible school in Singapore. Eventually they returned to Pakistan where the man became principal of a Bible college. He wrote later to say that he had had discussions with his father, who had also now converted.
“One of the big problems in the Arab world is honour killing,” said David. “When there is a conversion there is honour killing, and it is difficult to get a flow on of conversions. These people need to be relocated.”
David has arranged for many converts whose lives are at risk in the Middle East to come to Australia on humanitarian visas, and is currently bringing Christians from Syria and Iraq in association with the Minister for Immigration and the Barnabas Fund.
“So tell me about the Congolese soldiers,” I said.
“Well, I was in Africa with CMS at the time. With a MAF pilot and a senior missionary, I had flown into a small dirt airstrip in Zaire to meet with the local bishop. But the bishop happened to be in another town and to our dismay the airstrip was bristling with Congolese soldiers. One approached our plane.
“‘Give me your passport!’
“‘But I’m in transit, I am not alighting from this plane.’
“‘Get out . . . now!’”
David began to fear for his life.
The Congolese soldier was armed and meant business. Having no option, David climbed down from the plane to be led across the tarmac to a small tin shed where other soldiers sat laughing and carousing. Some lay sprawled on the ground, clearly inebriated.
It was blisteringly hot and not a good scene. David tried to explain his presence but within fifteen minutes his schoolboy French was exhausted and he had made no progress.
“You shouldn’t be on this tarmac,” said the soldier, “I’m going to lock you up until a senior officer comes from Kinshasa to interrogate you.”
David knew that such a man would be unlikely to travel nearly two thousand miles across the second largest country in Africa to interview him, and he began to fear for his life. The heat was oppressive.
He moved to the door for a breath of fresh air. And then he saw him. Across the tarmac walked a tall local man immaculately dressed in suit and tie, carrying a bundle of mail under his arm. The man approached the MAF plane, opened the door and placed the mail under David’s seat.
“Can you help me?” David called. The man replied in fluent English. David explained his dilemma.
“There are no cars. It’s an open field. He couldn’t just disappear.”
“Wait here,” said the man. “I’ll deal with it.” He addressed the soldiers in perfect French, returning in minutes. “All’s well. You’ve done nothing wrong, but for his loss of face, apologise to the soldier and he’ll give you back your passport.”
David apologised as instructed, then turned to find that the man in the suit was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s your man?” he quizzed the pilot, “where’s the other guy who helped me? He disappeared while I was apologising. There are no cars. It’s an open field. He couldn’t just disappear.”
“I don’t have a MAF representative here,” said the pilot. “But you do. He put mail on the plane. I saw it.”
“But we don’t take mail from here.” There was no mail in the plane! Back in Nairobi, David wrote to the senior missionary who had been with them on the plane. “Who was that guy? I want to thank him.”
Her reply: “No such man exists.”
As we made our way back to the car the orchid, now shaded, continued to exhibit grace and beauty. I was tempted to ask for a bloom but thought better of it.
I recalled how David had received a silver coin from a raven when he was hungry and without money for food and was reminded of how the ravens had fed Elijah by the brook when he was near to starvation.
And later, when the brook dried up altogether, a widow used the last of her flour and oil to bake bread for Elijah at great personal cost. Each time the flour and oil were used they were replenished by God. And I saw that David and Robyn were that flour and oil. They will continue as such, until the rains come.