65. Not a native, just naïve.
At the airport after the long flight from Australia I was searching for clues where I was supposed to go from here. I knew the Marriott Hotel would be very much out of my price range, if indeed I had to stay in a hotel temporarily. Replacing the ‘a’ with an ‘o’ I read more riot into the name the customs officer had written on my entry form. The travel consultant in Melbourne had casually mentioned about me being picked up, of which I had no knowledge. If there was a ‘plot’ played out behind the scenes, was I to be met by someone without having been told?
I had made up my mind not to approach anybody straight away, even if they held up a sign with my name on it. My mind would need time to sort out friend from foe. Just because I left Australia and entered the US did not guarantee anonymity. I was particularly aware that LA could be hostile territory. The reason I shall not disclose at this point.
One man held up a sign Neumann (new man in German). I walked by, ignoring it and just stood by the entrance to the airport’s main doors. I took my time to search out where I ought to go, what messages were for me and from whom. The stimulation was almost overwhelming. A van parked just outside the airport was signed: NSPECTION Department (it was misspelled). One T-shirt had the letters ICU printed very prominently. The person was walking round and round the airport foyer. Another lady kept walking up and down; she had a child in a stroller and a T-shirt which read - Jesus Christ. So far these last two combined seemed a good combination.
My diary speaks of another message I received at the airport on the morning of my arrival. I cannot recall the exact way it came or the wording, but the message was very clear – You are being tested.
Secretly I had hoped to be met by someone, by whom I had no idea; perhaps a representative from the large TV Church I kept emailing to? My intention was to first pay a visit to this church. Amongst the dozens of small buses and vans I spotted one with the signage Marriott Hotel. I flagged the driver, who promptly stopped and took me aboard. From a trip in 1988 I knew Anaheim was a fair way south of LA and was surprised to catch a lift so easily. There was only one other person on the bus. The driver only drove around one block or two and stopped at the Airport Marriott. I knew then this was a hotel chain with establishments all over. The same bus took me back to the airport.
Around midday I caught the public bus to Anaheim. Within 2 hours I had found my way to the impressive grounds of the church I had been watching Sunday mornings. It was a lovely spring day in the US, mild to warm and sunny. The paths surrounding the huge glass structure were paved with scriptures. I took my time wandering around taking it all in, before making my way to the reception area. I was not quite sure how to approach the church. Should I ask for help? If yes, did I need spiritual help or physical support? Had anyone heard of my story; of the incredible events surrounding road deaths, dates and numbers, names etc. etc? Would they sent me away as a lunatic?
This was a time I had to remind myself to trust God. So far HE had never let me down. My faith was about to be tested to the limit. I walked up to the large reception desk, much like that of a large hotel, and asked to see a counsellor. I was given a form to fill in. I hate filling in forms. How would someone who walks off the street in great distress feel about filling in a form? But I was not in any distress and filled in the form. I wrote that I was the person who had emailed from Australia (who redeems your life from destruction) and hoped to see Dr. Schuller jun. I would like to speak to him to tell him ‘all’.
(I had a few months earlier emailed that Dr. Schuller left out the phrase – who redeems you life from destruction – while reading Psalm 103 on the TV program. I thought this would give me a few moments of the famous man’s time. Without appointment? How naïve was I?).
One question on the form read: How can we help you right now? I wrote – With a toilet and a glass of water. After a few minutes an elderly, well groomed gentleman came and we talked. Despite his nice manner and understanding ear I think I was not taken terribly seriously, possibly because of the peculiar request on the form. The glass of water never eventuated. I politely refused when the counsellor offered some money out of his own pocket. A few dollars were not going to make a difference. And I hated the notion that I was on a free holiday. Before leaving he handed me a list of possible shelters for accommodation.
The most important aspect of my encounter at this mega church was the opportunity to tell my dream of April 1st to this elderly gentleman. I had told only two or three people, he was the first one. I don’t know if the man took my story any further and if Dr. Schuller junior ever heard about my visit. I was not bitter, because the church hadn’t helped me; disappointed perhaps. Wasn’t this supposed to be a testing time? I started to wonder where I would sleep that night.
I spent more blessed moments exploring the extensive grounds of the church in beautiful sunshine. My eyes filled with tears when I came across some favourite scriptures. Many times on this trip I had to remind myself, and the people who I met, that God always has a plan B. I had learned not to push my own agenda. There could be something better just around the corner. It always was.
Further along the wide Boulevard (the church is located on the corner Lewis Ave.) I looked for a public phone in a motel. Unsuccessful, I turned back toward the church, turning left at Hof’s Restaurant. I had already passed it, because it looked closed. Then I remembered that Hof is the German word for ‘hope’. I decided to try if it’s open and it was. I entered at the back and found a public telephone.
None of the shelters I phoned were available. The answer machine would say they opened later (after 5.30 pm) or one had to phone early in the day to enquire about a vacancy. I looked through the phone book under Baptist Churches. I was affiliated with this denomination back in Australia. The first on my list that answered the phone (I wasted many dollars just to hear answering machines) said they did not have a program for homeless people, but to try Sunkist Baptist Church. Sunkist’s details were the very next one on my list. I liked the address too, No. 701 Sunkist Ave. A lady at that number answered my enquiry very efficiently, brief and to the point: “We can’t help you.”
At least I expected a little curiosity. Had her been me I would have been probing into the background of this stranger coming from Australia looking for a bed. Were they getting phone calls like mine every day? Was the staff instructed to just send people away? Are not churches places to embrace lost souls and to help them along the way? I was very naïve in my thinking. The employees at the Restaurant started to take notice of me, because I kept getting change for phone calls and told them that I was searching for a bed for the night. They offered me a free coffee, which I gladly accepted.
The gesture of these young people restored my faith in humanity somewhat. It looked like I would have to find a motel for the night so I enquired for directions to the nearest bank. On the way I saw a sign “Sunkist” and thought for a moment I had stumbled onto the church. But it looked nothing like it. It was an agricultural firm called Sunkist Growers, a fruit growing company.
At the bank I had to tell my story to three young girls. Two were being trained to deal with customers, while one served me. My only credit card was not valid in the US. My Visa card was cancelled after I had reported it stolen in Rome six months earlier. There was little chance that I was going to obtain cash that day. It was just before closing time. I tried another card, the same one Isobel was using to buy groceries and run our home while I was away. The girl with the lovely name Dina told me to try this card on the ATM outside, it might work. I had not much faith in that option.
Before letting me go, I urged them to try hard that I was desperate for cash to find a bed for the night. The girls felt sorry for me. Two of them reached for their handbag and each one handed me five dollars. That’s almost ten dollars Australian from each of them. I had never experienced this anywhere in the world - a teller feeling sorry for a client and opening their own purse to help. Again, what generosity from young people! I accepted it with the promise to repay one day. To my surprise the card outside worked and I withdrew one hundred US dollars. I tried immediately to pay back the ten dollars, but the doors were now locked. I was glad for this temporary reprieve, but worried about Isobel having sufficient funds for the family budget. She would hate me to gallivant around America spending money we didn’t have.
I walked back the same way I came, along Lewis Ave. towards the Restaurant ready to search for a budget hotel. As I passed the Sunkist Growers place, I had to walk around a vehicle facing the locked gate. A man called out to the female driver: “If you want to I will open the gate”. As if in a flash my mind took this as the clue – go to the church on Sunkist Ave. and knock on their gate. I went back to the Hof’s Restaurant and tried to phone Sunkist, without success. I was absolutely convinced that Sunkist Baptist was my destination for me that night.
It was already getting dark. I enquired about public transport to the church. For safety reasons walking was out of the question and too far anyway. At the nearby ‘Two Trees’ Hotel I asked the reception clerk to call a cab for me. It took a long time, but I was patiently waiting in the lobby of this posh establishment. As I sat in the leather lounge a group of people opposite met a man. I caught brief snippets of their conversation. I sounded like a father and son had just been re-united. The strangest part was the look of the man; a split image of a member of our church at Enfield, a prominent ex-journalist. (He also had been a whistle blower and had suffered for doing the right thing with a jail sentence).
When the taxi finally arrived the clerk announced, Taxi 31 for you, Sir! Why the number, I wondered? The driver wore a turban. We talked briefly and he seemed to me a very nice gentleman, one I would trust. His name was Sing. When he dropped me outside 701 Sunkist Ave. I had no idea what to expect. The building was large, but looked deserted. I knocked on a door facing the main road. There was a light inside but no response. I walked around to the back and tried the door to the main entrance. A lady heard me, unlocked the door and invited me in. It felt as if I was expected.
She immediately called a man who was the assistant pastor. A moment later I met and talked with the senior pastor. I suddenly felt a rush of emotions flood over me. I needed a little space to let my emotions flow. Would I be welcome here? Was this the place I would stay for a time, while things sort itself out? Was this home?
A prayer meeting for the Iraqi situation was scheduled for 7.30 pm, half an hour later. I was surprised to see only ½ dozen or so parishioners in the auditorium that probably held fifty times that number. I felt right at home and loved praying for the troops and a quick end to the war. My mind had been on the conflict since it started, right back in Adelaide. Our prayer was for the troops and evil one to be defeated as quickly and bloodless as possible.
After the prayer meeting I didn’t know what the pastor planned to do with me. I said that I was convinced that it was God’s will for me to be here at this time. But if you dropped me in a motel somewhere, this would be fine with me and also in God’s will. This is what he did. I appreciated the ride to the “Red Roof” Motel near Highway 91. The Pastor, who had a German name and who reminded me so much of the pastor of our previous church, wanted to pay for the Motel. But since I had cash I would not let him. I stayed in Room 322.
My dairy says: “I trust I am finally ‘home’ - Anaheim. Little did I know that my US adventure, searching for home, was only just beginning.
Autobiography - Dieter Fischer
1. More in number 2. A sound mind 3. Now I'm found 4. Candle and the Wind
5. Realm of Nature 6. All in his Hand 7. The Wonder of it All 8. To Think God loves