Going GREYT! 1 Peter 4:10

In Going GREYT! we feature stories of some of our ‘more experienced’ people within the LCA, who have been called to make a positive contribution in their retirement. We pray their examples of service will be an inspiration and encouragement to us all as we look to be Christ’s hands and feet wherever we are, with whatever gifts and opportunities we’ve been given.

by Helen Brinkman

When John Belani arrived as a young single man in an Austrian refugee camp in 1957, he was seeking a life of adventure in the Congo.

At 23, the cabinet maker had left his homeland of Slovakia and knew no-one in the camp of 2000 people. He was set on migrating to the central African nation in search of rainforest hunter-gatherer people (pygmies) and wild animals.

However, the sound of hymns coming from a nearby hall led him not only to his future wife, but an unexpected change in plans.

‘I was walking through the camp and heard singing at a church service, led by a pastor from Slovakia who was preaching in Hungarian’, recalls the Victorian octogenarian.

‘After the service, there was a young girl and we met. She wanted to go to Australia, but I wanted to go to Congo. I was a silly young man looking for adventure.

‘No-one could convince me otherwise, and I didn’t know whether I should follow my brain or my heart.’

That lovely ‘young girl’ was Anna, who was from a town 25km from John’s hometown, who would become his wife and life-long companion – in Australia.

‘I thank God every day that he brought me to this lucky country through my wife’, says John, who’s now 87.

The Lutheran World Federation sponsored the pair to travel from Austria to Australia by ship in January 1959.

Their first stop was the Bonegilla Migrant Centre near Wodonga in Victoria, where they stayed for several weeks, awaiting the start of the Mildura grape harvest.

On their third day there, the camp chaplain organised for John and Anna to be married at the Lutheran church in nearby Albury, New South Wales, lending them a small van. The entire wedding party squeezed in for the trip.

After the grape picking season, they settled in Melbourne, welcomed by the local Slovakian community, and John went back to his trade as a cabinet maker.

Instead of pygmies and wild animals, they found peace and freedom.

But they certainly haven’t missed out on adventure!

They have made mission trips to Papua New Guinea and South Sudan.

‘My wife and I love to travel and have been truly blessed to be able to see many places where we have had the opportunity to serve our Lord by sharing our time, talents, and resources’, John says.

Their year in PNG in 1962–1963 was a personal favourite. Sparked by an article in their church paper calling for builders to volunteer their time to teach the locals the trade, John and Anna journeyed to the island of Siassi, also known as Umboi, off the coast from Papua New Guinea’s second biggest city of Lae. There, they built a classroom, house and dormitory for the local high school.

Two trips to South Sudan in 2007 and 2010 also remain close to their hearts, where they were moved by faith to plant a Lutheran church, school and orphanage, which they still support.

John still recalls his most dangerous activity during his African travels – taking a dip in the crocodile-infested River Nile. He couldn’t resist the lure of the mighty river he’d heard of all his life! He emerged unscathed.

‘We thank God every day we have been blessed with good health’, John says.

‘God blesses us with more than we need, many times more, and we’re just giving it back to those who need it.’

Just after his 80th Birthday, John was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to his local Laverton community. This includes co-founding the Good News Lutheran College in Tarneit, Melbourne’s west, and the Slovak Social Club in Laverton.

John also donated land to build the Christ the Lord Slovak Lutheran Church in Laverton in 1974, where the pair still worships. They’ve been active members since, coordinating a monthly lunch and fellowship group for pensioners for almost 40 years.

John still works four days a week in his Laverton construction company with son Joe. He spends Thursdays with Anna and works in his garden, tending his vegetables.

‘Family is my single-greatest passion, and I am humbled to share my table at our weekly family dinner with my children, grandchildren and now also my grandchildren’s partners’, he says. ‘Together we pray and give thanks for our time. Lively conversations covering many and varied topics are keeping my mind active and connected across the generations.’

Reflecting on his life, he adds: ‘I strongly believed God had a plan for us. Philippians 4:19 tells me that God knows me, he knows me as a sinner and he tells me that I am his and he is mine, there can be no closer relationship.

‘And whatever I need he will provide. Nothing and nobody can upset me because God is with me, he is guiding me, and he will provide for me and everybody despite our sins.’

Helen Brinkman is a Brisbane-based writer who is inspired by the many GREYT people who serve tirelessly and humbly in our community. By sharing stories of how God shines his light through his people, she hopes others are encouraged to explore how they can use their gifts to share his light in the world.

Know of any other GREYT stories in your local community? Email the editor lisa.mcintosh@lca.org.au  

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