RHONDA Porteous remembers a “strong, strange smell of fish” and the sight of a vast stretch of ocean floor just before the first of four tsunami waves struck the seaside village of Pago Pago in American Samoa.
Even four years later, Brisbane resident Rhonda also recalls her terror aboard a small bus as the driver Rain Timu sped up a hill from the waterfront to escape the ocean surge.
Aboard the bus with Rhonda were 14 other Australian Cursillistas visiting American Samoa to conduct a three-day men’s Cursillo from September 24 to 27, followed by a similar women’s retreat.
They were helping to launch the island’s first Cursillo weekend at the invitation of Bishop John Quinn Weitzel.
As Rhonda and her husband Steve prepare to join hundreds of others for the Cursillo World Encounter in Brisbane from November 20 to 24, powerful memories of the blessings and fears of that September day in 2009 have returned.
Rhonda’s first encounter with Cursillo was in Sydney’s Ave Maria Retreat Centre, Watsons Bay, in 1977.
“I was quite young, very shy and extremely quiet and lonely,” she said.
“However, on this weekend I met the best friend a person can have – Jesus Christ.
“I found someone who loved me just as I was – a friend I have journeyed my life with every day since.”
Rhonda said she had three encounters on that first weekend.
“There was an encounter with myself, with Christ and with others.
“I discovered that to live a balanced Christian life I need to base it on a tripod of piety (my relationship with Christ), study (learning about God) and action (taking this new relationship to others).
“For me to live this balanced Christian life, I need to be nurtured and supported by friends also travelling this same life journey.
“Friendship is what Cursillo is about, it is about making friends, being friends and sharing with my friends.”
Rhonda and Steve both attribute their strong marriage and family life to a mutual Cursillo commitment.
“We’ve been able to share all aspects of our lives including Christianity,” Steve said.
“Our daughters Angela and Jennifer have also gone on to experience the Cursillo weekend as adults.”
The Porteous’ story returned to the day of the tsunami in American Samoa.
“Our team had already presented the three days to the men of the island with the women’s weekend to come a few days later,” Rhonda said.
“One of the elders who had attended the Cursillo invited us to his village for a meal. It was on the other side of the island.
“Our journey was by bus and we had to travel along the waterfront.
“I remember the waterfront had a strong, strange smell of fish and that the tide was quite a way back, but I was not familiar with the area so had no idea anything was wrong.
“There was a tuna factory further along and the closer we got the more we realised something was indeed wrong.
“People were running out of the factory and there seemed to be chaos everywhere.
“Suddenly, our bus driver swung the bus around which was when I saw the huge wave heading towards the bus.
“God was with us that day … we were the first in the line of traffic so the driver was able to head up what looked like a goat track into the hills.
“The bus driver took us as high as possible and then told us the tsunami was still coming, to get out and run higher and higher.
“Even after we were as high as we could go I was still so frightened.”
Rhonda remembers standing on the hill and looking at the unfolding disaster as those less fortunate were caught by the tsunami and swept out to sea.
“I am not a Rosary person, never had been but up there that day I suggested that we say the Rosary together,” she said.
“It seemed the only thing possible to help.
“We stood there saying the Rosary and slowly began to calm down and some of the women joined us.
“They were watching their world being destroyed and we were there with them sharing their experience.”
Rhonda’s thoughts next turned to her husband back in Brisbane.
“I started to pray Steve would know I was all right,” Rhonda said.
Steve said when he went to work that morning, many were talking about the tsunami.
“When I heard where it was, I was terrified and didn’t know what to do.
“I went home and as I went into the house it was like a darkness descended.
“As I paced through the rooms suddenly it seemed like a light had come on.
“Then I felt everything was going to be okay. I truly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit come into our home.”
Rhonda and the other Cursillistas were able to return to Pago Pago’s Cathedral of the Holy Family.
“As we established contact with home, we began to receive messages from Cursillo throughout the world with prayer for us and the people of Samoa,” she said.
“We truly felt those prayers … God was with us and you could feel him living beside us.
“It was a terrifying ordeal and there are so many stories about what was lost but through all the disaster never once did I really feel alone.
“I felt the presence of God and my brothers and sisters together.
“We were known as the people of God from Australia but that trip showed me that God is present in everyone.
“We went to Samoa to share the gift of our Cursillo movement but came home having been given a gift far greater – the gift of the love and care of a people, the friendship of others who, regardless of what little they had, were willing to share it with us.
“We also found out later that the village we had been heading for had been completely destroyed.
“We were to have left the cathedral much earlier that day but one of the group was running late.
“Even today I thank God when someone is late.
“We did present the Cursillo for the women and three brave women attended.
“They have become friends for life – friends that I know will always travel in my heart, even though I may never see them again.”