Canterbury Girls’ Secondary College student Maeve came in a while ago and interviewed Peter Whitefield – a "city chaplain" of Melbourne. This is what she wrote after the conversation they had.
On his 54th birthday, Peter Whitefield was met in the street by a man he had come to know briefly. The man said he was hungry and asked if they could get something to eat. So the pair ventured through the doors of the big golden ‘M’ and ordered some food and drink. Peter shared that today was his birthday – and to be sharing his birthday lunch with this man was a real honour. Now the pair greet each other whenever they meet. They might go for a drink, grab a bite to eat or just walk and chat.
It is occurrences like this that are becoming increasingly common for Peter since his work began as a Presence Worker at the Welsh Church in early 2014. Peter ventures out to the streets and laneways of the CBD to meet people and show God’s love, regardless of who they are or what situation they are in.
Located in Latrobe Street, the Melbourne Welsh Church believe they not only have the obligation to help their own congregation, but to also help the wider community around them. They are not just about “bums on seats”. The ministry of the Presence Team connects with other organisations such as the Salvation Army and Urban Seed in support of what is already going on in the CBD community. It’s about building relationships with the locals.
Peter is a chef by trade and will willingly cook at Credo or serve food at the Salvation Army soup kitchen when he is needed. Growing up, Peter was constantly surrounded by loving people. “They did not just tell us what to do, but showed us,” Peter remembers. His mother and father demonstrated to their children how to outwardly care and love one another. He recalls an example of this:
“There were two alcoholic men with no family who lived in a very disadvantaged situations, and Mum and Dad always cared for them. We lived near the two men and Mum would go to check and make sure that they were taken care of. They showed me that even though they are different to us, you still care for them, and involve yourself with them.”
Peter’s parents were very influential on how Peter cares for people now. Other family members – as well his wife and friends – have all influenced how Peter acts.
However, the greatest influence in his life and work has been Jesus, modelled in the people around him. “I learnt by seeing other people live out Jesus’ works,” Peter says. “People who we often think are the ones close to God are the people we least expect; we make certain assumptions. Jesus loved those that society had no place for, and His heart seems to be in those people.”
“This doesn’t mean that He does not look after the top end of town, but just has a special place for those who have been cast aside. It is something that keeps you grounded in your faith. I have done talks at churches (and other Christian organisations), but there is nothing like meeting someone on the streets and seeing that God has made himself known to them.”
Peter has the opportunity to meet many different people on the streets; some who are unafraid of others’ views, some who are welcoming and some who are content to talk and build a relationship. He not only gets these opportunities through his work, but also through his involvement with God’s Squad CMC, the Christian bikie organisation in Melbourne.
For 14 years, Peter has been part of this loving group of people who are engaged with chaplaincy within the outlaw bikie scene, jails, juvenile detention, youth groups and indigenous communities.
“They are not just there for outlaw bikers, but there for broken people, street people, the homeless and those living in disadvantaged situations,” says Peter. It is an opportunity not only for Peter to share God’s love and kindness, but also to regularly exercise one of his hobbies of riding bikes.
In the future, Peter hopes that the work that community organisations do with homeless and disadvantaged people in Melbourne’s CBD will continue to bring hope and healing. “I want us to continue to look after them the best that we can and continue to make them a part of our lives,” he says. “It’s not just a delivery of service, but a delivery of hope…its not about what you’ve done or where you live, but about co-living together.”
Peter says that we cannot simply give a person a fish – the person and their family will only eat for one day. We need to give them a fishing rod and teach them to fish, so that he or she may feed their family for a lifetime. Peter feels that it is crucial to work alongside the people that he meets, but says that in the future we need to rethink how we provide support. “We think we know what they want and need…we just need to ask them what they want and give them the choice that we have…they’ve got to be treated with dignity and respect,” he says.
Peter doesn’t want to reinvent what already exists, but just carry on putting himself out there and get to know more people. “The dream is to not give up, to persevere, to always remember that it is not about me – it’s about others and to do what I need to do. We all need to remember that we can’t do it by ourselves we need to work as a community and make a place for people to come to.”
Peter wants to teach his young grandchildren that it is important to do this work at some level when they’re older. He wants to leave them with a responsibility that doesn’t stop with Peter, or with his grandkids, but that continues as a legacy for generations to come. As long as he is able to get around, Peter wants to continue to do this work for the rest of his life.
Have a chat to Peter when he’s next around at Credo!