The Youth With A Mission Nelson crew who have taken over the former Garindale estate – Rob and Meri Gonzales, Manuel Seitz, Marina Dietsch, Julie Pippin and Annie and Rex Lynch. Photo: Charles Anderson.

‘We feel like God called us to Nelson’

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Garindale used to be a Catholic boy’s school, then an aromatherapy retreat and now it will become the Nelson headquarters of a global Christian mission effort to spread God’s word. Charles Anderson meets the new owners.

On the first day they began to pray and fast. The three families had $125 in a newly-created trust bank account. They read a passage from the Bible. It spoke of entering a land and taking what God has given them.

The three families consisted of a Kiwi couple, one half of which had recently left being the chief executive of Oamaru Hospital, and two other American couples.

They had all found shared purpose in a Christian organisation called Youth with a Mission, known as YWAM.

They believed that the land God was wanting to give them was a slice of north Nelson, perched overlooking Tasman Bay. It had 24 bedrooms, a swimming pool, a function centre with facilities for at least 150 guests, two bars, a commercial kitchen and multiple al-fresco dining areas. The asking price was $1.6 million.

They believed that God had called them to Garindale, formerly Sunnybank, a catholic boys’ school.

On the third day they stopped their prayer and their fast. Since making their plans to move to Nelson, due to a shared belief in God’s plan for the region, they had made their wishes known. They wanted to set up a chapter of YWAM.

It is a global organisation dedicated to evangelism, discipleship and mission work.

They have 1500 bases around the world that all operate individually but exist under the ‘spiritual umbrella’ of a central leadership structure.

When the property on Wakapuaka Rd came up for sale, they didn’t think a purchase was possible.

“We gave up,” says Annie Lynch, who moved here from Hawaii with her husband Rex. “But we felt like we should pray and fast.” That was in August.

But behind the scenes, a woman in Wellington was contacted by her daughter in Nelson who had some previous contact with YWAM and had heard about the couples’ plan.

Her mother has a charitable trust who buys homes for single mothers and has worked with YWAM before.

The Garindale property had been on the market for five days when the woman said she would put up the money and loan it to the trust so they could buy it.

“We were like stunned mullets,” says Robert Gonzales, the former hospital chief executive who moved to the property with his wife, Meri. “Did this really happen?”

They had a sense that God’s plan was in this. Last week, they moved in. And now their plans begin.

They want to turn the place into a school for their organisation, running courses for people from all over the world.

“It’s quite an intense time,” Robert says. “I did it 35 years ago and it changed my life.”

Students of all ages learn about “discipleship” and then go out into the community before doing outreach – either internationally or in New Zealand.

“We will connect with existing things that are happening in Nelson but also look and see what gaps there are that we can fill,” Robert says.

Already two Germans on working holiday visas have stumbled into the estate and made themselves useful – getting the property ready for more visitors.

But the couples say they are aware of a possible perception – Christians moving into a large estate in a remote part of the world, bent on creating a religious school. But they insist there is nothing to be scared of.

“We are just ordinary people that found experience in God,” Robert says.

Annie says anyone is welcome to visit and see what is going on. They have an open day on Sunday afternoon with local iwi offering a powhiri.

Robert says he is thankful for the welcome they have already received.

“We are here for Nelson.” But why Nelson? “We just think that God is the answer and has some special ideas for this place,” Robert says.

Annie is more forthright: “We think he is getting ready to do some things here and the whole region will see … miracles.”