How prayer, politics and an African philosopher got Australian missionaries home

Capital Letters No 1

Hello, Australian Christians. Could you bear a happy story today? One that might make you feel like God answers prayers? And, perhaps more miraculously, may even leave you feeling that government and politics are good things? 

It’s a stretch, I know, but wait until you hear about the heartbroken missionary stuck in Spain, the grandpa dying of cancer in the Hills district of Sydney, the hasty Zoom prayer meeting and, of course, the African philosopher from the 4th century who made sense of everything. 

For me, the story starts with a phone call from a retired Professor on a Sunday afternoon in September. “Matt, we were praying at church this morning, and, I must confess, my mind started wandering.”

“That’s hardly my fault, Professor”, I felt like saying; but he crashed on.

“We’re praying for this missionary family, Matt. Based in Valencia. After nine years, it’s time to come home, but they’ve been blocked.”

“Blocked?”

“Actually Matt, it’s worse than that. The missionary is Tania, married to Mike, they have four boys. In June, Tania got a call from her Dad. He’d been feeling poorly and got a diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer. Stage four.”

There are few phrases more chilling than, “Stage four cancer.” Because there is no stage five.

The Professor went on. “Even with the COVID flight restrictions, Tania’s managed to book tickets, with Qatar Airlines I think, for October. All paid for and confirmed. So that’s good. Tania’s Dad is hanging on. But with just a few days until departure, the airline has written to Tania and Mike and said, ‘Sorry. We’ve cancelled your tickets. It’s because your government won’t let you land.’ 

I had to ask, “So, how long has Tania’s Dad got?”

“Twelve months. That’s the average. But that was from June. Three months ago. The airline said their next available flight is in February.”

February. Who knew if Tania’s Dad would even be with us by then?

The conversation paused. 

I thought of Tania’s boys. I thought of the 30,000 Australians trying to get home from overseas. Some have waited a year already. What chance did Tania’s boys have to see their Grandpa at all? 

And I wondered to myself what the hell the government was doing here. I’ve become much more aware of anger in my body in recent years, and there it was, right in my throat. Then I asked the Professor what the next step was.

“All I know Matt is, when my mind was wandering during prayer, I thought, I must call Matt. I don’t know about any plan. But a bunch of us are getting together to pray over Zoom tomorrow night.”

Okay then. That’s where we start. A prayer meeting with strangers over Zoom for a family who are effectively marooned on the other side of the world.

The next 24 hours, I thought about political strategy. Made some phone calls. I wrote a text message to one Federal MP I do know from cycling in Canberra. He likes to give me a hard time because I once fell off my bike in front of Parliament. And several TV cameras. Which were doing a live broadcast. 

I asked him if there was a way to pull off what’s known as “a ministerial intervention.” His connections are pretty good, but his answer was blunt.

“Mate, I want to temper your expectations.” 

In other words, it wasn’t going to happen. 

I was stuck. And my mind went to the author I have read most since I moved to Canberra, an African Bishop from the 4th Century called Augustine. A Queensland staffer I deeply respect had read all of City of God and I’ve been pencilling notes in my copy since. Augustine makes more sense of politics than most bloggers I read. And I knew what the great Saint said about secular authorities: “He is at the service of God for your good” wrote Augustine in his notes on Romans. Government is a gift. It’s there for our good. Even for the good of Tania, her father and all their family.

When you see government as a gift for our good, it’s hard to be despairing for long — an emotion I detect amongst many libertarians and conservatives. They often see the government as an enemy who needs to be shrunk down to size and out of our lives. Or, even worse, these Christians suspect that the government is a force of darkness, deliberately restricting our religious freedom.

No, says Augustine, who lived under the Roman Empire — not generally known for its small government philosophy or for a track record of kindness towards Christians — government is a gift of God, and it’s there for your good. And if it’s not doing good, then you need to pray for them, and do what you can to support them in doing good.

I joined the Monday night prayer meeting that Anglican minister Justin Moffatt put together. Seventy strong. Including Tania and Michael in one small box, and Tania’s dad, Peter, with her mum Sue in another. We tried to be orderly, but we didn’t really know what to pray. Except that a flight would somehow appear. That the government would change its mind. That the cancer would slow down or even reverse. In the gaps where people were chatting, I wrote to everyone about a letter I wanted to write. It would be from Rev. John Gray the pastor of Peter and Sue’s church. And I asked everyone who wanted to support it for their email, because they were going to be part of it. 70 people sent me their emails. From there, seven things happened. And by the seventh, Tania, Mike and their boys were stepping onto a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

Step one: we wrote the letter of our lives. Rev. John Gray of Castle Hill didn’t know me from a pool boy (and we’ve actually never met). I told him what I believe and, with exactly zero evidence of my capabilities, he decided to trust me. In the letter, John pleaded for his parishioner, Peter, that he might be able to see Tania and the boys before it was too late. John asked that his MP would write to the Foreign Minister and the NSW emergency services Minister to allow an exemption to the arrivals limit. We put every single detail about their situation — with everyone’s passport number — onto that one-page letter, so that whoever saw it had all the information they needed to act. 

Step two: we formed a constituency. I set up a Google doc, so all 70 supporters could add their contact details and upload their signature. Something Christians frequently get wrong in politics is to forget that they are actually a constituency. MPs want to see that you’re not just a lone voice in the wilderness, you’re part of a community. 

Step three: we engaged staff. We sent the letter to the local MP, which in this case is the Hon Alex Hawke. Nicely printed, with a dozen pages that showed the 70 supporters, but hand-signed by John and hand-delivered, along with an emailed version. Then we found out who the staffers are. These are people who work long hours, live in fear of scandals, cop a lot of complaints and almost never get any credit. We made contact to say hi, thank them for the attention they were giving things, and check that they had all they needed.

Step four: we hustled. Tania’s mother-in-law had once handed out how-to-vote flyers for some Liberal Party guy, and she asked him to help. Tania’s father-in-law wrote to his local MP, who’s a Labor Party man — Matt Thistlethwaite — and he was super quick to see how he could help. Maybe he could ask an awkward question in question time, who knows? Other people wrote to think tank executives who once knew a party member who is now the chief of staff for someone else. Honestly, it was confusing and impossible to track. I talked to a guy who I once helped get a job and who now knows someone in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). We pulled in favours. We made connections. We were polite. We were gentle. We were gracious. And all 70 of us were absolutely shameless. After all, the government comes under God. Who should we fear?

Step five: we prayed like beggars. I started learning about something called “Facilitated Flights”, which is a  $176.3 million chartered flight program run by DFAT. But it wasn’t clear at all how that would help Tania and her family. We were told that it was up to the state whether a family could come home, because states run the hotel quarantines, and all the states had agreed to decrease their caps. So we just prayed. We were all beyond our capabilities to influence government, or even able to work out how the decisions would happen. I prayed with Tania’s mum and dad with tears, and — I don’t know why — they started praying for me and my family. We prayed on Zoom Groups, in Anglican Churches in Dural, in Forestville, in Maroubra, in the inner city and Castle Hill; we prayed on our knees and we let God know that he would have to solve this, that he was in charge, and we just wanted his children to be home, together. 

Step six: we stood back, watched God do his thing and praised him for it. Ten days after the 70 prayed, Tania and Mike received an email from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It explained that the entire family had been issued six seats on a Facilitated Flight arranged by the Commonwealth, from Istanbul to Darwin, departing October 11. That the tickets could not be rescinded unless a member of the party developed COVID. On touchdown in the Northern Territory, they would quarantine for a fortnight in Howard Springs then take a “green flight” to Sydney, so they wouldn’t have to quarantine again, and walk into the arms of Peter, Sue and everyone else who have wept and prayed. It was as direct an answer to prayer as I have ever seen in my life. What my MP friend had said wouldn’t happen was exactly what had happened. We got back together, me, the Professor, all the pastors and parishioners, Tania and Mike, all on Zoom mostly to stare at each other blankly, breathe deeply, and thank God for showing us that he loves to show his goodness and to demonstrate that his servant Augustine was right all along, the government actually works for God. 

Step seven: we held our breath as Tania and her family emerged through Gate 5. Exhausted and bewildered from the flights from Madrid, Istanbul and now Darwin, Tania’s youngest boy, Lucas, edged through the arrivals door at Kingsford Smith Airport. Just two and a half, he’d got the Covid all clear in Istanbul with the rest of the family, done his time in the huts in the Territory and now, was looking around a crowd for a grandfather of whom he has no memory. But his Grandpa, Peter, whose strength is low and has now lost a lot of weight, could see the little man straight away. All Tania’s boys have red hair. Peter and Sue’s daughter, son-in-law, and four grandchildren — carried on the prayers of a legion of saints — were home.

Tania and Mike Snowdon with their four boys arriving at Kingsford Smith Airport on 27 October 2021

Augustine knew how to write a letter. And he wasn’t against writing to powerful government figures to ensure that good, merciful things happened for the citizens of Rome. In 413 the Bishop wrote to Macedonius, a powerful official who looked over the administration of all judicial administration across all Roman Africa. Augustine begged the official to show clemency to a criminal on death row, which Macedonius granted. Augustine then wrote him an enthusiastic thank you note, sharing the gospel with him too. Believing God has given us government doesn’t mean we just sit back and let government do whatever it wants. God wants us to love our neighbour, to share the blessings we’ve all received. Sometimes that comes through the good gift of government. Augustine tells Macedonius, “The source of human blessedness is the same as that of civic blessedness.” All good things come from God. And, maybe, if we spent a little less time shaming, fearing and resenting our governments — yes, even the ones we think are being mean to Christians — and spent more praying for those in authority, supporting them in doing good, then, perhaps we might see more of the good things God does through them. For all of us.

Matt Busby Andrews is a communications consultant based in Canberra.

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