“Freeing men and women to be who they were created to be” is how Marty Woods describes his 50 years of mentoring mostly young men, a form of ministry that has grown hundreds of disciples who make other disciples.
Woods, with his wife Jenny, has worked for 36 years with Fusion International, a Christian Youth and Community organisation, living in six countries, and as this report is published, returns to Japan. A memoir of those years of mentoring, A Willing Spirit was launched under the trees in the Greek Theatre at Baker Hake, a boarding house at the King’s School in Parramatta, because that’s where Woods’ journey of mentoring began.
As he put it, his parents had sent him to the King’s School “to get some religion but not that much religion.” He evidently got enough for Rod West, his house master – who continued as a powerful influence on Woods’ life – to make a 17-year-old Marty a form monitor, a shepherd for younger boys.
“Pretty much the Greek theatre was about the only good thing about Baker house in 1974,” said David Haslingden, the first person Marty Woods ever mentored. “And when my parents dropped me off here, and just drove off, I thought something really had cracked and gone wrong in the world. This was a really cold and scary place for an 11 year old boy from Cooma.”
But Marty was there. “I remember all of this really quite vividly. Marty said today, ‘I’ll be interested to hear what you say.’ But I have a completely accurate recollection. So I can tell you what happened. About three days into my sentence here, I was in the prep room in the front left-hand corner there, whimpering away, and Marty, who was our form monitor … noticed and came in. Little did I know, of course, that Rod [West] and [his wife] Janet had put him up to it because they knew very well how I was feeling.
“Marty asked me to come in and talk to him. And that’s all he did. And I went into his, into his little office. And and I sat down, I talked to him, and he asked me about my parents and about home. And then I told him how much I loved them and how much I missed, and how sad I was. And he didn’t really do very much at all that listen and be kind. And I [had] felt there was no kindness in this place… But there was Marty. And he told me that I could come back anytime I wanted, and that he’d always be there. And he told me that he was he was my friend. And that meant the world.”
And then a recent mentee, Menori, who flew from Japan for the book launch, spoke of the transformation in his life. “Last year, Marty started to mentor me. And in our conversations, he’s caring and loving, without judgment; it made me feel safe to share my struggle. And I made a choice to tell Marty something that I have never told anybody else, that stuck in my heart. Like I compressed it, held on to it, kept it secret, and ended up living a double life. So I shared them all with Marty and took the step to process those things together with him. And through that process, God has set me free from shame and guilt through that relationship.
“Marty never gave me any advice or told me what to do. But instead, he just helped me to see who I am.
“One day, I remember I told Marty that there is a boy within me who is in a cave, crouching down and facing the wall. He doesn’t know what to do. He has no idea how to get out of the cave. And suddenly, a man appears and, grabbing his hand, like pulling his hand [they are] escaping together and getting him out of the cave, lets him see what he has never seen before.
“He has a spiritual father role to me. He is taking me on, encouraging me, cheering me on. And he [is] always alongside me, growing together, as we fight the battle together. And I saw Jesus in him; I have experienced God’s true love through relationship. And since then, because I have been set free through God by God through our relationship, I started to realise this, because I have been set free, and I [have] tried to create the safe space with [others] by sharing my stories.”
Introducing Woods, the current headmaster at King’s, Tony George, spoke of Rod West as a mutual mentor. “There are these moments that come along and give us an opportunity to be able to stop, pause, reflect on the way in which God shapes our lives and in the most unusual and extraordinary ways. Who would have thought that Rod West would have had an impact on Marty and they also had an impact on someone such as myself? My connection with Rod was as a year seven boy going to attend Trinity Grammar in Rod’s second year at Trinity.
“And if you think back to those heady 1970s, school mastering was very different to what we think it is today. That was very much a disciplinary kind of environment … One of the big shifts in that space of education, I do think needs to be credited to Rod West. We know Rod’s heart for education and his own statement that the heart of education is the education of the heart. And little did I know as a boy going through Trinity Grammar School that I was being shaped in order to be a future educator and to find myself actually here, on his own stomping ground.”
Tony George described why the Rod West connection meant launching Marty Wood’s book at the King’s School was more than allowing Woods a nostalgic afternoon. “Because the journey that we’ve been on at Kings School for quite some time now is how is it that mentoring and coaching would actually describe the essence of what education is about, rather than coaching and mentoring being what we do in sports teams out on the paddock. It’s actually what describes what happens within the classroom. The better we are as mentors and coaches, the better we are as educators.”
Before Rod West’s widow Janet officially launched the book, Marty Woods explained her husband’s profound impact on him. “I’ve never met anyone quite like Rod West. He changed my life. He spoke of Jesus, yet beyond his words, he showed God to me by the way he shepherded me. I caught God through Rod’s life. I believed and embraced his faith. I followed Rod as he followed Christ. He was Jesus to me. He was a role model, friend, and inspiration. I always felt comfortable at home when I was with him.
“I see now that I was looking for a father figure. But through rites of passage, I discovered the love of the Father. And it changed me forever. I knew who I was; I discovered my person, my own person. I feel so fortunate to have had a mentor through my teenage years. He knew what I needed to have an older person believe in me was deeply affirming and helped me survive adolescence.
“After I left school, I’d spend time with him. I just watched how he worked. He lit up a room when he entered; he was positive, optimistic, and enjoying people. He was a strong soul, humble, honest, never trying to be someone he wasn’t. He just loved God.”
“He wasn’t a stereotypical male figure. He wasn’t particularly coordinated and didn’t play many sports. Yet he was just comfortable in who he was. And I noticed he was committed to supporting each boy on the journey to manhood in modelling to many how a man lives and what a true man is like. I saw what it meant to live a life for others through watching. After leaving his role as the head of school, he was often invited to speak at school reunions; he’d begin with these words, ‘Boys, if I did anything that got in the way of your journey to manhood, I’m sorry, I know I made decisions that may not have helped you grow into a strong man.’ Such humility.
Woods explained the essence of mentoring: “Jesus has these amazing words; he says, ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ The way I mentor is about helping people to have a free spirit, and the only way to do it, I see, is you’re going to have to take on your flesh.
“I don’t know how it is for you. But that’s my journey. The flesh can be so strong it takes over. After Rodd, I had a mentor who would say to me, ‘Tell me what you don’t want to tell me.’ I hated the question. But I loved it because it meant, as Minori said, ‘I just didn’t want to live a hidden life.’ I just wanted to be free. I was sick of holding back. There is this great song, and it says, ‘Take the shackles off your feet, so I can dance.’ And I found that in my mentoring, what I’ve learned is just trying to help free people…
“Minori didn’t say much. But now he’s mentoring eight or nine other people. And so we’re starting in Japan, a mentoring movement. I’m going back tomorrow [today as this is published.] We’re training 500 people to mentor because I find it’s the most helpful way to free these guys who are stuck. And so that’s what I’m all about. That’s what I love. That’s what this book is about.”
This book is a labour of love, about a lifetime of labouring for love, with love, and by love.
The spelling of David Haslingden’s name has been corrected