“Listen!” my friend exclaimed, holding up her hand. I paused, cheeks still inflated, where I sat blowing up my backpacking pillow. “It’s a wombat.”
The scratching sound, emanating from somewhere beneath the floor, teleported my mind back a decade to when I kept hamsters in our basement. But this was no hamster.
Wombats are giant little creatures, blunt-faced hunks of furriness that look like something between a groundhog on growth hormones and a shrunken bear with the body proportions of a pig. They’re cute, kind of.
And sometimes, they scream.
I heard it that night, sleeping on a floor which happened to overlie a wombat den. It’s the groan of a student mid-exam week, mixed with a throaty sort of cackle which might erupt from a choking raven.
It’s weird, but novel—a sound as Australian as the sight of purple jacaranda trees, like the ones lining a campus which I’d explored the week before. There, and at the next campus I visited, I heard a series of encouraging testimonies which I can’t wait to share with you.
Campus #1: Testimonies from a student panel
Upon arrival at the first campus, I walked through the stately old buildings, grounds and corridors until, suddenly, a hand shot a brochure my direction.
“Vote in the student election!” said a voice behind the brochure.
“Sorry,” I replied, Canadianly, “I’m not a student.”
I ducked away from the crowd of campus political advocates which I’d inadvertently stumbled into and turned a quick corner. That’s when I noticed the sign: “Uni Bible Talk, this way!”
I checked my watch. The talk was just ending now! If I ran, I could still catch the Christians on their way out.
A series of further signs directed me down a maze-like track between two buildings, around another corner, and to a glassed-in room full of students having lunch. This is the place.
“Hi,” a lady in pink greeted me as I stood inside the room, looking lost. She introduced herself as a campus ministry leader and, when I’d explained my mission, gathered a panel of five students for me to interview.
“What’s the general attitude towards Christianity here?” I asked once we’d circled our chairs.
“I think from my courses,” answered a guy who studied religion and philosophy, “a lot of people have dismissed Christianity or religion in general. People are open to talking about it, but not in a way that would lead to effective gospel conversations.” Other students studying economics, languages and biomedical sciences agreed, explaining that any references to Christianity they had heard sounded neutral.
“There’s a big attitude here of ‘people believe what they believe’, so just respect that. There’s a lot of apathy towards the personal aspect of religion,” said another student, adding that he thought people were largely trying to shake off prejudices, including those towards religions.
“Yeah,” said another girl, “there’s this idea of ‘religious freedom’ where people are happy when your religion works for you, but don’t want it pushed on other people.”
“So, what’s the hardest thing about being a Christian student here?” I asked.
A long silence followed. The students looked at each other. Finally, one girl piped up.
“It’s not any particular thing,” she said. “The hard things here would be the same for being a Christian anywhere, like sharing your faith. But I wouldn’t say we get any extra persecution. We do walk up and talk to people and most people are very receptive to hearing about Christianity.”
“I was really surprised about how open people were to talk about Christianity here,” added another student, “I think the reality is that people are a little bit more open than we anticipate, which was a very pleasant thing to come into.”
“Neat! Then, what is God doing on your campus?”
“The big event that a lot of us are involved in is ‘Jesus week,’” someone answered, explaining this to be a major outreach initiative at the beginning of the semester. “We had a lot of good conversation with people who aren’t Christians, or are nominal Christians or who weren’t involved with a group. Everyone wore orange t-shirts so you could see who other Christians were, which was encouraging. We had talks every day about apologetics and other topics. We also had a store and did evangelism for four hours a day. It was a big outreach thing where the two main evangelical Christian groups pulled together.”
Campus #2: The engineers’ stories
Still marveling at the group’s vibrancy, I headed out to find the second university. And what amazing gardens it adjoined! When I happened upon an unbelievably-massive fig tree with a jungle gym root system creating a tangled tower above, I couldn’t help but do some climbing. And there, in the gardens, my phone started vibrating. I had given my phone number to the ministry leader at the last campus, which she said she’d pass along to the Christian group here. Now, an engineering student was texting that he’d meet me.
“What do you think is the general view towards Christianity here?” I asked him as we sat on the grass a little while later.
“It seems to be apathetic,” he said. “No one cares too much; it’s mostly just ‘stick to yourself.’ There’s an ‘If it works for you, good for you’ kind of vibe.” He added, though, that comments from peers could be a little more confrontational, such as when they wanted him, a non-drinker, to drink.
When I asked what God was doing on the campus, he responded,
“There’s been walk-up evangelism—I actually came to faith through walk-up evangelism on this campus. Groups have been doing that, talking to people on campus. There have been good conversations which have been started from those kinds of things. We’ve had evangelistic-based talks from the wider community, not just our own community. We’ve all started wearing bright green shirts on Fridays which indicate we’re Christians. I think it’s encouraging seeing other people wear those shirts.”
Rewind! I thought. “What’s the story about how you came to Christ?”
“Two guys were standing at the front of campus handing out flyers to a Bible talk. I approached them, started talking to them, and they invited me to read the gospel with them every week after that. It was a slow process, starting midway through my first year.” He explained that he was impressed by their trust that the Bible is real. “That was something that they never wavered on. So was their commitment to Christ.”
Soon after this conversation, a girl in the engineering department messaged me as well. She relayed some of the difficulties of hearing profanity regularly in the classroom, being distanced by peers for her faith, or maintaining a biblical stance when discussing some of the hottest political issues of the day.
“A lot of the time it’s not strictly, ‘Let’s talk about this issue. What do you believe?’” she said. “It gets really personal really quickly—which I find really curious. They say, ‘let’s go have a debate.’ But then it’s not a debate; it’s personal attacks.”
“What has helped you stay strong in your faith in this setting?” I asked.
“Definitely getting involved with the Christian clubs,” she said. “You can feel very, very lonely very quickly if you can’t seek out a group and know, ‘This is where all the Christians are. This is where I’m going to find that support on campus.’”
We chatted a little longer and ended up walking around the city together for a while. Before long, though, the time came for me to head back to home base, shove everything back into my monstrous green backpack, and catch a train to the next city. I didn’t know the stories which were waiting to be told there, or just how excited the students I’d meet would be about the things of God. Stay tuned for the final part of the Australia series, coming very soon, and I’ll tell you all about it!