Some might say I had a very broken upbringing. There is no doubt that at times I’ve felt unworthy to be an Adventist leader because of my past. I have slowly learned that I don’t have to be ashamed of my past; that I can be acceptable and accepted for who I am.
My parents were both from Launceston, Tasmania, and married when they were both 19, having me at age 21. Then my mum left. I was 16 months old when she walked out on my dad and I. There was little warning and my dad found it terribly hard. Today we’d say she suffered from post-partum depression.
A while later my dad and I moved from Tasmania to Melbourne; to his parents' home so they could help support him bringing me up. As a small child I spent a lot of time with them and they continued to play a significant role throughout my childhood. Dad remarried when I was five, which provided me with a mother. I can still remember the gazebo at the wedding. In those days you couldn’t do a single parent adoption, so my dad and new mum adopted me together. Now I have two different birth certificates, both with the same father but with different mothers.
When I was 12 my dad decided he could no longer stay in the marriage. He moved in with another man—it took me a while to realise that he had come out of the closet. I missed him and was devastated that he was no longer at home. For a long time I would sit looking out the front window after school hoping he would come home. He didn’t, and home life went on without him.
Despite all of this, I always had a good relationship with my dad. And I still do. He thought I was the perfect child! I wouldn’t say we’re especially close but we always enjoy the time we spend together.
For a period of time dad and his partner moved in down the street from my adoptive mum and me. My paternal grandparents lived across the street from dad so I saw them on a regular basis. When my mum wanted to punish me, she’d send me down to dad’s so he could discipline me. But as I said, he thought I was a great kid so he’d sit me on the couch, give me a can of Coke and let me watch TV. After an hour or so he’d send me home, telling me not to upset my mum and to look sad.
On my 14th birthday, out of the blue, I got a birthday card from my birth mother. It was the first time I’d heard from her since she left. Dad had told me I had a birth mother and he was always careful never to present her negatively to me.
Soon after the card arrived, my birth mother came to visit. My adoptive mum was very nervous and felt threatened by her presence. I didn’t know what to expect as I’d never known her. I got to know her and a year and-a-half later I went to Tasmania for a month’s holiday with her over Christmas. I really enjoyed the time I had with my birth mother so I decided to stay. My adoptive mum went to the Family Court to get me back. But I was almost 16 so I had the right to make the decision. I know it was hard on my adoptive mum. She had a child before she married my dad but the baby had been adopted out and she had no contact with him. So when I came along, I filled the child-sized hole in her heart. I know it was tough for her but it was such a time of turmoil and discovery for me; it was just something I had to do for myself.
What I didn’t know was that not long before I received that birthday card from my birth mum, she’d become an Adventist. I’d never heard of Adventists.
I’d never been a church attendee unless you counted the time when I was about 14 when, for a while, I went to an Anglican Church with a girlfriend. I enjoyed heckling the youth leader. At the time I thought there was no future for religion. It didn’t seem to do anything for anyone. And I assumed the whole thing would die out in a generation. Later on when I came to know Jesus, I went back and visited the youth leader to apologise.
Mum took me to Tassie camp. Andrew Kingston was the youth speaker. He really impressed me. Allan Walshe, the Tassie youth director, knew how to engage young people and roped me in to help out with the PA at camp. It gave me a sense of belonging.
Not long after I decided to stay with my birth mum, her second marriage broke up. Her husband was not an Adventist and her conversion became an issue, among other things.
At the same time my life was unravelling. I got involved with the wrong friends who were into Ouija boards and I began drinking every day. After months of this, it occurred to me that I might never be able to stop and the thought scared me. I was having success in one area of life however. I made the Australian Junior Squash Championships representing Tasmania. It wasn’t as fulfilling as I thought it would be.
The night of my 16th birthday I started questioning what I was doing and where I might end up. I decided to find out more about God. I cried out to God: Are You there? Are You real?
I went to Brisbane for the squash championships. I felt convicted not to play on Sabbath, but when I told my squad manager he said I had no choice. So I went ahead and played on Sabbath. It felt wrong and I never did it again.
My mum had begun attending the Launceston Adventist Church. One of the elders there was my great uncle Les Worker. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know him at all but I knew he was my pop’s brother and someone my mum had a great deal of respect for. He is the only Adventist on my dad’s side of the family. In the 1960s he went to a Billy Graham crusade and gave his life to Christ. George Burnside followed him up and Uncle Les became an Adventist. At this time he began doing Bible studies with me.
My first Sabbath in an Adventist church was Pastor Henry Miller’s first in Launceston. He was only there for six months but he and his wife Roma made my mum and I feel accepted and loved during the tough time after my mum’s second divorce. When I decided to be baptised I knew I wanted him to be the one to baptise me. He graciously did so on his last Sabbath in Launceston.
At my baptism Uncle Les got up and told everyone that he believed I was in the font that day due to intercessory prayer. He’d been at Dad’s second wedding and knowing I was growing up in an agnostic home, worried about my future. “I made a covenant with God at that time, that I’d remember you in my prayers from that day forward,” he said. And so every day he'd prayed that somehow God would intervene in my life—that I would have the opportunity to know that I was a child of God. I didn’t see Uncle Les from the time I was five until I was almost 16. Some of you may think it was a coincidence that I ended up in Launceston where I met him and ended up studying the Bible with him. I believe the humble prayers of this faithful man had been heard by God and through a series of unlikely events He had answered them.
I worked hard to fail every subject in Year 11. The first half of the year I was doing everything I could to lose myself with friends and alcohol and I was playing 20 hours of squash a week. Conversely, during the second half of the year I was caught up in Bible study. And, of course, more squash. Between my birth mum's divorce, my foray with the Family Court over custody and everything in between, my life was in complete turmoil. My studies took a back seat. I ended up repeating Year 11—this time I managed to pass.
During this time my birth mum became a literature evangelist (LE). She worked as an LE for 23 years. She died four years ago from an aggressive brain tumour. We had a complex relationship, but we were at peace with each other and I have long forgiven her for all that happened to me as a child.
My stepmum and I were able to repair our relationship. I actually conducted her third wedding. We talk a couple of times a month. She’s still friends with my dad too.
Years ago I decided I wouldn’t use my upbringing to define who I am or to use it as an excuse for failure. I realised it was the decisions I made going forward that should define who I am. After becoming an Adventist, I felt like a new dimension had been given to my life. I wanted to tell other people about the amazing grace I had discovered for myself. I thought that having come from such broken circumstances, maybe I could relate to people because I might be able to understand their journey as well.
After I was baptised, Pastor Lynn Burton visited Launceston. I told him I was interested in theology but I didn’t know how I could afford it. And I told him I had a fear of public speaking. He convinced me that I could be a minister and that being an LE was a great way to raise money for college and learn some relevant skills. So I sold books for a few months. This, together with financial support from some Launceston church members, gave me a good financial start. From that point on I did everything I could to keep afloat financially, including working in the Avondale College kitchen under Bruce Cantrill and Delmae Heise. Delmae was fantastic—she was like a mother to me the first couple of years I was at college. I also drove the bus and operated the college sound system.
I was operating sound one day when a beautiful girl got up to sing. I thought to myself, “I’ve got to get to know her!” I chased Maree for six months before she finally relented and agreed to go out with me. We’ve now been married for more than 20 years. After college, Pastor Ken Vogel took a chance on me, and called me to Western Australia to pastor.
It has taken that long and more to feel comfortable telling my story. I’ve been embarrassed by my past, thinking that if people knew about my childhood they would judge me. And maybe I just wanted to project that I have it all together. Even today in performance appraisals, I get feedback that people find me aloof. I know it takes me a while to let my guard down because of my past.
I have finally told my story for two reasons: Firstly, I want people to know that it’s not where you come from that matters; it’s where you are going and who you are going with. I felt rejected by people who should have been there for me. Both parents left me and I grew up in homes that went through three divorces. There is a world of chaos and pain, guilt and shame, in all that accompanies those facts. But it’s not our past that matters; it’s our future and my future is with God. Yours can be too, no matter what has happened. Secondly, I want people to know that intercessory prayer works! Don’t ever negate the power of prayer and how God can work powerfully in lives when we pray for His intervention.
It’s His desire to provide every one of His children with a chance to make a deliberate choice for Him. I’m living proof of this.
Michael Worker is president of the Greater Sydney Conference.
James Standish is editor of Adventist Record.