Sweaty tents, late-night chats and a glimpse of the kingdom
A Beach Mission veteran explains what keeps drawing her back summer after summer
I love Beach Mission. I have spent half the summers of my life as part of a Beach Mission team. My parents met on Beach Mission and I have been on a pilgrimage to where they started in northern Wales.
As a kid, I spent the week looking up in wonder as my parents and other adults (who I now realise were probably about 17) put up tents, ran programmes and played endless fights with tea towels.
I have seen the kids who were in my first preschool group … emerge as towering people on the brink of adulthood.
I first came to Old Bar, on the NSW mid-north coast, 12 years ago, having been convinced by my sister to join a preschool team that needed an extra member. I returned several times as a university student, came back burnt out and weary after my first year of teaching, and again at the close of each school year. I came to chop vegetables when half the team came down with gastro, and this year, after inventing a job for myself, I came to run the Facebook page.
Over 12 summers of Beach Mission, I have seen the town of Old Bar gentrify; there is now somewhere that sells a decent flat white and the cost of staying at the campsite has doubled. I have seen the kids who were in my first preschool group grow into bouncy primary schoolers, transition through the awkwardness of youth, and now emerge as towering people on the brink of adulthood.
Each year I return to the heat, to the sweaty tents that fill with mud when it rains, to the late-night chats, the chants, the songs, the early morning swims and to the people who I call family.
We are a group of people who have very little in common apart from our faith and our love of both the town and seeing people come to know God’s love.
Old Bar Beach Mission is a team of about 80 people who join together each year to run nine days of programmes out of tents at a caravan park. This year, our youngest team member is 16 (excluding our eight team kids) and the oldest is 71. Some members of our team are new; others have been returning for many years – including an epic 25 years from the leader of our production section. We have families, couples, singles, school and university students, workers and retirees. We are a group of people who have very little in common apart from our faith and our love of both the town and seeing people come to know God’s love.
It is hard work. Physically, the energy required to keep up with kids and maintain the tents is exhausting; and, increasingly as I age, I feel the pain of sleeping on a stretcher for 11 nights. It’s also emotionally draining in the effort to connect with the people of Old Bar, to live in such a high-intensity community and, particularly, to share a tent with up to 12 other women.
And, as we return each year, there is grief for the lost members of our team. Some have gone before us to be with our Great and Heavenly Father and, as we return without them, we feel the poignancy of their loss. Others have decided not to continue in the faith and there is the heartbreak each year of seeing empty places where once friends served with us.
And, as we return each year, there is grief for the lost members of our team.
But for all its challenges, I spend a portion of each year convincing others to come with me to Old Bar, because there is always somewhere they can serve. Can you sit with a three-year-old and play trains for half an hour and then teach them to sing Who is the King of the Jungle? Can you explain a story about Jesus to a group of bouncy Year 5 kids or prepare a craft that keeps their fingers busy while you chat about what it means?
Do you know how to relate to awkward 13-year-old girls who are so annoyed that their Mum brought them to Old Bar this year but are looking curiously at the big tents and people who seem to be having fun? Do you have muscles that can lift the main pole of a marquee? Can you stand in a kitchen and chop tomatoes for an hour? Do you know know how to assemble and disassemble a PA system that lets us set up an eight-part band for a bush dance in the park? And perhaps most importantly, are you someone who loves Jesus and can come with a humble heart?
Beach Missions, just like churches, are made of weak and broken people who know incredible and transformative grace.
For as long as I have been on team, our motto has been: “Inspiring one another to talk about Jesus”. Because the reality is that most of us, trained or not, either feel helpless to talk about him or lose our nerve when it comes to the crucial moment. If you are willing to come and be part of who we are, it is as a community that we use our gifts and our failings to serve.
One year, a member of a local church gave our team an artwork illustrating this point – a collection of driftwood she had picked up from Old Bar Beach, which was then arranged into an extraordinary piece. Beach Missions, just like churches, are made of weak and broken people who know incredible and transformative grace. It is why we come; it is the great news we have to share.
One primary girl ran up to her leader on the first day of programmes, eagerly demanding a Bible.
In God’s grace, we see change. Sometimes it is incremental – families who have slowly warmed from antagonism to ambivalence to friendship. And sometimes it is big. This year, a couple returned who have come to our adults’ Bible study for a few years. To our joy, they arrived this mission, with a story of transformation. They shared of how they had connected with a local church, their faiths had grown to be vibrant, and they had found a new stability in life.
There are teenagers who made commitments in their faith last year who have returned excited to discuss with their leaders how their lives were different. One primary girl ran up to her leader on the first day of programmes, eagerly demanding a Bible, because she hadn’t taken one last year and had regretted that decision for 51 weeks. Or another family who had only intended to come to Old Bar for a single year, but loved the programmes so much they had to return as their children pleaded the entire year to see their leaders again.
For my first few years in the team, I kept returning because I loved to see God at work in the community. I was passionate about telling tiny people about God and the joy of having deep chats with teenagers that offered them an alternative reality, hope and joy in what seems like a chaotic life. I loved that when we prayed we saw God answer in miraculous ways. I still love these things, but over time, my perspective in what God is doing through Old Bar has shifted. We ask God to work at Old Bar and he does. And often this is through us, as a witness to the people in the town and the caravan park, but also it is in us.
I am reminded that Old Bar is a place where I think I can see God’s kingdom more clearly.
Each year, I get to have conversations with members of the team about how the knowledge and skills they have learned at Old Bar have influenced their lives throughout the year. I have seen people grow in faith as they have been cared for by older members of the team and then seen these same people model the same love to the younger ones coming through.
Hebrews 11 teaches us that the patriarchs of our faith lived in tents, knowing that these homes were not permanent but, rather, that they were called to look forward to a home and a land that God had promised to them. As people who live after Jesus, we also know that this world is not permanent and that an eternal home and kingdom awaits us. For me, therefore, the process of putting up and pulling down tents becomes a liturgical practice, in which I am reminded that Old Bar is a place where I think I can see God’s kingdom more clearly. It reminds me that the joys and pains of this place are not permanent, and as easily as tents are dropped and rolled into a barrel, this world will pass away and we will experience the eternal joy of community with all God’s people.