"Sergeant, I’m no good. I haven't been sober for eight years. Give me a chance and put me away."
The sergeant looked across his wood-panelled counter at this shabby, pleading piece of human flotsam and just snarled: "Stace, you stink! Get out!"
It was April 6th, 1930, and the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression had lifted Australia’s unemployment rate to twenty-five percent, with hopelessness reaching epidemic proportions.
Arthur Stace had given up on himself - with every possible reason.
A seasoned petty crook, he had been an alcoholic for thirty of his forty five years. Born into hopeless poverty, as a child he survived by stealing bread and milk from people’s doorways, and by scavenging for food scraps from filthy back-alley bins.
At fifteen, he was underfed, uneducated, and under police guard; launching a yo-yo existence of jails to jobs and back again. His CV focused on jobs as a look-out for robberies or illegal gambling dens; or procuring clients for his sisters’ brothels.
Three years serving in the Australian army during world war one had briefly interrupted this cycle, but now he was not even welcome in jail.
Stace shuffled outside the courthouse, but fell in step with a cluster of men who were walking towards a church. Word was out about some free food; and he soon found himself inside with three hundred others, all willing to endure an hour and half of talking before they saw any nourishment.
At the front six people sat on a separate seat, all looking clean and well-dressed; contrasting with their dishevelled congregation. Stace leaned towards the career criminal beside him: "Who are they?"
"I'd reckon they'd be Christians," came the reply.
Stace said: "Well, look at them. And look at us. I'm having a go at what they’ve got!"
After the meeting, and the meal, he walked across the street to a park, where he slipped to his knees and prayed to receive Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour. For despite his repeated failures overwhelming him, he detected a glimmer of hope in the sermon about God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
Eternity began playing on his mind, and two years later he heard evangelist John G. Ridley’s cry: "Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney. You've got to meet it! Where will you spend Eternity?"
Stace also heard God’s voice that night - to an illiterate man with a piece of chalk in his pocket...
“’Eternity’ went ringing through my brain and suddenly I began crying as I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write Eternity," he later explained.
He could hardly write his own name, but as he reached down with the chalk, the word "Eternity" flowed smoothly onto the pavement, in an elegant copperplate script that looped the tail of the “y” gracefully back underneath.
Responding to God’s call meant his leaving home well before sunrise several mornings each week over the next thirty five years; traveling Sydney’s public transport system.
Walking from a station or bus stop, he would stop every hundred yards or so to kneel and leave his one-word chalk message; on footpaths, buildings, station entrances. Anywhere he could imagine commuters or shoppers would see it.
It is estimated that he wrote this word half a million times. The mysterious, unseen “Eternity Man" became a Sydney folk legend, for his message was everywhere but nobody ever saw him - until a photographer tracked him down three years before his death.
Stace died in 1967, but his legacy was revived on December 31, 1999, when cities around the world took turns to welcome Y2K and say goodbye to the 1900s.
That night, twenty miles of Sydney’s harbor flared in brilliant fireworks displays, with special images playing over the spectacular suspension arch of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Then, right on midnight, a glowing replica of Arthur Stace’s unique one-word message “Eternity” spread across its immense span, to be carried by television satellites around the world.
Its impact caused a hush, and one Australian journalist briefly ignored his heavily-scripted commentary - being moved to declare: “And in the whole scheme of things, that’s all that matters.”
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