No phones allowed, but machetes OK: Global program aims to build teens’ faith
PORT VILA, Vanuatu — The journey begins 1,200 miles —…
BRISBANE, Australia — The well-being team at Redlands College paused while eating lunch as a student ranted about frustrations with a close friend.
Braiden Jackson, the K-12 Christian school’s 24-year-old chaplain, listened intently.
Such interruptions are a fundamental part of her job, and she tries to take advantage of those moments to connect with students on a spiritual level.
“Usually the students will be the ones approaching you,” said Jackson, who serves on the well-being team with 12 colleagues and a therapy dog. “I gauge if they’re comfortable with me praying over them — if they’re comfortable with me talking more about the biblical wisdom — and helping them in the situation that they’re in.”
Despite Redlands’ association with Churches of Christ, the majority of its 1,440 students lack a personal faith. About one-third have no religious affiliation, while another third only attend religious services on major holidays, according to school leaders.
Chaplains in an educational setting are uniquely positioned to introduce religion to students who may never step foot inside a church.
Yet some students are dismissive of Redlands’ faith aspects.
Imogen Meyers, an 11th grader at Redlands, recalled her attitude about the school’s Christian values before being baptized in 2023.
“Before I became a Christian, it didn’t matter to me,” Meyers said. “I would tune it all out. Chapels, I would just sit there. … Bible studies, I would just not do anything. Christianity, I just didn’t care for it.”
“Before I became a Christian, it didn’t matter to me. I would tune it all out. Chapels, I would just sit there. … Bible studies, I would just not do anything. Christianity, I just didn’t care for it.”
Meyers wasn’t alone in that perspective.
Though still Australia’s largest religious population, Christianity is on a steady decline, according to the national census. At the same time, the second-largest demographic, “no religion,” continues to increase.
Mike Shepherd, a dual U.S.-Australian citizen and Redlands’ special assistant to the principal, has navigated the evolving religious demographic since 2003.
But in 2022, he had a new idea: Why not bring Americans to work at Redlands College?
“We need fresh eyes and fresh blood in our faith heritage here,” Shepherd said. “Young people have this sense of adventure. … And this is a chance for them to have a good experience, to help build up that Christian faith, to be challenged. And also to serve — really globally serve.”
Yet in order to do so legally, the school needed government approval for a 408 visa, which allows recipients to do full-time religious work for an institution in Australia.
Leadership at Redlands College set specific parameters.
Applicants must be between 18 and 35 years old; have majors in education, missions, ministry or a similar field; be a graduate or current university student; and be recommended by a church leader or school representative associated with Churches of Christ.
Andrew Johnson, principal of Redlands College, hopes the visa program will connect the Australian school to Christian institutions in the U.S.
“We are really seeking out relationships with other schools and universities, primarily those that draw from the Restoration/Stone-Campbell heritage movement,” Johnson said. “We are very, very interested in staff exchange programs, student exchange programs.”
To the surprise of Redlands leaders, the government seemed equally eager, granting approval for three visas in a matter of months.
Shepherd credits the expedited process to the Australian government’s desire to bolster the economy and travel post-COVID.
“What’s appealing to the government here is even though Americans and Australians are very similar, they’re also very different,” Shepherd said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, look, you’re going to have some young Americans in the community — not just working, but also going to the shops, going out for coffee.’ And Australia is keen for that cross-cultural exchange.”
Jackson was the perfect fit for the 408 visa.
Shepherd had known her since she was a child when both attended the Cross Point Church of Christ in Florence, Ala., and later when she was a teen volunteering at Impact.
“Her faith is resolute, but it is very real and authentic, and I’m going to add organic, even though I know that probably doesn’t fit,” Shepherd said. “But the reason I think that’s important is because Australians, if it is not authentic and organic … people see it as being fake. And so part of Braiden’s appeal and her ministry style is just to be herself, true to her faith.”
Jackson, who has a degree in secondary education, previously interned with the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tenn.
While her family worried about her move to another hemisphere, the Alabama native was confident.
“I think once you find — obviously — a church community, it’s global,” Jackson said. “That’s what’s really helped me ease into my position, but also ease into friendships and getting comfortable being here and fitting in: We’re all after the same thing. We’re all here to disciple others and to spread the Gospel.”
“I think once you find — obviously — a church community, it’s global. That’s what’s really helped me ease into my position, but also ease into friendships and getting comfortable being here and fitting in: We’re all after the same thing. We’re all here to disciple others and to spread the Gospel.”
Chaplaincy remains common in both private and state schools in Australia despite the decreasing Christian demographic.
Often included on schools’ well-being teams, chaplains offer spiritual guidance alongside counselors and social workers.
“A lot of it deals with just obviously outside and inside school stressors,” Jackson said. “Big ones are obviously exams, assessments, feeling not good enough. I’ll usually try and be like, ‘You are good enough. This is what the Lord has said about us. This is what you are: You are unique. You are loved. You are created for a purpose.’”
Purpose is what Meyers found in June 2023 during a Redlands student mission trip to the U.S. with Shepherd and Jackson.
“I was going because I like helping people,” Meyers said. “I knew that we were going to go to homeless shelters, so that’s why I wanted to go. I didn’t go for the faith and the Christian side of it.”
Yet by the end of the trip, Meyers returned with something more valuable than souvenirs — faith.
Jackson and Shepherd baptized her on the Lipscomb campus before the group’s return to Australia.
“Now I pay attention, and what’s being said actually helps me,” Meyers said of the school’s Christian emphasis. “I can apply it to my life.”
She turns to mentors such as Jackson and Shepherd for biblical guidance.
“These kids are growing up in a post-Christian landscape,” Shepherd said. “For them to learn about the Gospel primarily from a school setting? That’s pretty unique.”
Jackson’s role as chaplain has led to five baptisms, according to Shepherd.
Yet she occasionally wonders if her efforts make a difference.
“It’s quite hard to see that seed,” Jackson said. “Even just through conversation, if I know maybe a seed is planted, hopefully the Lord will interact with the rest.”
As for Meyers, that seed is already sprouting.
“I want to go back next year on the missionary trip, but now that’s based on my faith,” Meyers said. “I want to grow my faith. I want to help others to grow their faith. And I still want to help people.”
AUDREY JACKSON is Associate Editor of The Christian Chronicle. She traveled to Australia to report this story. Reach him at [email protected].
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