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Frank Cunningham“And, funnily enough, mum’s village is called Cill Chríost in Gaelic,” he said, “which, when translated to English, means “church of Christ.”
It seemed a fitting, full-circle moment for Cunningham, minister for the SouthWest Church of Christ in the Sydney suburb of Ambarvale, Australia.
Cunningham, who has ministered for the small congregation for 17 years, had a rocky relationship with his mother. Unmarried and cast out by her family, she gave birth to him in England and, when he was 4, ran out of people to watch him as she worked. She placed him in a boy’s home where “bed-wetters, of which I was one, were made to stand on their chairs at breakfast time while others ate,” he said.
He soon moved to another home that was better, he said. His mother visited and took him to a Catholic church on Sundays. When he was about 11 years old, however, she told him she was moving to Australia.
“I gave God a challenge,” he recalled. “Stop my mum from going to Australia, or I wouldn’t believe in him anymore, as he obviously didn’t care about me.”
But she left anyway.
‘NOT WEIRD OR STRANGE AFTER ALL’His caretakers mandated that he go to church on Sundays, but Cunningham hid in the bathroom instead. At 17 he left the boys’ home and got a job. He spent his spare time drinking away most of what he was paid. He met his future wife in a pub. Together, they immigrated to Australia.
After their first daughter was born, Cunningham decided to clean up his life. His wife struggled, but after the birth of their second daughter she entered rehab — and learned of a higher power. She wanted to know more about God.
Cunningham took the family to Catholic mass, but his wife wasn’t impressed. In 1985, she joined a neighborhood community center group and met Sheila Hartman, an American missionary on a team that had planted the SouthWest Church of Christ, then in nearby Campbelltown.
For a while, Cunningham went to mass and picked up his family afterward at the Church of Christ. Church members kept inviting him to activities. He politely declined.
“Eventually, though, I did attend an activity, roller skating,” he said, “and found that these a cappella-singing church people were not weird or strange after all.” In 1987, Cunningham was baptized.
‘LIFE WAS A MESS’Soon, however, the new convert and his wife drifted away from church. Difficulties followed disappointments. In 1991, after 28 years of separation, Cunningham found his mother in Sydney. He yearned to know more about his family and share with her his faith, but she refused to talk about either. Two years later, “my marriage collapsed, and life was a mess,” he said. “I remember standing in the middle of my lounge room alone, screaming “WHY?” at the top of my voice.”
He decided to return to church.
In 1996, he met missionary Kent Hartman for a meal at a local Pizza Hut. Cunningham shared that, though he was glad to be back in church, he felt that he wasn’t growing spiritually. Kent Hartman encouraged him to become more active in church. Maybe he could even lead a Bible class.
Though shy, Cunningham did exactly that — and in the years that followed his faith grew alongside his involvement. In 1999, he resigned from his job and began working full time for the church as the members of the church-planting team returned to the U.S.
‘HE KNOWS THE HARDSHIPS’In addition to preaching for the SouthWest Church of Christ, now meeting near Campbelltown in Ambarvale, Cunningham has organized a retreat for young adults from across the continent for about 15 years, Kent Hartman said.
His wife, Nancy Hartman, added, “Frank is loved and respected by Christians all over Australia. He is also loved and respected in the Campbelltown community as someone who cares about those who are underserved.”
Frank Cunningham, far right, stands with members of the SouthWest Church of Christ in Ambarvale, Australia. The congregation used to meet in nearby Campbelltown.
Kyle Keesee, the son of a member of the Campbelltown team, and his wife, Carley, recently began working as missionary apprentices for the SouthWest church under Cunningham’s supervision.
“You can tell he really loves all the people here,” Kyle Keesee said of his mentor. “Most of the Christians at SouthWest are first-generation. Frank is able to relate to people well because he knows what it’s like to want nothing to do with God or church. He knows the hardships life can give you.”
In recent years, Cunningham has made return visits to Ireland — after taking his mother’s ashes home in 2012. He’s come to realize that she loved him and did her best to care for him, he said. He’s also connected with long-lost members of his family.
“God has taken me on a journey,” he said, “and I’m a better man for it. Back in 1962 I turned from him as a boy, found him for a while, let go of him again until, in 1996, I learned that I needed to tell God, ‘OK, God, you know what’s best for me. Tell me what you want. I’m finally listening.’”
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