It was an epic adventure for a very good cause. Lynden Parmenter and I had hit on a plan to raise money for Sydney Adventist Hospital by being the first to circumnavigate Australia on jet skis. That’s a lot of kilometres bouncing over the waves. It took three months. And at the end of it I knew Australia a lot better than I ever thought I would, and in some ways, I knew myself better too.
Looking back to that time, I think most people would have considered me to be a good Adventist. I was working at Sydney Adventist Hospital and an active member of Gosford church. But the insipid scourge of Laodicea had dulled my awareness to my actual state. I wasn’t bad in the normal sense of the word; I was just your regular church member.
I was raised in an Adventist home. My dad is Tongan and my mum is a white Australian pastor's kid. I studied teaching but after seven years I thought it was time for a change. I worked in a number of administrative roles including at the San, then purchased an American master franchise.
We were very fortunate. Initially our efforts prospered. The service was well received in Sydney. As we established the business in an Australian context many of our manuals and practices were brought back by the parent company in the US. With such a strong and promising start, plans to expand nationally were launched.
Late in 2007 the first rumblings of the GFC started to hit our shores and without warning the bank pulled our finance. We had leases, employees, manufacturing orders for expansion equipment and a considerable amount of pride at stake. Our precarious market position required expansion and growth yet the bank robbed us of our means to fund this growth. Solomon was right when he wrote, “pride goeth before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
We spent a considerable amount of time trying to secure additional funding but maybe God had other ideas. I was sitting in our study one day and I looked over and saw Ellen White’s Desire of Ages. I‘d never read it. In fact, I didn’t even know what it was about but I had heard I should read it. So I picked it up. I have to say it was initially slow going. I struggled with the writing style and the quotes from the King James Version of the Bible, but there was something calling me to keep going—it was the Holy Spirit’s guidance. I struggled along until about page 60 and then the beautiful story of Jesus took complete control of me. I was heartbroken in a way I had never been and my spirit was renewed in the process. I had been a church member for years but now I committed to being a genuine disciple.
As we were nearing the end of our business journey we came into contact with an extremely wealthy businessman who spent considerable time looking at our business to determine whether he would become an equity partner. He immediately saw its potential for a global opportunity and realised that the heart of the business rested in the intellectual property we had developed. Out of the blue he offered for us to close our business and end our relationship with the international franchise and start again under our own banner in Australia, Europe, the UK and Asia. Gratefully by this time the Lord had removed my ambition for wealth and replaced it with a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). The businessman reminded me that there was no legal obligation to stay under the international franchise.
But things were different for me now and I was unable to place any value on the promised gain if it was not based on the platform of integrity. As I gave my answer, in light of the enormous financial potential, he asked the question, “Paul, do you realise what you are walking away from?” “Yes,” I said. “I am walking away from hell.”
As my wife and I considered what we would do next, I received a call from Dr Malcolm Coulsen—then principal of Darling Downs Christian College—regarding a teaching position. It had been 12 years since I had been a teacher and I was apprehensive about the change.
I was grateful for Malcolm’s godly leadership. He taught me so much. Before the start of school for the year the community came together for the P&C "Meet and Greet". When addressing the students and parents—most of whom were non-Adventist and from homes with no active Christian influence—Malcolm said: “The reason we are here is to prepare your children for the soon return of Jesus Christ.” Any doubts I may have had were quickly extinguished. I knew at that moment I was exactly where God wanted me to be. That year the Lord brought about a beautiful revival to the school and many of those students have continued to walk in His ways.
The following year I was called to be principal of Tweed Valley Adventist College. Only the school wasn’t called that then. It was one of the many Adventist schools that had dropped the “Adventist” out of their name in order—or so the theory went—to attract more non-Adventist students.
It hadn’t worked.
When I arrived student enrolment was under 100 for K–12, and there was a real question about whether the school would survive.
Before commencing I read Ellen White’s book Education. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it previously. But as I read, I was inspired. I made a commitment: “We’re going to follow God’s counsels!”
And that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do. That began by putting "Adventist" back in our name. You know, in 2 Chronicles 7:14, God says: “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
We know from Ellen White that God has given His Church a name. We decided to call ourselves by it, to humble ourselves and to ask for forgiveness, and see if He would honour His promise. To some it seemed risky and there were concerns about making such a radical change at a time when the college was so precariously placed. I was given lots of reasons not to do it—it would scare non-Adventists away; it would cost money to rebrand; strategically it was just all wrong.
I'm grateful to have the strong support of a godly school council who were prepared to move ahead in faith when logic strongly suggested otherwise. We also understood that using a name carried a moral obligation to live up to the values it represented. To incorporate the Adventist name and logo was one of a number of reforms, which included a commitment to having all Adventist teachers, teaching Adventist distinctive doctrines, introducing agriculture, maintaining the already strong service culture, a new mission statement and establishing curriculum time for Bible studies.
God responded in a mighty way. It was as if He was just waiting to pour out His blessings! Our enrolment jumped to 220 students in 12 months and this had a considerable impact on our morale, budgets and culture.
Enriched by the lessons on faith we took one more bold step. We lowered our fees by 40 per cent. In a development meeting with members of our conference administration and school council we looked at our fee schedule in comparison with our nearest private competitor and observed that our fees were considerably higher and out of reach of the community to which we were trying to minister. One of our council members commented, “This is wrong! There is no way that Adventist education should only be for the rich.” After considerable, prayerful discussion, our conference administration decided to back this bold move to see what God could do. At this stage of our journey we needed 36 more students to make the experiment viable. We got 80. God is so good!
In 2014 the college achieved its highest enrolment since its humble beginnings in a few rooms beside the Murwillumbah Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1959.
In 2 Timothy 3, Paul outlines some of the characteristics of people in these last days—lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power (verses 2-5). Thankfully, he also reminds us that where sin abounds grace abounds more abundantly (Romans 5:20).
It isn’t easy. The issues some kids struggle with today are heartbreaking: family dysfunction; exposure to pornography; graphic violence in the media; physical and sexual abuse; and easy access to dangerous drugs. The devil is very, very hard at work in our world—and every single school in this country is seeing the results. I do believe we are nearing the end and God’s presence is withdrawing. That creates all the more desperate need for Adventist education where the goodness of God is uplifted every day.
I love being a principal. It is hard work. Sometimes it’s discouraging. Sometimes I get tired. But then I look into the eyes of the kids at my school and I see the image of God looking back at me. Every child is His child; I see someone Jesus gave everything for. It’s an amazing feeling to connect a child to their heavenly Father. To see that spark of love go off in their eyes and to see them begin their life journey, hand in hand with Jesus.
As I look back over the Tweed Valley Adventist College journey I praise God for not only what He has done in our school but also for what He has done for me, and the peace I have found in Him. I was 40 when I first really became a disciple of Jesus. We have made a lot of mistakes and have much more to learn but I trust that our experience can provide encouragement for our institutions to be a light on the hill.
Our new mission statement is taken from Luke 2:52: in the footsteps of Jesus Christ . . . to increase in wisdom and stature, in favour with God and favour with men. Surely this must be our goal for our students. I thank God for Jesus, our Saviour and Example . . . the Desire of Ages.
Paul Fua is principal of Tweed Valley Adventist College.