by VICTORIA NING
In the heat of the summer of 2016 I found myself aboard a plane, winging its way into unknown territory, and all I knew was this: one year, one suitcase, and one mission. The mission? NET Ministries Australia.
NET (National Evangelisation Teams) is a peer-to-peer Catholic youth ministry organisation whose purpose is to encourage young people to love Jesus and embrace the Church, by way of a ten-month, voluntary gap year programme.
Each year about forty 18-30-year-olds descend on Brisbane ready to embark on the journey to see this mission statement come to life. Teams of missionaries are then sent nationwide to share the Gospel in schools, parishes, and dioceses, primarily through retreat days, youth groups and young adults groups. Founded by Shane Bennett in 1987 and modeled after its North American counterparts (NET U.S.A and NET Canada), the organisation has grown steadily over recent years; with the number of devoted missionaries continually increasing, NET has also expanded its reach which now spans across Australia’s six states.
In Brisbane, I was greeted by the unfamiliar and was welcomed by a display of Queensland’s finest humidity, I had finally reached NET headquarters. Little did I know, I was about to experience one of the best and most challenging years of my life thus far.
Rewinding a few years, my NET journey in fact started much earlier. In 2007 my hometown — the small, unlikely parish of St Thomas More, Mount Maunganui — was readying to receive a young, charismatic priest by the name of Fr Michael Gielen.
Fr “Mike”, with his larger-than-life personality and infectious zeal, didn’t hesitate to get his hands dirty, and directed his passion for evangelisation toward the youth of the parish. With the aid of overseas missionaries, the youth groups were revitalised and began to thrive; revival was in the air. Many, including myself, were introduced or reintroduced to the faith, which consequently ignited a passion to become like those youth ministers who so bravely left home and country so we could know the love of Jesus.
Since then, St Thomas More has seen an impressive fifteen of its youth commit to serve with NET Ministries. As a teenager I watched with wide eyes and a heart full of possibilities as I saw many of my close friends, and even my twin sister, join the ranks of missionaries known as “Netters”.
I decided to take the university route after leaving high school, but the dream of doing NET, while quieted for three years under the weight of assessments and examinations, never left. When graduation rolled around the desire to serve as a missionary grew ever stronger within me. Thus after much prayer and discernment, an application, an interview, and many fundraising endeavours (each person is required to raise NZ$7000), I found myself aboard a plane and crossing a “ditch”, which never felt so big.
After touchdown in Brisbane, “initial training” was our first assignment. A part of what makes NET unique is its intensive six-week training programme, which takes place on the Sunshine Coast. This time of training is designed to equip the missionaries with the necessary skills to be effective ministers, but more importantly effective Christians. Specifically Netters are trained to be confident facilitators of school retreat days (named A Kiwi spends a year with NET Ministries The 2016 Kiwi “Netters” at the commissioning Mass in Brisbane. Victoria Ning speaking at a Sydney archdiocesan youth camp. “Encounter Days”), which the majority of day-to-day ministry consists of. These Encounter Days include a range of elements such as games, dramas, talks and testimonies aimed to be relevant to today’s culture and young people. In addition to learning practical skills, we also attended sessions about living in community, building relationships, and conflict resolution — all the essentials required to navigate the challenge of living and working in a team context. We were very blessed to have had the opportunity to learn from a whole host of knowledgeable people who willingly shared their time and expertise with us.
A high point during training is always “Team Announcements”, an exciting but anxiety-provoking time when the staff members reveal the prayerfully assigned teams for the year. Each team has a slightly different “flavour” due to its location and ministry requirements. This ranges from the National Team, which travels the country in a van, to a school team at Mazenod College and a local parish team in the small town of Bundaberg.
After much nervous anticipation I was placed on the Sydney Archdiocesan Team, which boasted a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities including Australian, American, Ugandan, Canadian, and of course, a Kiwi! Needless to say, after six weeks of training there was no sweeter feeling than being commissioned and sent forth by Archbishop Mark Coleridge in February.
The Sydney archdiocese would be our home for the year, or more specifically our humble abode in Homebush West, which we would share with a friendly cockroach or two (or more).
Upon arriving in Sydney we hit the ground running, quickly getting to work in the mission field and stopping only when we stepped out the door for the last time. We ministered in schools, universities, and parishes across the archdiocese, running Encounter Days, youth groups, young adults groups, and a weekly Holy Hour at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. We were fortunate enough to be involved with all aspects of the archdiocese, which is still reaping fruits from the World Youth Day held in 2008; from dining with Archbishop Anthony Fisher, to helping at the Pregnant Mother’s Mass and performing a drama for chastity speaker Jason Evert, ministry was never boring.
More than ever I was convinced of my call to be there, and the need for organisations such as NET. It’s no secret that many young people today are lost and hurting, and seeing it firsthand made me realise how precious faith is and how much those students needed to hear the Good News! The beauty of NET is that it’s peer-to-peer. Simply put, it is young people encountering other young people and communicating similar stories of brokenness, of pain, but also of grace and of victory. Being able to share my faith story with the youth of Australia was such an unforgettable privilege.
One particular memorable moment was our very first Encounter Day in Sydney. I was a bundle of nerves; this would be my first talk, and with the theme of selfimage a certain kind of vulnerability was required. The students arrived and the tiny bit of hope and excitement residing in me was replaced with dread, for in all my life I had never seen a group of kids so rambunctious. However the talk was over and done in a blink of an eye, and walking off stage I have to say I felt nothing more than a little discouraged.
It seemed futile, though if nothing else at least half of them were semi-listening. That is what I would describe as underestimating the power of God and overestimating my own importance.
Come time for prayer ministry the student body (of more than 100 kids) came up to us to receive, what was supposed to be, optional prayer. Getting to step inside their hearts for a brief moment and to see first-hand the brokenness and the pain surfacing regarding this theme of self-image was really something no words can describe. Students, both boys and girls, were flocking to the bathrooms with tears streaming down their faces, and my heart cried out to them.
I felt hatred for the world which tells them they aren’t worth anything. I felt anger at all the lies they had been fed. I saw myself in them. I saw little fifteenyear-old me in the same dark place, struggling with the exact same thoughts of, “I am not enough”.
In that moment I was completely overwhelmed by the fact that God chose me to know him, and what an illogical, undeserving, life giving gift that was, and is. A gift, that by the grace of God, we were able to share that
day with a rowdy bunch of Year 10’s searching for more. Another beautiful fruit to emerge from a year on NET is what is referred to as “team life”. At training a big emphasis is placed on daily team functioning. One commonly quoted saying amongst NET alumni is that a typical NET team spends more time together than your average married couple. Whether that’s true or not, we did see plenty of each other!
We prayed together every day, we were angry at each other every day, and we laughed with (and at) each other every single day.
Soon the strangers became family; when giving up seemed like an all too tempting option, these incredible men and women pushed me to persevere and inspired me with their own unending dedication, and not to mention immense hilarity.
I will always hold dear those friendships formed, and all those moments shared, and all those terrible meals eaten together. The invaluable lessons of the importance of vulnerability and reliance on others, and the beauty of seeing the heart of another will never be forgotten.
In November my year with NET Ministries came to a close, passed by in a whirlwind of countless conversations and hearts moved towards Christ, including my own. I returned home a little more tired, with clothes a little more worn, but someone who was a lot more transformed.
A few months out from leaving the place I called home for the past year, I have taken the opportunity amidst all the unpacking and resettling to glance back at the year that was. NET taught me many things namely trust, perseverance, and authentic love.
Those eternal truths, flippantly reeled off like a shopping list, are what all hearts yearn for, and for which many search in vain. I am grateful for the opportunity to have learnt and grown much more than I could ever have expected or hoped.
What a blessing it was to be able to participate in that mission in Australia in 2016, a mission that we all share, and which continues across water and country.
Back home in the beautiful Aotearoa, although thankfully I have more than one suitcase, I still have one mission, and now I have a lifetime to fulfil it. ‘