Like many of the young people he works with in his role as Youth Minister at the Parish of Baulkham Hills, Paul Fam’s early memories of faith were formed in his school years. Both of his parents immigrated to Australia from Egypt, bringing with them strong ties to the Coptic Catholic Church and a keen sense of hospitality and service to their communities.
“Mum would always have people over, or would be going out and providing for people,” Paul says. He and his three brothers were students at Tangara and Redfield Colleges, so it wasn’t uncommon for his family to host gatherings or go to a friend’s house for scripture classes or sacramental programs.
“It was awesome to witness that intimacy of different people in someone else’s home at a young age. It showed us we were part of the wider community, and gave us a really extrinsic focus, you know, that what you’re going through is not all there is and that there are so many other people and there’s always room for service,” Paul says.
When Paul was in high school he began attending the youth group at St Bernadette’s Parish, Castle Hill. Having grown up in a conservative Catholic home, he had misgivings about their charismatic forms of worship, but over time found himself opening up to new forms of faith expression.
One of the biggest eye-openers for Paul came when he was 17 years old. Alongside other leaders from his youth group, he attended the Summer School of Evangelisation and witnessed the different ways young people from other communities and cultures prayed and worshipped.
“I realised I had closed myself off to the different ways Christ witnesses and the extension of the church outside what I knew,” he says.
The retreat also showed Paul that there were many young people who were passionate about exploring their faith and serving the church.
“You have this impression from all your secular mates that the church is a dying breed; that it’s about to go just as extinct as the dodo. Then you come into this one week retreat where you see not just one or two people but 150, 160 people, just putting it all out on the table, all the cards out for the Lord, open hand,” he says. “That was transformative in such a raw way and broke down so many false preconceptions I had.”
Paul felt the effects of this first summer retreat over the course of his final year of high school. “There were things I always had an interest in that God blessed and multiplied. Investment in scripture and young people, investment in myself, in culture and family life, in wanting to build people up. God really made that manifest in a unique way.”
Shortly after finishing his Higher School Certificate, Paul decided to spend two years on the Youth Mission Team, based in Baulkham Hills. Just as his parents had used hospitality and service to express their faith, he too wanted to use service as a way of expressing and exploring his own.
“Telling my parents I wasn’t going to uni straight away was hard,” he says. “Doing something unpaid, with no qualifications at the end, was against the standard subscription of life of going to uni, getting a job, getting married. But I’ve been privileged to grow up in circles where central to faith is the idea that you can’t outgive God. You can try, but you can’t.”
This became even more concrete for Paul when he found his two years of mission work were crucial preparation for building confidence and critical thinking at university, where he is now studying psychology.
In an environment that is often polarising and distracting, he has found that the practice of stepping back from a discussion and reflecting critically, and the ability to open oneself to different ideas and forms of expression, were habits he learned during his ministry that continue to help him daily.
“Those years of discovering my faith with intimate support, while living with, praying with, and serving with my mission team… it was a bedrock for me living my faith in a new way, understanding who I was, and being able to reach out to different communities,” Paul says.
Today, Paul continues to share his faith journey with the youth in the Baulkham Hills area through his service in the parish and school communities. “To young people exploring their faith, I emphasise the need to know yourself and know who God is in your life,” Paul says.
“I think there’s a, a habit nowadays of being able to just be pulled by so many social circles and outlets and releases. But give yourself space and let God speak to your heart. You don’t have to accept shorthand responses or short term solutions; God’s solution is a solution to the eternal goodness of the heart. Give God a bit of leash, and he’ll show you something different.”