Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods

Editorial, Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.


The catalyst for Urban Seed’s first conference came from Ash Barker, co-founder of Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH) and 2014 “scholar in residence” at Urban Seed. The conference which followed in October 2014, Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, took on the personality of both Ash Barker and Urban Seed itself. We knew that if we wanted a diversity of voices to be heard, we would have to do some solid shoulder-tapping and encouraging. The two day conference hosted a great range of conversations, under the general banner of “urban mission.”

Early on we asked ourselves, “Is this a conference for academics or for practitioners?” “Is this a conference for Christians or for a broader audience?” These were questions that were never resolved one way or the other, and while the result was not exactly neat, it was certainly very enriching. One recurring comment was, “We are having conversations here that we are not able to have elsewhere.” It is this “hosting” role that Urban Seed has historically been able to do so well, by providing a space for unlikely friends to meet. One thing we are particularly proud of is the significant number of woman and emerging authors and presenters, for whom the conference and publication has created space. It was also wonderful to welcome people from across Australia and from New Zealand, stretching beyond Melbourne to include urban centres such as Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Auckland.

We decided to create a publication from the conference, and what follows represents a great deal of work from authors, editors and reviewers, as well as, no doubt, input from family, friends and co-workers. Since the conference itself was a mix of both scholars and practitioners (and perhaps some scholar-practitioners), some of the authors who present their thoughts in this volume have not published before. It is a great privilege to offer space for these emerging reflexive practitioners. We made a decision to publish exclusively online in an open access system, not only in order to keep costs down, but also to offer our authors’ thoughts to an audience wider than the academy. We note also that many more people presented papers and case studies than are represented in this publication.

Each of our authors presents their thoughts on urban mission in unique and diverse ways. Lucy Allan kicks us off with a challenging piece, asking whether our mission work can in fact be an outworking of a dominant “hero” narrative, which places some in the role of “saviours” and others in the role of “victims.” Ian Bedford provides a helpful framework for understanding the processes by which congregations establish community services, and questions the inevitability of a common trend for services to “professionalise” and decouple from the church community. Matt Bell reflects on his work at the Indigenous Hospitality House in Melbourne, and reminds us of important Christian practices that can help us to live well on stolen Indigenous land. Cosimo Chiera and Tom Edwards present a simple mathematical model for the assessment of community interventions, using the Children’s Koori Court as an example. Karl Hand explores the idea of “stigma” as a social identity, applied with biblical (New Testament) theology to the LGBT-affirming church and beyond.

Lauren Hayes questions why people with disabilities are often seen in the church as “objects” of charity, and develops a biblical theology of disability inclusion. Gabriel Hingley of UNOH applies the I-Thou philosophy of Martin Buber and his reflections on the Gospel of John in order to understand the dignity of each person, in the context of his own neighbourhood mission work. Greg Manning supplies us with some tools to unpack the stories behind place names, by analysing them as oft-forgotten memorials to the past, encouraging us to recover these meanings in order to learn some of the “creation stories” of our cities. Lynne Taylor outlines ways in which older people can resource churches and vice-versa, while Steve Taylor shows us how gardening provides rich learnings for the way we inhabit our neighbourhoods. In the last of the article-length pieces, Andre Van Eymeren shows us how developing relationships through the frameworks of Relational Proximity and Asset Based Community Development can help us discover the hidden “gold” of the lives of people who inhabit our neighbourhoods.

Following these papers are four illuminating case studies. Michael Blumel draws out important life lessons from his experience of local neighbourhood engagement with people seeking asylum. John Catmur, Jo Wieland and George Wieland reflect on their prayer-led community engagement at Mangere Baptist Church in Auckland. Jude Waldron provides a wonderful reflection on her work at Armadale Baptist Church, a church in a neighbourhood with stories of hidden and unexpected poverty.  Greg Manning follows his paper with a reflection upon songs which illustrate the urbanisation of the land which now supports the city of Brisbane.

We have many people to thank. Thank you, Ash Barker, for initiating the event, drawing upon his wide networks and helping in many other ways. Thank you, Darren Cronshaw, for helping to shape the event, developing the call for papers and facilitating a “stream” of the conference presentations. Thanks to our other stream facilitators who assisted me (Andreana Reale) in this task: Ken Luscombe, Greg Gow and David Wilson. Thanks to Les Colston for his excellent design work. Thanks to Caitlyn Bosch for her admirable work in event organising. Many thanks also to our brilliant and critically-needed volunteers, Stefanie Pierce and Ellie Khoo, as well as the teams from Collins Street Baptist Church, Life* Expedition church and beyond. Thanks to all our courageous speakers and presenters. Thanks also to everybody who helped out in any other way, and to everybody who came to listen and participate. Thank you, Arrow on Swanston and Collins Street Baptist Church, for the use of some great venues. Thanks to our reviewers who took the time to read over our authors’ work, and to discuss with us how the best might be drawn out of the potential of each: Samara Pitt, Nathan Nettleton, Katherine Dobson, Peter Woodruff, Rosemary Canavan and Cath McKinney.

And finally, we, the editors, rest in the satisfaction of knowing the hard work each one of you has put into this conference and into this publication, Urban Life Together. We hope you enjoy reading these excellent contributions to reflective praxis of urban mission.

Towards shalom,

Andreana Reale and Steven Tucker

November 2015


Image: Les Colston

Lucy Allan, "Our Cultural Narrative of the Hero and its Pesky Presence in the Emerging Church"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.


When I was asked to present at the Urban Life Together conference about my experiences of trying to do that whole “community thing” in my neighbourhood, I had been thinking about how we tend to put certain people on platforms. Literal platforms, like stages. How people get up and tell inspiring stories about how following Jesus to the margins has brought about Kingdom-like redemption and community. And they write books with steps about how to do this. I was also thinking about how when people are asked to speak, they probably tell the greatest stories from the last few years of their life, but not usually the times when they tried something and it failed completely, or when they felt like giving up. So I decided to be a dietician of stories and serve a balanced meal.

You see, there is a tendency within our culture, perhaps in human nature, to create heroes and idols. From the oldest great work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, dated around eighteenth century BCE, to modern day Hollywood films, novels and videogames, there’s a tendency for our collective narratives to be built around heroes. Your average movie plot involves the status of the ordinary human being shifting towards that of a hero, someone great, either by strength, smarts, luck, birth or legacy. I’m sure you can think of examples. Videogames go one step further in that the player gets to be the hero character within the game. In itself, this meta-cultural narrative of the hero isn’t necessarily all bad, but it does allude to some deeper dynamics at play.

The hero narrative isn’t just in stories. It’s in our advertising. Advertisers know that they can appeal to us through association with the hero. The brands themselves and those that adorn them, are heroes valued by others. “Weave your way into immortality,” says a Nike ad. “The most unforgettable woman in the world wear Revlon,” says another. We can even see the hero narrative at play in aid organisation advertisements. Panning shots of starving children with flies buzzing around them and big eyes staring at you. “You can save lives.” We are drawn to heroism. In a study about how consumers form their beliefs around climate change, the hero character as an element of narrative structure was found to be the most effective vehicle through which information persuades.[1] It’s effective messaging, albeit a little manipulative. We can rely on advertisers to show us what we really want, yet cannot buy. As sociologist Jacques Elull points out:

The well-known mechanism of identifying with movie stars is almost impossible to avoid for the member of modern society who comes to admire himself in the person of the hero. There he reveals the powers of which he unconsciously dreams, projects his desires, identifies with the success and the adventure. The hero becomes model and father, power and mythical realisation of all that individual cannot be.[2]

Given all of the above, my initial question is this: what is the role, psychologically speaking, of our cultural hero narrative?

One reason may be because the status of the “hero” acts as a symbol of immortality. Within psychology, Terror Management Theory suggests that the perpetual clash between our survival instincts and the awareness of our own mortality invokes terrifying existential angst, and that we manage this angst by holding fast to our cultural worldviews; in particular those things which give our life a sense of meaning and significance that will last beyond death.[3] Within the literature on Terror Management Theory, many studies have shown that when people are subconsciously thinking about their own death, they will become more defensive of ideas that give their life significance, be it religion, nationalism or some other self-identity.[4] It has even been demonstrated that subconsciously thinking about death will make people more likely to desire fame and increase their liking towards celebrities.[5]

With this in mind, it doesn’t surprise me therefore that the classic Hollywood narrative is so appealing to us. Fame, glory and power are all associated with immortality: they are constructs that are supposed to reach beyond death. When someone, be it ourselves or someone we perceive as similar to us, is lifted up to the status of hero it subconsciously tells us that it is possible to transcend death in some way or another. This can help explain why ANZAC day and other war remembrance ceremonials are becoming increasingly popular and “religious.” As we remember the dead soldiers, it is comforting for us to have stories that immortalise them as heroic. We use words with religious connotations like honour, sacrifice and glory. This becomes a problem, when we cannot question the militarism or nationalism surrounding the ANZAC legacy without pulling into question the stoic integrity of the dead soldiers themselves. Another problem associated with hero worship is the unattainable beauty standards perpetuated by the skinny, photoshopped and hyper-sexualised actors, models and singers, which contribute to poor self-image and self-esteem, in turn leading to eating disorders and depression. When we idolise images that are not real, we mutilate ourselves in pursuit of them.

The more we delve into this cultural narrative, the more apparent just how ingrained it is in our psyche and society. What I would particularly like to focus on in this paper, however, are the things we might address within the Emerging Church. In the following paragraph, I will briefly allude to the external expressions of the hero narrative within the Church. Following that, I will explore in more depth the internal expressions of the hero narrative in the Christian context.

Our tendency to put people on platforms, and to create heroes of others is pervasive within the Church. It’s not a bad thing to celebrate the ideas and achievements of others. It’s not a problem in itself that some people write books and speak around the place and become well known for doing so. However, there are at least two things to keep in the forefront of our minds here. First, it is important to recognise and call out any significant imbalance of voices in our discourse. An imbalance of voices on stage, be it of gender, class, ethnicity or otherwise, indicates power imbalances in our wider society and perpetuate them. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Church does much better than the rest of society in promoting diversity: indeed, often it may be worse in this. Our celebrity pastors, theologians and personalities are mostly white American males (we paint Jesus white, too). But even in our oh-so-countercultural Emerging Church subculture, we don’t do much better. The most noticeable difference may be that a larger proportion of our white male hero figures have dreadlocks and beards. Secondly, we need to acknowledge the way we appeal to the wider, Institutional Church, if we are to continue to call it out of its socio-political slumber. A common criticism of the Institutional Church is that it is too seeker-sensitive: appealing to our dominant Western culture to draw people in, rather than critiquing it. But our subtle hypocrisy is that we employ the same pragmatic seeker-sensitivity when we are trying to appeal to those in the Institutional Church. With the use of stages, books, promotional activities and heroes of our own, we appeal to the culture of the Institutional Church even though plenty of us who have been a part of Emerging Church movements for a while are not necessarily impressed by those things anymore.

The main issue I wanted to discuss regarding the hero narrative in the Emerging Church, however, is its influence in our interpersonal relationships, particularly in the context of discipleship and community development. I’ve got a friend—let’s call her Ash. She’s been a friend of mine for a few years and I know her well. Sometimes it’s been rough, because Ash has struggled with depression for a number of years, but I liked being the person who was present during those times.

There was a time not so long ago when Ash was on the mend. She seemed to be getting better. But then she became a little more distant. Stopped answering my calls. I took this as warning sign, and dropped by her house. Sure enough, she wasn’t in a good way. She’d been adopting some new and less than healthy coping mechanisms. She said that she’d been trying to convince everyone, including herself, that she was getting better, but wasn’t, and trying had sapped her energy. We talked for a while and she was being more honest with me than she’d been in weeks. She had an appointment to go see her psychologist, so I said we’d hang out tomorrow and study together. I left her place feeling pretty good about myself. I’d had a feeling she wasn’t doing well and I was right. It seems as though I’d come at the right time, when she needed me, I thought to myself as I drove away. I had my church cell group that night and so I went straight there. During prayer I asked my friends to pray for her and they did.

Next day I text her, “Is it okay if I come over at one?” Instead of the expected confirmation, she replies with this devastating message: “I’m in the ED” (Emergency Department).

Shit. She’s in hospital! Must be some kind of overdose. I panicked a bit. It’s not the first time she’d been in hospital, but I was so sure that the conversations the night before had been a positive thing that it was quite a shock to me. A lot of things went through my mind. What more could I have said? We prayed for her! I drove to the hospital and found her there, still half drugged up in the ED, behind a locked door, as if she might try and escape!

In her half-drugged state, Ash told me what had happened. She’d taken a pile of pills that she’d been stashing up. She told me she’d intended to kill herself, but when she felt herself slipping away, she thought of her family and the ramifications, so she called her neighbour who drove her to hospital. I probably looked a bit shaken. She asked me how I was doing of all things. Good grief! I was honest and said it that it hurt to see her hurting herself, and that I was wondering what I could have possibly said or done last night to make things better. “Yeah…,’ she said, speech slow and slurred from the drugs still in her system. “Sometimes, you’ve just got to sit in the helplessness.”

It’s always a frypan over the head when you hear the exact, simple truth you need to hear, in the place you least expect it. It never ceases to humble.

It was at that moment Ash pointed out my need to feel needed, to be someone’s saviour, to be the hero, and it stung. But that good kind of sting, like betadine. It’s too easy to want to be that person that people need, but we should know better. Do we ourselves each have one person that we rely on for all support? No. We rely on our networks of support, and on our communities from which we gain a sense of belonging. These are what we need to be helping others to create. People don’t need a hero. They need community. I think it is important to be aware of this tendency to be in interpersonal relationships where we are needed, creating heroes of ourselves.

Perhaps sometimes the language we use around discipleship can contribute to this saviour complex. Phrases like “following Jesus to the margins,” “mission trip” and “the poor” all involve a power imbalance. It’s not that we need to do away with this language altogether, just that we should be careful how we use it, because the words we use to describe the world influence the way we perceive it.

Viewing ourselves as heroes and other people as victims to be saved can also distract us from the systemic sociological and environmental ills that contribute to isolation, mental illness and poverty in the first place. We need to consider the individual’s story within its wider context. As philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins puts it:

… we are no longer able to maintain the fantasy that we are a type of hero helping poor, unfortunate people. Rather we realize that we need to do this work in order to discover how poor and unfortunate we are, and how violent the structure we participate in is for some people.[6]

When we acknowledge the wider systemic factors of isolation, mental illness and poverty in our society we must realise that we very probably participate in, contribute to, and are victims of the same system.

In recognising that we have internalised the hero narrative, how do we grapple with it? Is there a theological framework we can use to help us with it? I would like to talk about the concept of kenosis. “Kenosis” is a Greek word meaning “emptying.” It’s found in Phil 2:7 as “made himself nothing” (niv), part of a section sometimes referred to as the “kenosis hymn.” Richard Beck gives us one way to conceptually frame this idea of kenosis, of the Christian emptying.

Specifically, what is being emptied is the hero system—the ways we have internalised social and cultural standards of significance versus insignificance, success versus failure, worthiness versus unworthiness, light versus darkness, pure versus defiled, whole versus damaged. The “emptying” of kenosis is becoming indifferent to, dying to, this hero system.[7]

What is the alternative to “the hero system,” as Beck describes it? Who are “blessed” according to Jesus? Cue the Beatitudes! (Are you squirming in your seat yet?) Those who are “blessed” in Jesus’ system are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers (Matt 5:1–12). Those who weep now, and let’s not forget those who are hated, excluded, insulted, laughed at and rejected because of Jesus (Luke 6:22). Let’s just think about that for a moment before we put the hashtag “blessed” on our Instagram pictures of our Melbourne lattes! I think this is all very relevant for a privileged audience, which, as a citizen in the world’s most liveable city,[8] definitely includes me, and probably you.

But what does this mean for the poor, the oppressed, and those at the bottom of our global power structures? Is Paul’s call to “empty yourself” and “carry your cross” a message to accept and be complicit in one’s own suffering? It certainly has been interpreted this way in the past. Beck, however, says that “kenosis is letting go of all the ways power and victimhood have screwed us up.”[9] Emptying yourself of the internalised values of the hero society is liberating for everyone, but only sounds like good news for those on the bottom. Someone who values themselves as being successful, well known and connected with lots of important people is not going to be naturally drawn to the idea of doing away with that whole paradigm. The beatitudes, and the self-emptying in kenosis, are not going to be all that appealing.

At this point I want to emphasise that “emptying yourself of the internalised values of the hero society” is not simply agreeing with these new ideas. This shift is not like an opinion that can be changed in a day. We’re talking about some of our most ingrained and internalised values and thought patterns, and undoing it takes hard work. It is very easy and very well for us to intellectually affirm, and explicitly profess that significance is not found in wealth, or status, or how many people know us, or how many people need us. Many of us have got that far. But internally we may have a lot more work to do. Theologian Sarah Coakley suggests that contemplation is the practice that will help us through the process of kenosis. She argues that it is the vulnerability of sitting silent before God, and before your own self, that sets us free of the internalised power structures that get in the way.[10] As for myself, I am terrified that I’ll never fully believe that my self-worth is not how many people are listening to me. However, I did not recognise this except through introspection and contemplation, and I’m still working on it!

Our cultural narrative of hero is ingrained in our stories, in the media and in our relationships with one another. Association with hero status, in ourselves or vicariously through others, may psychologically buffer our anxieties about death and meaninglessness. Critically analysing who our heroes are and why in our churches and communities may expose an imbalance of the gender, race and class of the voices making up our public discourse, and may also expose the way we are appealing to the celebritisation that occurs in our wider culture. Recognising the pull towards a hero narrative in our interpersonal relationships as we walk alongside others may prevent us from trying to control others, and push us instead towards building networks of support and places of belonging from which we can all thrive together. Uprooting the internalised hero narratives and power structures from within ourselves though the spiritual discipline of contemplation may be our path to freedom.


[1] M. Jones, “Heroes and Villains: Cultural Narratives, Mass Opinions, and Climate Change” (PhD diss., University of Oklahoma, 2010).

[2] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Random House, 1965), 173.

[3] J. Greenberg et al, “Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to those who Threaten or Bolster the Cultural Worldview,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, no. 2 (1990): 308–18.

[4] B. Burke, A. Martens, and E. Faucher, “Two Decades of Terror Management Theory: A Meta-Analysis of Mortality Salience Research,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14, no. 2 (2010): 155–95.

[5] J. Greenberg et al, “Toward Understanding the Fame Game: The Effect of Mortality Salience on the Appeal of Fame,” Self and Identity 9, no. 1 (2007): 1–18.

[6] Peter Rollins, “Getting Thrown Out of Prison: Judge Dredd, the Oppressed, and Salvation,” blog post, September 9, 2014, http://peterrollins.net/2014/09/getting-thrown-out-of-prison-judge-dredd-the-oppressed-and-salvation (accessed December 3, 2014).

[7] Richard Beck, “The Fuller Integration Lectures: Part 4, Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting,” Experimental Theology, blog post, November 3, 2014; http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/the-fuller-integration-lectures-part-4.html (accessed February 2, 2015). Emphasis in original.

[8] Clay Lucas, “Melbourne Named World’s Most Liveable City for Fifth Year Running”, The Age, August 19, 2015, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/melbourne-named-worlds-most-liveable-city-for-fifth-year-running-20150818-gj1he8.html (accessed October 29, 2015).

[9] Richard Beck, “All the Sick and Twisted Ways Power and Victimhood Have Screwed Us Up: On Kenosis and Contemplation,” Experimental Theology, blog post, August 4, 2014, http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/all-sick-and-twisted-ways-power-and.html (accessed February 2, 2015).

[10] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002).

Image: ashley rose, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Ian Bedford, "Outlining a Framework for Understanding Congregational Community Services Processes"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.


Case Study: St George’s

St George’s is an average size congregation in a medium sized provincial city. It has a history going back over 100 years, although its current church building was first used in the early 1900s. Somewhere around the 1960s a bequest was left to the congregation to establish a community service amongst young women who were pregnant and indigenous people of the area. It was a strangely forward looking bequest for its time, but left the congregation in a quandary about how to apply the funds as they had no involvement with either group of people. For nearly three decades nothing happened until, in the late 1980s, the executors of the estate contacted the congregation stating that they needed to wind up the associated trust and, if the congregation was not willing to take up the bequest, they would seek a court order to permit the funds to be transferred to a community organisation or church that would. One of the then ministers at the time was a lawyer by background and realised the complex legalities involved in this. Additionally, one of the lay leaders in the congregation was the Regional Manager of a significant government welfare department. Together these two developed a proposal aimed at meeting the terms of the bequest but in a manner congruent with the welfare strategies of the time, and the resources of the congregation who became enthusiastic about what was proposed.

And so, in 1988, a community service organisation emerged from the St George’s congregation to focus on parenting and family relationships and on the community and spirituality of locally residing indigenous people. With the bequest funds then released to the congregation, an old church hall was renovated, and a management board, comprising 50% congregational members and 50% community members, was established to oversee the program development. Their first act was to appoint an experienced member of another denomination’s local congregation as the Coordinating worker for the proposed programs. Under this person’s guidance programs related to parenting skills, self-esteem development and indigenous spirituality were soon operating, and did so with much local acclaim until the late 1990s. By then bequest funds to administer the community service were dwindling, and the Coordinator was looking to retire. The Board then made a strategic decision to accept funds for a support program for people with a particular addictive behaviour, funds derived under government control from the industry that profited from the addiction. The bequest funds that remained were to maintain an agency manager to oversee the development and operation of these new programs, which therefore radically altered the agency focus. Throughout this period the congregation continued to provide its share of Board members, but otherwise had little direct involvement in the day to day program which was largely run by people whose congregational links were elsewhere or who were involved because of their professional expertise. Very few volunteers were ever needed and therefore this avenue of congregational involvement was never developed. However the congregation were very much aware of their community ministry and took great pride in what it was achieving.

Unfortunately, by the late 2000s, there was very little of the bequest funds remaining and alternative sources for funding the administration of the agency needed to be sought. These efforts were unsuccessful and, in 2010, under the guidance of the denominational leaders, St George’s Community Service was effectively taken over by a larger church agency based in another provincial city some distance away. When the congregation realised that the link with “their” community service had been effectively severed by this move, much conflict arose for, until then, they’d never realised that these difficulties might mean that their community service could be taken away from them. “Where did our community service go? It was ours: what happened?” was the typical member’s response to this realisation. And so St George’s lost its community service, merged with another out of town agency, after 22 years of ministry that they saw as their congregation in action in God’s hurting world. The community service and the congregation still share a location, but little interaction between them has developed.

This is but one story of the initiation and operation of a congregationally-based community service activity in churches over the last 50 years or more. In fact church congregations for over 100 years have been the initiators of many and varied community services—food relief, hospitals, child care centres, kindergartens, schools, counselling services (relationship and grief being common ones), day care services for the aged and/or disabled, and so the list goes on. That these services exist has occasionally been studied, but the process by which they come into existence and then operate, especially in this latter 50 years since government has so directly become involved in such services, has been poorly recognised or understood. The consequences have been that:

1.     Congregations starting out on this journey have usually set out to “re-invent the wheel” rather than learn from existing practice;

2.     The community service has frequently become “the tail wagging the dog” with the result that the spiritual life and ministry of the congregation has been overshadowed by the community service, and the faith dynamic of the congregation in relation to its community service has been lost (as in our story above);

3.     Community services have lost their connection to their congregational and faith roots, and therefore largely lost the resources that emerge out of that founding faith perspective.

Having been intensely involved in these activities by the mid-1990s in three different settings, I was left wondering if this cycle of evolution for congregationally initiated community services was inevitable—“volunteer-ised” (to coin a word), professionalised, secularised and gone (to put it somewhat starkly, even if perhaps somewhat over-generalised)—because it could be seen to so often happen. Or was it that this happened by default because we never understood the processes involved in our “trial and error” approach?

This brief article arises from my response to framing this question, for it summarises a qualitative research project I then undertook to unravel the processes by which congregations initiated, sustained and changed their community service involvement.[1] It is provided in the hope that people with reason to be interested in the relevance of congregational life and ministry for their own local communities will find some strategic guidance in the resulting framework, so that options and issues can be better addressed and determined by congregations considering this aspect of their life and message. In the process I trust that you too can realise that, with strategic intent and using these features as guidance, the disconcerting evolutionary cycle presented in the opening story is not inevitable, but instead depend on how crucial decisions points along the way are anticipated, recognised and addressed. I commend the Framework to you, and encourage you to seek further elaboration of it should you see any potential relevance to a congregational ministry of concern to you and your faith community. This article is unable to fully explain the complexities involved due to space limitations. Support for the approach taken here is provided by Garland, Wolfer and Myers who report later US research into how 35 congregations launched and sustained community ministry derived from researching their US setting.[2] Their independent work within their larger sample and US context nonetheless significantly replicates the Framework presented here, though its approach is somewhat less structured, less detailed in its analysis, and uses slightly differently labelling for the process factors emerging from their research into the launching and sustaining of congregational ministry in the United States.


General Framework

The Framework identifies three broad stages or phases in the process by which congregations give birth to (or Initiate), carry out (or Operate), and then alter (or Modify) their community service organisations and/or activities. It seems from the research that these three stages or phases can be applied to any individual activity that constitutes a community services as well as to the overarching organisational features of a congregationally-sponsored community service.


Three aspects to the processes involved in initiating Community Services were found to need to coalesce together (somewhat like the ingredients for making a cake) for any activity or service to become viable as an intended service or program. The logic is that if only two of these three aspects are found, then a community service will not eventuate as a congregational entity (although a congregational member may well “make it happen” in some setting or other).

Congregational Culture

The first aspect is the usually overlooked but fundamentally important one of the suitability of the Congregational Culture. Whilst there are a number of ways to identify congregational cultures, one that is useful identified that Sanctuary Cultures which focus powerfully on worship and faith nurture are not environments in which community services are likely to develop. In contrast, Activist Cultures which focus on the relationship of faith to issues of caring and/or justice are extremely likely to support such activities. In between are Evangelistic Congregations who seek to actively share faith with outsiders and Civic Congregations who see faith and community life as inevitably linked but with limited clarity as to how, other than at the levels of personal involvement and moral integrity. For the former, if community services are seen as a means of direct evangelism, there is likely to be a risk of dubious motivation being perceived; but if as a means of bridge-building to those outside of faith and valuable in its own right, then a compassionate service has potential. Where a congregation’s culture is not conducive to community service there is little value in trying to pummel it into that sort of understanding—Congregational Cultures are very resilient, and will outlast any minister, well-intentioned social worker or community activist. Instead, the culture needs to be recognised for what it is and initially worked with and gradually massaged so that new developments build on what it values within its own history, faith understanding and experience (rather than that of an external person). Sometimes, however, an emerging crisis within the life of the congregation and/or its people can instigate that willingness to change the norms about “how things are done around here,” and this too can be effective in generating community services (among other changes that relate to congregations).

The Key Person

The second aspect is the identification of a Key Person able to drive the development, be passionately committed to it and whose passion is then able to draw others in. This person initially may be a minister but needs eventually to a member of the congregation committed to its life and to its service (both of these are key features in our opening story). In this latter situation clergy need to be “active permission givers” rather than “passive” or benign supporters if the lay efforts are to prove sustainable.

The Catalyst

The third aspect is the need for some sort of Catalyst, some reason for undertaking this activity here and now. This can take the form of an evident need that can no longer be ignored, or the availability of a resource that has to be used, e.g. a building, a bequest (as in our story), or a resource person recently arrived (the Regional Manager in our story). Without that, congregational members just won’t see its relevance and won’t be motivated to participate in whatever way might otherwise be possible.

The Vision

Once these three aspects coalesce then a Vision of what is possible emerges, and it is this Vision which will drive the development of community service activities. The Vision might be initiated by an ordained person, but the more powerful Vision arises from within the life of the congregation. The clergy role is that of facilitator of this “home grown” Vision, the one who helps the congregation comes to terms with its challenges and potential and who helps unpack the faith aspects involved. Visions developed elsewhere can be adopted by congregations, or at least refashioned into something that makes sense for them given their resources and capacity, but emerging visions are more powerful in their effect.


Six dimensions for the Operation of congregational community services were identified as crucial for their effectiveness, however it was first necessary to recognise that all these activities happen within a Culture of Operation, a Culture that has been typically identified as either a Voluntary, and largely ad hoc or “making do” mode of operating, or a Professional, and largely formal and structured, mode. The research indicates that this perception is an incorrect caricature of a reality that is much more complicated—one that blends aspects usually associated with either of these two extremes in a unique and idiosyncratic way characteristic of each congregation and its available resources and perspectives. This blending of voluntary and professional will occur differently across each of the six operating dimensions, resulting in no two congregational community services ever being the same. Each congregation, within its own culture and processes, will have a complex balance of these two aspects that must be recognised and strategically addressed if the services are to operate in a sustainable way. (In effect the six dimensions function as “levers” through which the volunteer-professional balance can be varied to strategically manage how programs and overall community service “agencies” work within the particular congregation.) In particular, corporate models, though well known to many congregational members, cannot be imposed (including governance models). As much as they may helpfully inform the decisions that are made, they do not allow for the variety of possibilities reflecting the variable volunteer-professional balance needed in any particular congregational setting. Indeed, the naïve application of such models may well be one key reason behind the “default” evolution illustrated in our opening story.


The first operational dimension is that of the Programs that are developed within the congregational community services. In contrast to typical approaches to community service development based on social need assessments undertaken by community “experts,” it is very clear that congregations best identify with services and activities that they as people in their community and family life have an awareness of directly or third hand. Such activities are known to them, and the reasons for undertaking them make perfect sense without having to be persuaded. These are the ones to start with, and from them other awarenesses will emerge which can evolve into additional activities that develop through these same processes. Typically congregational programs tend to relate to basic human needs of food and accommodation, but relationship and self-development programs are also very common as congregations identify concerns about people’s limited capacities to achieve their life potentials. Some programs will be formally structured and restricted to certain groups in the community (both as participants and/or staff) whilst others will be very informal and open.


The second aspect concerns the means of Staffing these community services. It is found that an amazing mix of trained and untrained, paid and unpaid personnel are accessed by these services in order to address the need. Staff may be from the congregation, but also be outsiders to it, and indeed outsiders to faith itself. Roles adopted by the staff will vary from Support Personnel, to Contact Volunteers who relate directly to service users, to professionals carrying out specialist roles in either direct service or administration, and with or without pay.


The third aspect involves Management and Leadership of these services and vary from fairly ad hoc groups who make decisions on the run to highly formal Boards that administer multiple services and activities which are separately incorporated Associations or through partnership arrangements with other church and/or community bodies who act in varying degrees as sponsors or brokers for these emerging services. In this aspect there is much opportunity for partnerships between congregations and central church-sponsored community agencies, but they need to be approached in full and ongoing recognition of the congregational role in their functioning and decision-making. These congregational services will not be sustained as congregational services if the Agency culture of professionalism dominates at this level (as can be recognised in the failure of the St George’s program to remain congregationally linked in the lead-up to and after the merger with the larger church agency).


Resources offered by congregations often include buildings, administration support, volunteers, and even funds or a path to community funds. Above all they offer a functioning support community that embraces a faith dynamic that makes such services unique. These aspects and the nature of their respective uniquenesses need to be recognised and worked with if their contribution is to be maintained and the ministry perspective retained. Clearly, in our case example, the need for this was never realised, so helping set the future loss of St George’s Community Service in train right from the start.


The previous four dimensions are not new, even though the way they are addressed in congregational settings may be different to other workplace and community experiences of them, but the need for congregational community services to incorporate the next two aspects is especially crucial. Firstly they need to Network with the wider community in order to develop an acceptance within the local community service environment. This is needed to provide services that the community is ready to access, that it is convinced is not at risk of overstepping the line on faith-imposition, and with whom other services are keen to liaise.


Finally attention needs to be given to the need to continue to nurture and acknowledge the psychological Ownership of the community service by the congregation. This relates in part to how it is named and advertised, who has certain key roles within it, and where it is physically located in relation to a congregation’s worship centre. Without this ongoing focus the congregation’s participation in and identification with the community service tends to dissipate and gradually die, and then what is lost in relation to that congregation’s participation in its community, and to its own viability and relevance, is significant. Despite being on the same site as the congregation, St George’s Community Service has always operated with a separate reception, and mostly even with a separate entrance. The congregation’s psychological ownership was never strategically nurtured beyond an at most quarterly informal “report” by the Coordinator to the congregation. This oversight appears likely to have been typical of congregational community services, and therefore may also be a key factor in the common experience of secularisation and subsequent separation from both a faith perspective and the initiating congregation.


The final phase or stage in this process is its capacity to Change, for change is inevitable in our modern society—“curved balls” or “bouncers” are inevitable at some stage so that strategies are needed to deal with them. Three aspects were identified which enhance a congregation’s capacity to deal with such events.


Activities and Services need to be Evaluated both routinely in some way and occasionally in order to address particular aspects of their functioning more deeply. Historically congregational community services have been very poor at this, and this needs to be built into their management processes in order to ascertain what is working well, and what needs adjusting to achieve the goals or meet the emerging needs of participants.

Crucial Decisions

Change also is initiated when Crucial Decisions need to be made. These include when appointing key personnel e.g. a CEO, program leader, Board Chair and the like. This also applies when considering whether or not to accept external funding, especially government funding with its tendency for short-term, highly prescriptive contracts which may well move a community service in directions it never intended or face it with compliance costs it never understood or anticipated. St George’s decision to accept funding from a corporate source overseen by the government changed their mission focus substantially, opened them up to the employment of professionals with no linkage to any faith perspective, let alone to that congregation, and therefore increased the likelihood of separation significantly. Debates about the place of Spirituality in these community services are also likely to arise and result in crucial decisions that impact the future.

Unexpected Events

Finally, Unexpected Events can draw a congregation’s focus away from its community services, so resulting in change by default. These distractions may be a new and demanding program within other aspects of congregational life (e.g. a new church building’s construction being undertaken), they may be conflictual relationships emerging and causing people’s focus to fall away from the “main game,” or sadly they may be the identification of some form of misconduct by key personnel within the congregational life that saps its confidence within itself and/or its leadership (e.g. an inappropriate and unprofessional relationship).

Case Study: St Bede’s

Given these dimensions, it is possible to identify in the original story many “decision points” and strategies that initially helped build St George’s Community Service (e.g. needing Key People to drive the development whose Catalyst was the need to take up or lose a significant bequest), but which also ensured they would later experience an increasing “drift” away from the congregation (e.g. failing at the start to see the need to actively engage the congregation in more than just the management of the service, and the later decision to accept funds that required both a changed focus and a staff that had no church connection, including a failure to see where congregational volunteers may contribute significantly).

A contrasting story is that of St Bede’s, an inner city congregation, also with a long history and therefore with a series of significant bequests. It had evolved a range of principally ethnically-supportive community services from 1960s onwards, although some community activities may well have been begun as far back as the 1890s. Gradually, as government became more involved in ensuring community services were locally developed, St Bede’s was a grateful recipient of these additional funds. In so doing it developed far more extensive and professional programs, and became administratively tied by the funding to deliver a range of services on behalf of the government, whose funding was never sufficient to actually cover the costs—so ensuring the bequests were slowly being consumed by the need to top-up these so-called funded programs. By 1990 the congregation realised that their extensive community service programs were dominating the congregational agenda and consuming the available non-government funding. They saw, in effect (as it was colloquially presented), that “the tail was wagging the dog”! A difficult decision was then made to no longer accept any further significant funds from the government once each existing funding agreement had run its course. This decision meant a massive downsizing of the St Bede’s Community Service, and the termination of the employment of many professional staff drawn from outside the congregation and the wider church. However, the congregational leaders feared that they would soon lose all capacity to sustain an ongoing community ministry if the trajectory they were on continued.

So the 1990s began with a commitment to operating almost entirely within a budget that could be sustained by the remaining bequest funds and any ongoing congregational giving, with only limited and manageable grants. Programs became smaller, more volunteers were needed within some programs, but paid staff remained a mix of congregational members, professionals from other congregations in the surrounding area, and people from secular backgrounds with no particular church link. However, the minister remained the effective manager and the program was overseen by a congregational sub-committee of the congregational board. The community ministry of St Bede’s continues in this way to the present. Its focus remains that of multicultural support, but they have been able to add to this computing skills development, emergency relief and organic food production. They continue to review and evaluate, drawing in both congregational members and others able to share their insights as they do so. The evolution at St Bede’s has therefore been quite different to that at St George’s—they are surviving in their community ministry because they monitored their evolution and made hard but strategic decisions at crucial moments. And they sought always to manage the integration of the congregation with that of other resource people and other possible funding sources. In the same 20 years that it took St George’s to develop and then lose its community ministry, St Bede’s has pulled its community ministry back into its congregational life and sense of ownership. As such they help illustrate that “volunteers, to professionals, to secular operation, to gone” is not inevitable, and that a different evolution that values and strategically sustains congregational involvement and ownership is possible and is sustainable, even in a stark inner urban setting.


Although not fully illustrated by the two stories shared, this very basic outline nevertheless identifies six key but unanticipated results of this research:

1.     The importance of a Congregation’s Culture and that it needs to be worked with (Massaged), not against (Pummelling);

2.     The importance of clergy as “active permission givers” or “encouragers” supporting and affirming the lay leadership involved;

3.     The importance of networking with other local community services instead of operating in isolation;

4.     The importance of strategically and continuously promoting psychological Ownership of the community services by the congregation;

5.     The need to recognise the unique blend of the Voluntary and the Professional modes of operating; and

6.     The need to appoint people linked or willing to become linked into the congregational life to strategic roles and responsibilities (e.g. CEO) if the community service is to be retained within congregational life.

Other aspects may seem like common sense, but on these six, the history of practice would seem to suggest that, although crucial for effective outcomes, they have not been recognised for their importance. Around these, as well as the more obvious aspects, there needs above all to be a strategic intent rather than a mere acceptance of a natural evolution. For such an evolution seems merely to see these ministries lost to congregational life. A strategic intent of the sort outlined here offers a future that may well help ensure an important community ministry that expresses a congregation’s quest to be a people of faith in their particular location can indeed be retained, if that remains the congregational goal.


[1] For the full research project, see Ian A. Bedford, “Reaching Out Beyond Itself: A Framework for Understanding the Community Service Involvement of Local Church Congregations” (Ph.D. diss., University of Melbourne, 2004). This thesis may be accessed at: https://minerva-access.unimelb.edu.au/handle/11343/38840.

[2] Diana R. Garland, Terry A. Wolfer, and Dennis M. Myers, "How 35 Congregations Launched and Sustained Community Ministries,” Social Work and Christianity 35, no.3 (2008): 229–57. An adapted version of this article is available in D.R. Garland and G.I. Yancey, Congregational Social Work: Christian Perspective (Botsford: NACSW, 2014), as part of Chapter 6.


Image: Lynne Featherstone, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Matt Bell, "From Confession to Repentance on Stolen Land"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.



The following case study will explore how a community project, the Indigenous Hospitality House (IHH), addresses foundational questions of injustice that lie at the heart of Australian identity, and how by employing the Christian practices and disciplines of Confession, Lamentation, Repentance and Atonement, a path towards healing can be discovered.

The land that we call Australia—the land upon which we have built our cities and towns, the land on which our communities sit—was stolen. It was stolen through a process of invasion and dispossession. It was stolen, and has been passed on to us. We have inherited stolen goods. This land was stolen from the First Australians. The invasion continues in the very structures, systems, mindsets and beliefs of those of us who have inherited the stolen wealth.[1] The impact of invasion and dispossession is experienced in the First Australians: in their poverty of spirit, in their grief, in their alienation from land, community and family.[2] The accrued privilege of invasion and dispossession is enjoyed by the rest of the nation, and the communities within it: in our vast national wealth, in our private wealth, in our ignorance of the foundations of our nation, and in the privilege of not having been born Aboriginal in a country where that means racism, shorter lifespans and inherited trauma.

This sad state of affairs gives rise to several important questions: What responsibility does our inheritance of stolen land, and the wealth that comes with it, give us? How do we live on stolen land, how do we establish communities? How do we seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God, when the very ground beneath our feet belongs to a people that has been violently and unjustly dispossessed?

These are difficult questions for our churches, for our communities, for our nation and for us personally. How do we make things right, when so much wrong has been done over such a long period of time? There is no quick fix, no easy way forward. But there is a way forward, that is, if we can pick up our cross and bear it. The path forward can be found in the traditions, practices and disciplines of our faith as they are expressed in Confession, Lamentation, Repentance and Atonement.

No actions of atonement (restorative justice) can be taken until we confess, or in other words, tell the truth. This is important to note, as the Church too often wants to help, to do something, and too often we are unhelpful, because we have not understood properly the nature of the problem.

Australia struggles to tell the truth about the past, and therefore build an understanding of the present based on real understanding. We are a nation that has spent two centuries in denial, deliberately disremembering our foundations and the position of Aboriginal people in that foundation. The anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner, after conducting literary research identifying the broad absence of Aboriginal people in Australian literature, noted:

… that inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent mindedness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned into habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness at a national scale. We have been able for so long to disremember the Aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.[3]

Since the 1960s we have tried to more honestly engage with this truth, but we still struggle. This struggle is evident in the so-called “history wars.”[4] The “history wars” is a debate about the true history of Australia. On one side we have those looking through a white blindfold, only seeing the colonial creation story of Australia, a story that focuses on the discovery of an empty land by the English, the brave and pioneering efforts of the first settlers, their grit and determination to turn this wild land into a new home. This narrative either ignores Aboriginal people, or views them as an inconvenience to be dealt with. On the other side is the “black armband” view of history. This approach uncovers the hidden, or denied, history. A history that begins with the acknowledgment that Aboriginal people had a complex and rich culture in this land at the time of European arrival, that this was interrupted and destroyed through a process of invasion, that Aboriginal people fought a war of resistance, that the invaders were deliberate in their attempts at genocide, through massacres, poisoning of food and water sources, and the removal of children from their families and cultures. The overwhelming historical evidence, found in the works of Henry Reynolds and Richard Broome, amongst many others, supports this narrative.

Yet we still have a debate in this country about what happened. We have competing creation narratives that shape our understanding and identity. The dominant and foundational narrative (“white blindfold”) creates a sanitised, distorted history, which the “black armband” seeks to challenge. The two approaches can be summarised thusly:

I am Australian. My forefathers civilised this land. They bought technology to this wild, wide, empty, inhospitable place. They worked hard, taming the land, feeding a growing nation. They are real heroes, such pioneers. They educated and civilised the natives. Helped create a nation peacefully and free of war. We are a nation born of hope, tenacity, grit, and a fair go for all.

I am Australian. My forefathers came to an empty land. They didn’t see the Aboriginal people. I mean, they saw them, but didn’t see them. Didn’t see their culture, their lore, their humanity. They tried to destroy them with massacres, poisonings, by tearing families apart. Aboriginal people fought and resisted. We are a nation born of dispossession, racism, bloodshed. We hope for a fair go for all.

Of course, history is more complex than two opposing, mutually exclusive narratives, each competing for dominance. There are varied and complex histories that contain elements from each end of the spectrum. Our national project needs to be one of sharing a collective history that integrates differing histories and experiences, that doesn’t exaggerate one set of stories at the expense of another set, building a narrative that is warped and unbalanced, but rather embracing a robust history in order to build a fuller, more mature identity.

As things stand, we need to own and confess (privately, publically, in our churches and other public institutions) our shadow history by intertwining or integrating our two narratives. This integration is important so that we are not merely acknowledging the validity of both sides of the story and creating a situation where people make a choice for which side they show solidarity. This tends to create divisiveness, which has been the state of play since the 1960s and was hotly played out during the Howard era.[5] Instead, a history needs to be created where both elements are acknowledged and incorporated. Such confession is essential in building a truer, more just basis for our identity. Examples from across the world, including the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, demonstrate the practical importance of confession to restorative justice.[6]

In confessing we need to hear, listen and accept honestly the stories of those who have been wronged, no matter how difficult the challenge to our personal, institutional or national identity, or to the narratives that shape who we are. We need to hear the truth, then we need to tell the truth. This truth-telling will set us free from a false identity, from the insecurities and doubts that come from trying so hard to deny what is so evident. This truth-telling will free us up for the rest of journey of healing.

However, it is not just enough to confess. Confession can at times be solely an intellectual assent, an expression of what we know, starting in our heads, leaving our mouths. We need to lament. We need to express passionately our grief and sorrow from our hearts. When we can do this, we know that we have engaged on a deeper level, we have heard the pain, accepted it as truth, and then share that pain. Lamentation in this case is a deep act of solidarity with those who have carried the pain since 1788.

Once we have confessed and lamented, then we are able to begin to repent. In the process of repenting we turn away from the ideas, beliefs, narratives and identities built upon false history and injustice, towards frameworks of justice. Miroslav Volf, in Exclusion and Embrace, explores the requirements of repentance for both the oppressed and the oppressor. He applies this notion to the oppressors in the following way:

To repent means to make a turnabout of profound moral and religious import. Repentance implies not merely a recognition that one has made a bad mistake, but that one has sinned.[7]

Volf argues that without repentance (and indeed a confession that sets us free from “the suppression of guilt … [and] the armour of insensibility and defiance in which we encase ourselves) there can be no forgiveness, restitution or reconciliation.”[8]

Repentance for those of us who have inherited the stories and wealth based on Terra Nullius involves us removing our white blindfold. This can be very challenging (just as the liberation through confession can be painful), since it involves rebuilding or discovering a new identity, letting go of the old one that can no longer stand in the face of the truth you know, and the sorrow you share. Confession and lamentation can create a sense of disillusionment. Repentance is about saying: “That old way of thinking and being doesn’t make sense, and worse, was destructive, I turn my back on that.” However, the old ways will constantly seek to reassert themselves, to support the structures of invasion that still exist. So you might still say you were going to the Grampians, not Gariwerd, or we go to Gippsland, not Gunaikurnai country. Therefore repentance is a sustained act of turning away, a continued commitment to honour that which you confessed and lamented. This is hard work, and needs to be fed and nurtured. We’ll return to this shortly.

From this process of confession, lamentation and repentance emerge some possible answers to the questions stated earlier, about the actions that build atonement. Atonement, I suggest, is about making things right, restoring justice and bringing healing. Often our churches view atonement as a transaction that occurred on the cross: Jesus’ life for our sins, making things right between each individual and God so that we can get to heaven. Theologians like Carlos Abesamis, who explore atonement through the lens of liberation theologies, view atonement in terms of ushering in the Kingdom of God:

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God as; the good news of liberation for the poor, liberty to the captives, sight the blind, freedom to the oppressed, the Jubilee year release of slaves, rest for the land, recall of the debts of the poor, and the restoration of the land, property, and houses of the dispossessed ancestors … [Jesus’] message is about health, life, justice and liberation.[9]

Abesamis continues to discuss the coming of the Kingdom in the following way: “Our world of unresolved pain, hunger, and thirst will be restored to wholeness. … [A] universal restoration, when all things will be made whole again.”[10]

Acts of atonement, in our current discussion, are acts of making things right, acts that foreshadow and invite the Kingdom that is on earth as in heaven. They are acts that seek to bring justice, health, life and liberation, acts that restore and heal relationships, balance systems rife with power inequities and express God’s love.

I can’t tell you what this looks like for you, because the answers will be contextual. You read this in a different place from where I write, you live in different place from me, and you have different skills and resources. However, I can say, that it will involve actions built upon your experience of confession, lamentation and repentance. What I can do is share how one group of people engage in this process.

The Indigenous Hospitality House (IHH)[11] is a Christian community project that offers a peaceful, homely atmosphere for Indigenous people supporting a family member in a Melbourne hospital. We do this in three main ways:

1.      Providing a bed, and place to call home, for as long as it is needed, for one night, several days or weeks;

2.      Providing dinner if needed;

3.      Offering our time and energy to our guests, chatting over a cuppa, giving directions, sharing stories and hanging out.

Since 2001, the IHH has hosted about 1600 guests, staying an average of around three nights per guest, from across Australia, but mostly from Victoria. The hospitality is provided by five to six volunteer residents (each paying rent), who cook, answer phones, hang out with guests and ensure the house is culturally safe and peaceful for Aboriginal people.

The IHH was established as an act of atonement. It is not a charity. It is not a service. It is a way for a group of people to live out the Christian imperative for healing and justice. It is also a site for people, perhaps new to these issues, to engage in a process of confession, lamentation and repentance.

So how has the process outlined above expressed itself at the IHH? Earlier I stated that the church too often starts with atonement, starting at the end of the process, or without fully engaging in the process. The founders of the IHH had certainly engaged in a deep process of confession. Various members of the founding group had spent time visiting and living with Indigenous people, hearing their stories, letting those stories seep into their hearts, feeling the sadness, learning a new way of understanding the world. Alongside this was a process of learning through seeking out new knowledge, through visiting people, through work, through private reading and through Bible study. As a group the IHH founders had begun to face the truth of history, feel the pain of this truth, and were seeking a repentant path.

When the need for safe, secure and affordable accommodation for Aboriginal people visiting hospital was expressed by the Aboriginal community, the IHH founders were in position to see this not as a chance for charity, not as a chance to set up a service, but a chance for atonement (restorative justice). They had accepted that Melbourne is built on Aboriginal land, and that Aboriginal people had been dispossessed of that land. They had developed an emotional investment, and were ready to engage in atonement. They were able to create a space for hospitality without domination, meeting mutual needs, a safe space for our complex histories to meet. They were able to identify the wisdom articulated by the Aboriginal woman Lila Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

As the founders have moved on, and new residents enter the project, they enter a space that provides an opportunity to engage in the process from the start. In sitting with guests over a cuppa or a meal, they begin to hear the stories about the impact of colonisation, learn about Aboriginal culture and identity, see Aboriginal people as people, not as media-constructed stereotypes, and begin to ask and seek answers to questions. They begin to move away from a “white blindfold” view of Australia, and become informed in a more honest way. In hearing these stories (confession), it’s impossible not to be moved, to share the sorrow to some degree, to discover our own sorrows, to lament. This process then leads on to a resident’s commitment to repentance and atonement. Frances, a recent volunteer and resident at the IHH, provides valuable insight into this process:

There have been situations that have arisen at the house that I have found confronting. These are the times when I have become aware of the lived realities of our guests (both past and present realities). I have been reminded and confronted by the injustice, racism and pain that our guests have experienced at the hands of “White Australia” and the Church (Confession). Our history as “the lucky country” has grieved me and brought me shame.

Despite the fact that I am the first generation of my family born in Australia, I can’t choose to ignore this history by saying “Well, it wasn’t my ancestors.” It grieves me that my family’s experience of Australia has been so positive while for many of our guests their lived experience has been fraught with pain and sorrow and injustices. This is my Lamentation.

I have a role to play in this reconciliation we so desperately need as a country. Through my involvement in the IHH, I am reminded that this journey of reconciliation is a messy business. It’s not easy, it’s not clear cut. I cannot ignore the issues that exist. They are our collective issues as a nation which means they are my issues and I am resolved to try and address them in a new way (Repentance). A way that involves turning away from helping and offering charity and instead engaging with people, listening to stories and walking along the journey of reconciliation together, through the messy and confronting times (Atonement).

There’s another way that this journey from confession to atonement is expressed in the IHH. Earlier I noted that repentance must be nurtured and reinforced, if that sustained commitment is to be lived. The IHH provides a space for this.

So far I have expressed the process as a linear progression, but it’s actually a cycle, where we cycle through the process, returning to particular aspects at different times. The IHH provides a space where we are brought back to, or are reminded of, different aspects at different times. While we are living an act of atonement, we can be brought back to an experience of lamentation while sitting with a guest and sharing stories, or by witnessing their struggles and pain. We can be reminded of the deep connection to land and culture that our guests have when we hear them talk about the pride they have in their Aboriginality, or the sadness they express in not being connected to their country. Through this continued engagement in the process, our sense of repentance is sustained.

Finally, the IHH recognises the importance of continually engaging in this process through our spiritual practices. In prayer we confess and lament, support each other in our repentance, seek to keep our experience grounded in the wisdom of the biblical narratives and traditions.

A key practice for the IHH mob has been the Easter retreat,[12] where we engage in a liturgical walk, linking what are often known as the last seven words (more properly phrases) of Christ on the cross to the historical and current suffering of Aboriginal people. In what has become quite a moving and reflective liturgy each of the below phrases is read alongside a reflection on a current or historical injustice.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Jesus said to his mother: “Woman, this is your son.” Then he said to the disciple: “This is your mother” (John 19:26–27).

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34).

“I thirst” (John 19:28).

They put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and handed over the spirit (John 19:29–30).

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

In this way, we link the crucifixion of Jesus with the many ways Aboriginal people are metaphorically crucified in this nation. The walk engages elements of confession, lamentation and repentance, becoming an important experience for the IHH mob as we seek to engage our work for justice with our spirituality.

The IHH has now provided this valuable space for thirty-five residents and has proven to be a viable and sustainable site for Christians to engage in core Christian practices to enable them to address the questions identified above: What responsibility does our inheritance of stolen land, and the wealth that comes with it, give us? How do we live on stolen land, how do we establish communities and neighbourhoods? How do we seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God, when the very ground beneath our feet belongs to a people that have been violently and unjustly dispossessed? The IHH is one model of how a group of people might engage in this work.

My challenge to you dear reader: Are you willing to take this journey of confession, lamentation and repentance? Are you willing to be transformed, to build a new repentant identity, an identity that finds the path to atonement and healing?

Note: If you would like to explore these issues further, or learn about the IHH please contact the IHH on 9387 7557 or house@ihh.org.au. You can also visit our website at www.ihh.org.au.


[1] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no.4 (2006): 388.

[2] Having said this, it is important to note the continued resilience and strength shown by Aboriginal people in the face all that has happened. While the poverty of spirit is evident in many people and places, so is the depth and richness of their spirit and culture in other places. Similarly, while many families exhibit the dysfunction we would expect of people oppressed for over two centuries, at the IHH we have be privileged to witness some amazing families—gracious, focused, insightful and full of laughter.

[3] W.E.H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays (Melbourne: Black Ink, 2009), 188–89.

[4] Sarah Maddison, Beyond White Guilt: The Real Challenge for Black-White Relations in Australia (Melbourne: Allen & Unwin, 2011), 56–61.

[5] Henry Reynolds, Why Weren’t We Told (Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2000), 153–60.

[6] Elaine Ennes and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2009), 121–40.

[7] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 113.

[8] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 120.

[9] Carlos H. Abesamis, “Jesus: An Asian Perspective,” in Global Bible Commentary, ed. Daniel Patte (Nashville: Abington Press, 2004), 335.

[10] Abesamis, “Jesus,” 336.

[11] Peter Lewis, Acting in Solidarity: The Churches’ Journey with Indigenous Australians (Melbourne: Uniting Academic Press, 2010), 224–26.

[12] Lewis, Acting in Solidarity, 240–41.


Image: Michael Coghlan, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Cosimo Chiera and Tom Edwards, "Impacting Neighbourhoods: Mathematical Measures"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.



Neighbourhood and community interventions represent an important positive influence on our society. However, the current funding climate requires that interventions mimic business plans in so much as proposing clear objectives, methods and metrics through which a project can be evaluated. This approach, while being seen as providing due diligence for funding organisations, is often at odds with the community-centred approach of contemporary interventions and the organic nature of community change. Nevertheless, the authors propose a simple mathematical model using a limited number of variables which may assist community organisations to: (1) a priori predict the degree of change likely in an intervention; and (2) assist in a post-hoc evaluation of the project. The Victorian Children’s Koori Court is used as a case study to validate this model and show how it may be applied to other community interventions.


Background and Model

Philanthropy is a growing concern in Australia with the peak body Philanthropy Australia increasing in membership from 477 in 2012 to 715 by the end of 2013.[1] In addition, various government departments, both State and Federal, make funds available for a range of projects designed to increase the social capital of Australia. However, funding bodies rightly need to do their due diligence, and this requires those applying for funding to clearly state the purpose of the project, often with predicted outcomes, use a validated methodology and, following completion, provide an extensive evaluation. The last of these is increased in importance if ongoing funding is to be sought.

However, community interventions are typically organic: growing and changing with the needs of the community who, through an action-learning model, take ownership of the intervention. That this is so often makes such interventions difficult to design and evaluate. To this end it is vital that the community sector have access to tools which will help them: (1) better to express their ideas to funders; (2) to predict outcomes; (3) to assist in working efficiently during project implementation by making timely “course corrections”; and finally (4) to evaluate projects in light of the stated objectives. To achieve these goals a simple mathematical model is proposed.

In brief, we propose that project performance can be evaluated as a trajectory on a two dimensional mathematical sheet represented in three-dimensional space. As such only three variables are required to encapsulate the main features of this model. Arising out of a psychological worldview they are: (1) r0 as the initial “resistance” the community has to change; (2) the duration (d) over which the project will occur; and (3) a measure of the relative threat (T) vs. control (C) the community feels (see Figure 1).[2]


Figure 1: The model represented as a two-dimensional sheet in three-dimensional space. Changes in r(d, T, C) are seen as a consequence of changes in its contributing variables being duration (d) and threat vs control (T – C) and the initial condition of community resistance (r0). Note that when (T – C) exceeds the ‘Order one’ (O(1)) by one or more orders of magnitude the model is considered to be unstable and may be akin to aberrant behaviour. This is represented by the plateau seen above.

Mathematically this sheet is defined by:

From this model we can map trajectories onto the mathematical sheet described in Figure 1 above. In doing so, each trajectory describes the progress and outcome for a community intervention given either: (1) the weight placed on each variable during the intervention’s design; or (2) after the intervention’s completion, the weight of each variable observed and mapped for evaluative purposes. For example, given a community with a moderate resistance to change and an equal duration for two interventions we can map their respective trajectories (see Figure 2). In brief, the “negative trajectory” in Figure 2 demonstrates the failure of the intervention because either the threats the community faced were so large, and/or there were insufficient control elements put in place by the intervention’s designer. By way of control elements we refer to those aspects of the project which build personal autonomy and self-esteem as well as community cohesion. By contrast, the positive trajectory in Figure 2 represents a successful intervention outcome as, in this instance, the project designer most likely focused on the inclusion of substantial control elements which empowered the community and overwhelmed any threats which may have been present.


Figure 2: Two trajectories representing a successful community intervention (positive trajectory) and an unsuccessful community intervention (negative trajectory). In these instances the relative levels of threat vs control were fundamental in producing the opposing outcomes.

From this model it is also apparent that if community resistance is high and project duration brief then particular emphasis must be placed on implementing control elements if positive change is to occur. Alternatively, if community resistance is reduced or duration extended then control elements should still be included in the intervention to bring about positive change, but their emphasis need not be as great. As such this model speaks to what is possible given a particular community, the ability of the intervening organization to bring sufficient resources to bare, and project duration.

However, this model also predicts some less intuitive outcomes. For example, while high levels of threat are likely to adversely affect the community over time the complete removal of threat may result in a community which feels freed of any onus of responsibility leading to either social breakdown or unconscionable conduct towards other groups.

We see this situation where control overwhelms threat (C >>T) most plainly in the modern celebrity. As social restraint diminishes (T is small and C is very large), we see more and more outrageous and socially disruptive behaviour. As such, we observe that when freed from the normal threat of social chastisement people believe themselves to be “entitled” or “grandiose,” and behave accordingly. At a community level this may be observed in a variety of ways including poor social cohesion through to institutional discrimination.

Taken together, optimum outcomes occur when control elements in the environment outweigh threat elements by only a small amount, say no more than 10% of the larger of the two values. It is as if this relationship produces a community motivated for change.

A Demonstration of the Model

To demonstrate the value of this model in a real world, if not local, context, let us look at an evaluation of the Victorian Children’s Koori Court (CKC). The Children’s Court of Victoria states that the purpose of the CKC is:

… to address the over-representation of young Koori people in the criminal justice system. By involving the Koori community in the court process through the participation of Elders and Respected Persons the Koori Court aims to reduce offending behaviour and reduce the number of young Koori people being sentenced to a period of detention.[3]

Established in 2005 the CKC has been rolled out to nine sites in Melbourne and across regional Victoria, demonstrating its success. However, it is not good enough simply to acknowledge the success of the CKC by noting its persistence and growth over the last nine years, nor to validate the work of the CKC by making vague statements about the value of therapeutic justice— although these are true of themselves—we require metrics. Usefully the CKC has been thoroughly evaluated and these evaluations published. For example, Borowski evaluated the outcomes of 62 offenders who appeared before the CKC in its first two years of operation (2005–07) and tracked these individuals for between 6 and 30 months.[4] Four key findings can be identified from his work. First, a “very low” failure to appear rate. Second, a “very low” rate of breaching court orders. Third, a recidivism rate of approximately 60%, which is comparable, if not slightly less, than other studies assessing similar defendants in the traditional court system. Fourth, that for recidivists their subsequent crimes were typically only of equal of lesser severity than the original crime dealt with in the CKC. In trying to measure the degree of success of the CKC in its first two years of operation it is reasonable to measure each key performance indicator on an ordinal five point scale: very low success, low success, average, high success and very high success. In doing so the first two key performance indicators could conservatively be rated as highly successful, the third as average and the fourth as again highly successful. Therefore, overall the CKC may be regarded as a highly successful community intervention.

To determine if our mathematical model will demonstrate similar findings let us first understand how we might evaluate the three variables of initial resistance, duration and threat vs. control. Taking initial resistance first, Borowski noted that, at face value, a substantial recidivism rate and that approximately 50% of CKC defendants had prior involvement with the Department of Human Services (DHS).[5] With respect to criminal matters approximately 40% of CKC defendants had prior convictions while approximately 40% had prior warnings or diversions, leaving only 20% without prior police or judicial involvement. Such data would suggest these individuals to be highly resistant to change. However, we must also note their ages as typically between 15 and 19 years old at the time of their CKC appearance. Given their youth it is reasonable to suggest that they may be less resistant than adults. As such we suggest that the defendants studied had an overall “medium” level of resistance. The second model variable, duration, is given as 1.5 years as this represents the average between 6 and 30 months of observation by Borowski.

Finally, to threat vs. control as the third variable. The CKC represents an interesting model of court practice where control elements significantly outweigh threat elements. For example, it is a sentencing court and thus does not practice in the typical adversarial manner. Sentencing is designed to be therapeutic, not punitive. The atmosphere of the court is relatively informal with all parties sitting around a common table. Moreover, the defendant has their own lawyer and other Indigenous workers may also be present. The court also promotes Indigenous culture through a smoking ceremony and the use of Indigenous art. Curiously, the presence of elders or respected people as part of the court may be viewed differently by various defendants. In some instances they may act as a control element providing support, for others they may cause shame and thus be viewed as a threat. Nevertheless one clear threat element remains within the CKC: the Magistrate who remains in charge of sentencing. Nevertheless, the CKC prefaces control over threat by a large degree. Taken together we can now plot a trajectory on the sheet described in Figure 1 and determine the likely success of the CKC given our model. In summary, for mid-level resistance and a high degree of control the trajectory at d = 1.5 years agrees with our assessment and the assessment of others that the CKC is a highly effective community intervention (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: A validation of the model using the CKC as an example. For a medium level of initial resistance and when control elements significantly outweigh threat elements then at a duration of 1.5 years a high level of success is observed for the CKC.


Taken together this model suggests a number of important consequences for those doing community work. First, it is now possible to model various intervention designs to determine which will be the most effective given the community profile, duration and available resources. In addition, this model allows an intervention’s trajectory to be plotted such that at different time points along the trajectory, say d = 0.5, 1.0, 1.5 and 2.0 years, one can evaluate project success and make any required “course corrections.” Finally, the model allows one to understand if the intervention’s proposed outcome has been reached. If so, a strong argument can be made to a funding organization for ongoing support. Taken together, this simple model allows those doing important community work to now utilize metrics to secure funding and manage scarce resources to maximize change.


[1] Philanthropy Australia, “Annual Report” (2013), http://www.philanthropy.org.au/images/site/misc/About_Us/Annual_Reports/PhilanthropyAustralia2013AnnualReport.pdf (accessed November 18, 2014).

[2] Tom Edwards and Cosimo Chiera, “Personal Narratives: A Mathematical Model for Their Behavior with Cross-disciplinary Implications,” Storyworlds, under review.

[3] Victorian Government, “Koori Court,” Children’s Court of Victoria, 2012, http://www.childrenscourt.vic.gov.au/jurisdictions/koori-court (accessed November 18, 2014).

[4] A. Borowski, “Indigenous Participation in Sentencing Young Offenders: Findings from an Evaluation of the Children’s Koori Court of Victoria,” Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology 43, no.3 (2010): 465–84; A. Borowski, “Evaluating the Children’s Koori Court of Victoria: Some Key Findings” (Occasional Seminar, Australian Institute of Criminology, 2010), http://www.aic.gov.au/media_library/seminars/borowski_presentation.pdf (accessed November 18, 2014).

[5] Borowski, “Indigenous Participation in Sentencing Young Offenders,” 465–84; Borowski, “Evaluating the Children’s Koori Court of Victoria.”


Image: Cosimo Chiera and Tom Edwards

Karl Hand, "Identifying with the Stigma: Christian Authenticity and the Affirming Church Movement"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.



The affirming church movement began in the late '60s when Troy Perry began Metropolitan Community Church and started to advocate for the inclusion of LGBT people in the Christian church.  As LGBT stigma decreases in the western world, and many mainstream churches are now open to LGBT people, there is increasingly less need for “gay churches” to exist. At the same time, many conservative churches are becoming defensive and defining their identity by their opposition to LGBT acceptance.  Drawing on sociological models of stigma, and New Testament theology of mission, this paper proposes that the way forward is for all Christians to look to Christ for their authenticity and identity, rather than identifying with the stigma.


“Among [their] own, the stigmatized individual can use [their] disadvantage as a basis for organizing life, but [they] must resign [themselves] to a half-world in order to do so.”[1]

Most of what has been written about ministry in the LGBT[2] community in these controversial times has been written to argue a side of the debate, but my goal here is to write about mission, not morality.[3] I start with the assumption, which I hope is not controversial, that when Jesus said he was sent to the poor, the broken-hearted, the captive and the blind (Luke 4:16–21; cf. Isa 61:1–2), when he sent his disciples to make disciples by baptism and teaching (Matt 28:16–20), and bearing witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8), and when he called for himself a people from every people, tongue, tribe and nation (Rev 5:9; 7:9), that mission includes the LGBT community. This has implications for the way that we implement the church’s mission in Australia today.

I am not writing this as an expert in the area of missiology, but as a current practitioner with eight years’ experience ministering in Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) to a community whose majority are gay men, bisexuals and lesbians in two different local churches, one of which was a new church plant in 2008 called Crave.[4] I also write as one deeply concerned with the effects of stigma not only on the people I minister to, but on the body of Christ as a whole.

My own area of scholarly expertise is New Testament studies, and my ongoing fascination and passion is with the Jesus tradition. This has led me to consider deeply the way that the sociology of stigma brings meaning to the missional practices of Jesus, who directed his own ministry towards the stigmatised.[5] But it’s impossible to read these texts as scripture from my perspective as an MCC pastor without seeing modern kinds of stigma reflected in the text, and to ask questions about how this missional bias towards stigmatised groups should be reflected in the church’s mission.

My claim is that ministry in the LGBT community is problematized by the tendency of stigmatised people to define their own identity in terms of their stigma, which stands in tension with the gospel’s demand to define one’s life in terms of the cross. I will start with a personal account of my observations about how this happens in practice, and then use the theoretical model of stigma proposed by Erving Goffman to define what I think is really happening. I will then propose a different approach based on the ways that Jesus and Paul dealt with stigma in their ministries and teaching.

At the time Crave was founded, we were aware of the fact that MCC was often called a “gay” church.[6] This is not to say that MCC called itself a gay church. For many years, the denomination MCC self-identified in its mission statement as “a Christian Church founded in and reaching beyond the Gay and Lesbian communities.”[7] Our most recent mission statement, however, which starts with the words “transforming ourselves as we transform the world,” has removed any mention of sexual orientation.[8]

But theory does not always match practice, and within my own experience, many practices I have observed within the denomination do in fact make us look like a “gay church.” Between the time I joined MCC in 2001 and the founding of Crave in 2008, every MCC I went to displayed a rainbow flag somewhere in the church, and used rainbow altar cloths and rainbow stoles as liturgical garments. Many people who came to the church would reflect that these symbols helped them to understand that they were welcome in this church, an experience that they might never have had in any other church, but a secondary effect was to make it publicly visible that it was a church “for” gay people.

MCC Sydney, where I was interim pastor between 2007 and 2008, holds an annual “gay and lesbian” carols services on Christmas Eve. A highlight of their annual program is a Mardi Gras float. It is clear to any observer that the LGBT community is their community, their mission field.

At other times in our history, the “gay church” label has been more explicitly affirmed from within the movement, such as in this 1985 interview with Rev. Jim Dykes, then the pastor of MCC Sydney, in which he uses “coming out of the closet” interchangeably with salvation.

Jim Dykes: We’re about a profound repentance, a metamorphosis, a change. We’re about coming out of the closet. That’s what we’re about.

Interviewer: You say that almost as if it’s the sort of renewal experience that Christians talk of in meeting Christ.

Jim Dykes: It does, for many of us, for myself … when I came back and met Jesus Christ again, with all my flaws and all my sins, but knowing that just by the very act of accepting me I found salvation, it was a renewal, it was a change, I’m a different man.[9]

As successful as this strategy was for MCC in the final decades of the twentieth century and the apex of the LGBT civil rights movement, in the twentieth-first century’s milieu of increasing social acceptance for LGBT people, this model does not seem to be working, and MCC is moving from steady to rapid decline.

A survey of affirming churches conducted in 2013 by GayChurch.org (which is admittedly self-published and based entirely on an analysis of church websites) lists 7,457 gay affirming churches in forty-seven different countries. Seventy percent of these belong to five mainstream denominations.[10] Only 3%, or 187 of these, are MCC churches, which is a 14% decline since the 2012 survey. The denominations with the largest number of affirming churches were the United Church of Christ which had increased by 16% to 1,415 affirming churches, and the Episcopal Church which increased 9% to 1408 affirming churches. The survey concludes,

There are many possible reasons for this. First, gays and lesbians have many more church choices now than they did twenty years ago. Second, many of the early participants in these churches have aged. With the younger generations going elsewhere, these churches are slowly declining in numbers. Finally, many favor churches that are broad in focus, and whose congregants are gay and straight alike.[11]

The team who planted Crave MCC responded to these issues in a number of ways. Removing the gay pride imagery was easy enough, because our website, branding and worship space design were all started from scratch—a design which reflected our spirituality and our community and was in no way specific to sexual orientation. The focus of our preaching was Christ, the gospel, spiritual and social transformation, and living in personal integrity. We did not get involved in Mardi Gras and the gay and lesbian Christmas Eve service, focusing instead on a program providing food relief, free lunches and BBQs in the housing estates of Waterloo where a few of our members lived, as well as holding camps, dinners and a small annual conference.

But the issue of our identity formation was deeper than these superficial changes, a realisation which took a few years to sink in. By far, the predominant reason that new people came to our church was because they were looking for a church that accepted gay men, lesbians or bisexuals, and the questions they were asking theologically were about sexual ethics and the Bible and homosexuality. People’s testimonies and their spiritual insights clustered around these questions. We needed to develop resources on these issues, and preach on them.

My own public image as a pastor was to be predominantly in the LGBT community and the Marriage Equality campaign, because this is the only context in which I was regularly asked to speak outside of church. The gay press would ring me for comment on social issues, while generally the mainstream media had no reason to contact us. In other words, the gay church identity was asserting itself against our best intentions. It was at this point that I realised that the “gay church” identity ran deeper in our DNA that it was possible to address by a new name or PR strategy.

One surprising observation that this insight has led me to make is that the problem of identity which MCC has always faced is no longer an issue for gay affirming churches only. The views of Evangelical and Catholic Churches on sexuality are now also a stigma, and many Christian leaders such as Albert Mohler seem to be turning this into an identity issue, calling on people to publicly take a side against acceptance of same sex relationships.[12] This has resulted in, among other things, businesses insisting on refusing service to same sex couples, even if it results in their businesses being sued for discrimination, such as the recent cause célèbre of Melissa and Aaron Klein whose business Sweet Cakes closed after a case in which Melissa refused to bake a wedding cake for lesbians. Aaron Klein made the comment, “I’d rather have my kids see their dad stand up for what he believes in than to see him bow down because one person complained.”[13]

In the worlds of Mohler, Christians like the Kleins are presented with a “moment of decision” over same-sex marriages. However, Mohler does not understand that this moment of decision is the same which MCC has always encountered: it is whether they will find their identity in the stigma or in Christ.

Gay churches and straight churches are largely not deliberately identifying with our own stigmas instead of Christ. Rather, as we attempt to identify with Christ, the sociological force of stigmatisation emerges to muddy the waters. This matches Erving Goffman’s theory of stigma, which highlights the way that socially abnormal people identify with attributes that highlight their abnormality, and the way that such attributes may even become legitimating features required for membership or leadership in alternative communities.

He defines stigma as known or visible signs which spoil people’s social identity. Both societies and the stigmatised people within them have a series of expectations when they meet strangers, depending on that person’s gender and social class, which Goffman describes as the virtual social identity. A person’s actual social identity may diverge from these expectations in a number of ways, which discredit people in the eyes of others. A person so discredited is defined as a stigmatised person, while a person not discredited is referred to as a “Normal.”

This model of stigma portrays the identities of such people as deeply conflicted. Stigma is evidence of a discrepancy between expectation and reality, which stigmatised people must manage throughout their lives. However, because stigmatised people usually maintain that they are the same as everyone else at the core of their being, the management of stigma is not only necessary in public social interactions, but also in their intimate relationships and even in their ego formation, or concept of themselves.

Even looking in the mirror, a visibly stigmatised person is confronted with this discrepancy between their own expectations of themselves and the visible reality, and will often respond with feelings of shame and self-hatred,[14] or less commonly may come to understand their stigma as a unique blessing, or as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility.[15]

Stigmatised social identity is managed within special social groups which view the stigmatised person sympathetically. Goffman calls such communities the Own and the Wise. The Own are those who share the same stigma, and provide stigmatised individual with instruction in the “tricks of the trade,” and “a circle of lament.” The Wise are non-stigmatised persons around whom stigmatised persons need feel no shame, and exercise no self-restraint.[16] These communities provide a context in which the stigmatised can identify as the normal human being which they know themselves to be at the deepest level, but only at the cost of resigning themselves to what Goffman calls a “half-world,” a life that only fully exists within the protective circle.

Goffman further distinguished between social identity as described above, personal identity (or the image and history which others know and recognize of a person), and ego identity, or one’s own subjective response to their situation.[17]

It is this concept of ego identity which is important for us in our consideration of Christian authenticity. Stigmatised people face pressures from every angle in the way that they construct an ego-identity. The Own expect them to represent the group effectively without “minstrelising” (showing their stigma in an exaggerated or comical way), and at the same time without assimilating or concealing their identity.

Similarly, Normals expect to be set at ease about the differences between them and a stigmatised person. In social settings, stigmatised people must “break the ice” of the social awkwardness they create by reassuring Normals that they are the same as everyone else, and that the burden of the stigma is not heavy. Paradoxically, most Normals are not completely at ease until they have been reassured that stigmatised people do in fact struggle and need their help to fit in properly.

There are therefore four competing demands on a stigmatised person’s ego identity. Politically, they must represent the Own while not behaving in a stereotyped manner, and psychologically, they must bravely assert their similarity with everybody else while graciously accepting that they are not the same. Goffman concludes that for a stigmatised person, “Joke becomes their fate and destiny.”[18] In other words, they must reconcile all these competing demands on their ego identity by making a joke out of who they are. A dwarf might set people at ease by taking on the role of a court-jester in public, a gay man might do it by exaggerated effeminate behaviour. In the gay community, men can be ridiculed for being “stereotypical queens,” or for being “straight-acting.” There is, however, no clearly defined middle ground.

It is at this point that it becomes clear just how inconsistent stigmatised identity is with Christian identity. To identify as a clown is in irreconcilable tension with the seriousness of being part of a holy people with a prophetic calling to bear witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. This tension, I propose, is responsible for much of the uneasiness concerning the LGBT question in the church.

Scriptural images of Christian identity similarly stand in tension with any ego-identity that is based on personal stigma. Christ’s call to follow in the synoptic traditions require a decisive break with patriarchal village life in Galilee,[19] and an orientation towards itinerant ministry, to Jerusalem and to the cross (Luke 9:51).[20] This identity is certainly a stigmatised one, but the stigma is that of Christ and the cross. In the ministries of Jesus and Paul, I will now show, stigma is not resolved through the creation of a community of the Own and the Wise, but through the calling of the church.

Within the early Jesus movement, stigmatised people entered into a mutual discipleship by following Jesus. This included all kinds of stigmatised identities, such as little children (cf. Mark 10:13–16; cf. 19:13–15; Luke 18:15–17),[21] “sinful” women (Luke 7:36–39), tax-collectors (Mark 2:13–17; cf. Matt 9:9–13; Luke 5:27–32), the unclean (Mark 7:1–5; cf. 15:1–2), the ‘am-ha-arets (the rabbinic term for Jews uneducated in the law, which is sometimes reflected in the term “sinners” in the gospels, see Mark 2:15 and parallels; cf. Luke 5:8).

But we fail to capture the whole picture if we interpret this “kingdom of nobodies”[22] in the early Jesus movement as a kind of a counter-cultural or sub-cultural community of the Own and the Wise for stigmatised groups in Galilee. Such a reading fails to account for the way that Jesus also included “Normals” (upright Jews) at the table with the outcasts. The controversy in Mark 2:13–17 is only possible because “the scribes of the Pharisees” encounter Jesus eating at this table of the stigmatised. The “sinful” woman in Luke 7:36–39 follows Jesus into the house of a Pharisee. In Luke 14:1, Jesus begins his great parable discourse of Luke 14–16 by going into the house of a Pharisee to share a Sabbath meal. His whole discussion of religious attitudes towards sinners, exemplified most famously in the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11–32), takes place sitting at this very table.

The mutual discipleship which Jesus shared with the stigmatised would therefore have been incomplete were it not for the non-stigmatised and even socially elite people who also followed Jesus, including Pharisees and even Zealots (see the list of disciples in Luke 6:13–16). Discipleship cannot have belonged to a community of the Own and the Wise, but to a community in which all stigma was resolved in the call to take up the cross and follow Jesus. As Christopher Hays claims,

Discipleship is the ultimate commitment, relative to which all other values are reassessed. Specifically, discipleship to Jesus confronts commitment to family and the security of stable employment, subordinating both to the greater good of following the messiah. [23]

Rudolf Bultmann’s claim that the New Testament is an unfolding of the message of Jesus, which is a presupposition of the New Testament writings,[24] seems to apply here. As the idea of the church emerges in New Testament thought, Jesus’ practices of seeking out the rejected ones and binging reconciliation are reflected in the construction of the institutions of the New Testament church. There is only space in this paper to look into the way that Paul’s practices and theology reflect and “unfold” those of Jesus, but this could also be done for various bodies of literature in the New Testament.

Jesus’ concept of identity seems to flow into the thought and the life of Paul, who similarly rejected the patriarchal family as the basis of community life,[25] and who took Jesus’ radical practices and used them to establish urban Jesus-communities around the Mediterranean world. For Paul, the church is a community (or a body, see 1 Cor 12:12–27; Rom 12:3–7; Eph 4:4–16) of those who are identified with Christ (or “in Christ,” for instance, Rom 6:11; 8:1; 1 Cor 15:18; 2 Cor 15:17; Gal 3:26; Eph 1:4; Phil 2:1; Col 1:28; 1 Thess 4:16), and through whom the kingdom of God (the resurrection, or age to come, see Acts 17:18; 1 Cor 15, esp. vv. 50–57; Phil 3:10–11; Eph 1:21) is manifested in the world.

As George Eldon Ladd points out, the church is never identified by Paul as a body per se, but it is only a body in the sense that each member is identified with Christ.[26] This new identity is more than a personal experience of salvation, but becoming part of this new, eschatological community.[27] In his youth, Paul had found his identity as a Jew of impeccable lineage—by the time of his writing, he has come to find it in Christ (Phil 3:3–6).[28]

Margaret Y. MacDonald, whose work highlights the way that Pauline churches became institutionalised, has shown that the early Pauline letters were focused on community building, the middle (or deutero-) Paulines were about stabilising the community, and the late Paulines (or pastorals) were about defending it.[29] Paul never wrote a systematic theology of the church, but his work in building and maintaining the body of Christ in this age is an embodied demonstration of this theology, and this can be seen in the way he deals with concrete situations in his letters.

For instance, identification with the way of the cross underlies Paul’s claim in Galatians to bear in his body the marks (Greek: stigmata) of Jesus (Gal 6:17). This is the conclusio, or final reiteration with emotional force, of a larger rhetorical argument against introducing the practice of circumcision into the community he had established there.[30] The “stigma of Jesus” may or may not refer to literal physical marks here, but Paul’s use of bastazo (to bear) seems to be an allusion to the carrying of the cross.[31]

This stigma of crucifixion is presented by Paul as an either/or alternative to identifying with the stigma of circumcision, and as Bernard O. Ukwuegbu, argues, Paul is deeply concerned that the Galatians do not form their social identity on the basis of circumcision or uncircumcision, but with Christ in a new community of faith.[32] That Paul says in Gal 3:28 that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man is in no way merely an uplifting sentiment or pragmatic approach to specific problems in Galatia. It is Paul’s whole theological world and mission that is at stake here: if we are not one body in Christ, if we are still Jews and Gentiles, then the whole work has been in vain for him, and those who identify as such may as well be accursed and cut off (Gal 1:8; 5:12).

Paul’s vision of the church as a universal body of Christ, which he (or a Pauline disciple) would later articulate in the letter to the Ephesians, grows out of this understanding, and it is here that the message and practices of Jesus are unfolded by Paul in their fullness. Unlike the earlier Paulines, where Paul focuses on individual congregations as the manifestation of Christ’s body in the present age, Ephesians presents the body of Christ as universal and global in scope.[33] As MacDonald has highlighted, Ephesians is written in the context of Jewish identity being brought into question by anti-Jewish propaganda.[34] The tables are now fully turned from the situation in Jesus’ day so that observant Jews are the stigmatised ones, not the “Normals,” but according to God’s purposes this does not matter at all. The answer will never be the creation of a stigmatised community of “out and proud” Jews, but to seek the unity of the body of Christ. Ephesians 2:14–16 asserts that dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile has been broken by Christ’s death in order to offer the possibility of the church as a new alternative society, a “third race,”[35] in which race no longer divides.

What becomes of our mission, given everything I have said about MCC, Goffman’s concept of stigma and the vision of identity and community held by Jesus and unfolded by Paul, is that the gay church and the straight church are both living in a half-world. This situation is not merely inadequate to the mission of the church to unify humanity in one body, and it is not merely inadequate for the task of forming disciples who find their identity in the way of the cross. It also calls into question God’s whole reconciling mission for the world: to bring all things together into the body of his Son (Col 1:19–20; Eph 1:8b–10). If we are to live up to our calling as the church, we have to get past this.

Given the level of resistance that both sides of this argument are likely (or even certain) to feel about surrendering their stigmatised identities, it seems that the task ahead of us will involve a small group of people who like yeast in the lump are able to “be the bigger person” and look above the shibboleths of this divisive issue, being aware of what is really important in the situation.

Letting go of our small worlds and embracing God’s big world is God’s will not just for us personally but for the universe, and it brings glory to Christ when we do so, because it bring all the pieces of humanity into harmony within one body in which he is the head. A church like this would be a space in which the half-worlds of this age begin to dissolve into the full world, the life of the age to come.

There is boundless room for the intentional, missional work of creating spaces where the LGBT community and “Normals” are able to come before God through Christ together, without regard for the stigma, and without needing to make the stigma into a badge of honour. While we wait, and while we may be tempted to view the LGBT issue as a distraction from our mission and calling, we bear witness to the reality of God’s reconciling work in the world through the church—and sometimes even to those parts of the church which are not yet fully given to the task.


[1] Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (London: Penguin, 1963), 32.

[2] An acronym for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. I deliberately fluctuate between using “LGBT people,” “gay people” or “lesbians and gay men” in this paper, in order to be accurate about which set of identities I am referring to. I seek to use LGBT in contexts where the transgender community are actually included, and “lesbians” only in contexts that actually include lesbian women.

[3] In saying this, I do not want to make any claims about whether this mission includes a call to change of orientation, to celibacy or to monogamy. While we must start with the assumption that the gospel’s call to holiness includes a call to exemplary sexual ethics, and recognize that this call will affect LGBT people in unique ways, but the specific details of that call is a separate question, which has received ample attention in both theological literature and popular sources. The claims I make in this paper are relevant to practitioners of mission on either side of that theo-ethical spectrum. For an exceptionally wise book on discerning this issue which does not “take a side,” see Ken Wilson, A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embracing People who are Gay, Lesbian and Transgender in the Company of Jesus (Canton, MI: David Crumm Media, 2014); for a book upholding celibacy as the best option, see Sam Allberry, Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions about Homosexuality, the Bible, and Same-Sex Attraction (Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2013); for a book which defends monogamy as a valid choice for Christians, see Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (New York: Convergent Books, 2014).

[4] For our website, see Crave Metropolitan Community Church, http://www.cravemcc.com/.

[5] On the role of stigma in the Jesus Tradition, see Carlos J. Gil Arbiol, “Overvaluing the Stigma: An Example of Self-Stigmatisation in the Jesus-Movement (Q 14:26–27; 17:33),” Biblical Theology Bulletin 34, no.4 (2004): 161–66; Rick F. Talbott, “Nazareth’s Rebellious Son: Deviance and Downward Mobility in the Galilean Jesus Movement,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 38, no.3 (2008): 99–113.

[6] Gordon Preece, for instance, describes us as “the gay Metropolitan Community Church” in Sexegesis: An Evangelical Response to Five Uneasy Pieces on Homosexuality, edited by Michael F. Bird and Gordon R. Preece (Sydney: New Cranmer Lobby, 2012), 19.

[7] Cited in Mary R. Sawyer, The Church on the Margins: Living Christian Community (Harrisberg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 204.

[8] See “Who We Are,” Metropolitan Community Churches, http://mccchurch.org/overview/ (accessed October 14, 2014).

[9] “Return of the Pink Triangle,” Encounters, ABC (1985), http://youtu.be/DNq7DlgPdbE?t=16m29s (accessed October 11, 2014).

[10] United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran ELCA, Presbyterian and United Methodist.

[11] “2013 Affirming Church Survey,” GALIP Foundation, http://www.gaychurch.org/affirming-church-survey/2013-survey/ (accessed June 2, 2014).

[12] I think in particular of Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s blogpost of June 2, 2014: “There Is No “Third Way”—Southern Baptists Face a Moment of Decision (And So Will You),” http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/06/02/there-is-no-third-way-southern-baptists-face-a-moment-of-decision-and-so-will-you/ (accessed October 14, 2014).

[13] “Oregon Bakery Owner Aaron Klein Denies Lesbian Couple a Wedding Cake,” Huffington Post, April 2, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/04/aaron-klein-oregon-bakery-owner-lesbian-wedding-cake_n_2615563.html (accessed October 14, 2014).

[14] Goffman, Stigma, 16–17.

[15] Goffman, Stigma, 21–22.

[16] Goffman, Stigma, 41–43.

[17] Goffman, Stigma, 73–75.

[18] Goffman, Stigma, 150.

[19] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 299–302.

[20] Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 266–82; David H. Gill, “Observations on the Lukan Travel Narrative and Some Related Passages,” Harvard Theological Review 63 (1970): 200; Paul Kariamadam, “The Composition and Meaning of the Lucan Travel Narrative (Lk. 9,51–19,46),” Bible Bhashyam 3 (1987): 195.

[21] I agree with Crossan here, who points out that in its original setting, Jesus’ sayings about little children refer to their low social status, rather than their innocent faith, or the special theological meanings which this image acquires in later gospels such as John 3:1–10 and Gos. Thom. 22:3–4 (Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 266–69).

[22] Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 266.

[23] Christopher M. Hays, “Hating Wealth and Wives? An Examination of the Discipleship Ethic in the Third Gospel,” Tyndale Bulletin 60, no.1 (2009): 47–48.

[24] Rudolf Bultmann, The Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1 (London: SCM Press, 1965), 3.

[25] Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: SCM Press 1981), 113–16.

[26] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Guildford: Lutterworth Press, 1974), 545.

[27] Kevin Giles, What on Earth Is the Church: A Biblical and Theological Inquiry (London: SPCK, 1995), 98–102.

[28] Giles, What on Earth Is the Church, 105–8.

[29] Margaret Y. MacDonald, The Pauline Churches: A Socio-Historical Study of Institutionalization in the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[30] Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 312–13.

[31] Betz, Galatians, 325.

[32] Bernard O. Ukwuegbu, “Paraenesis, Identity-Defining Norms, or Both? Galatians 5:13–6:10 in the Light of Social Identity Theory,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70, no.3 (2008): 551–52.

[33] Giles, What on Earth Is the Church, 125.

[34] Margaret Y. MacDonald, “The Politics of Identity in Ephesians,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26, no. 4 (2004): 419–44.

[35] Giles, What on Earth Is the Church, 136–38.


Image: derived from Darrell A, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Lauren Hayes, "Burdens of Charity? A Different Perspective on a Biblical View of People with Disabilities and the Church"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.



Disability affects all of us in some way, yet many of us are unaware of the social, let alone theological, impact created by our response to disability. Across the world, people with disabilities are still one of the most marginalised groups. With such a strong biblical mandate for inclusion of people with disabilities, why is exclusion still so prevalent in our churches and communities? The answer is largely due to the fact that people with disabilities are rarely given a voice within mainstream or faith communities. We are too often seen as charity cases or as a problem needing to be fixed, rather than productive members of society who are accepted and valued. We are family members, next-door neighbours, fellow commuters and colleagues. Sometimes these roles are not acknowledged, and sometimes we want to fulfil these roles, but cannot because of prejudice and exclusion. This paper will explore some of the biblical foundations for disability inclusion, how they have been implemented throughout history, and what a disability theology and praxis looks like in a 21st century context.


John 9: A Retelling

It was an overcast Sabbath morning as Benjamin sat by the side of the road, exhausted after a long week of trying to bring in some extra money for his ageing parents. He listened to the excited conversations of worshippers making their way to the temple to celebrate the end of the Festival of Tabernacles. Rumours were circulating that this man called Jesus might be at the festival. Some said he stirred up trouble and couldn’t be trusted, while others said he was what the world had been waiting for. Benjamin was curious, and wondered if Jesus could help him. There wasn’t much chance of that. If he tried to go to the temple now it would be the same as every other time his parents had tried to take him before. “You know the law,” the religious leaders would say. “He can’t come in.”

So Benjamin waited some distance from the temple while his parents went to worship, thinking and praying. A week ago he had helped his father build a Sukkah, the temporary hut used by his family during the festival. His father was a good craftsman, and taught him skills in woodwork at an early age, much to the horror of their friends and neighbours. But his father persisted in the hope that Benjamin might one day be able to earn a living for himself and not have to resort to begging, or be dragged off by the Romans as a source of cheap entertainment for their banquets. No one was willing to hire him, and begging became necessary when work was scarce for his father. The festival of booths was supposed to be a time when people were charitable. People had certainly given him money that week, but it was usually given begrudgingly and came with pitying remarks. In any case, he didn’t want their charity. He just wanted to be a valued citizen in his community.

At that moment he was surprised to hear voices coming towards him from the direction of the temple. He wondered what could have happened to cause people to leave, especially on the Sabbath.

“Why did you do it, Lord?” a man asked angrily. “Everywhere we go it seems we get thrown out of temples and you nearly get us all killed. Can’t you just keep the peace for once?”

“Lord?” someone else chimed in. “See that man sitting by the side of the road? I’ve seen him begging in this area for most of the week. Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Benjamin wondered if this might be Jesus, whose name had been mentioned a lot lately around town, and waited expectantly. After he finished talking with his disciples, he approached Benjamin.

“I understand you’ve had a tough week.”

“You could say that, sir,” Benjamin replied, pleasantly surprised by the man’s question, appreciative of being spoken to in a manner that wasn’t condescending.

Benjamin then heard the man spit, and felt mud being placed on his eyes.

“Go and wash in the pool of Siloam. Peter, will you guide him?”

“Sure, as long as you promise we won’t be thrown out of any more temples.” The man’s silence indicated to Benjamin that he was ignoring Peter, and he smiled to himself as Peter helped him to his feet and guided him to the pool. Wondering who this man was and what he was getting himself into, he washed in the pool. As he returned to the water’s edge, he felt a strange sensation in his eyes. He saw different kinds of light, shapes and colours, or at least, what he presumed to be shapes and colours. He silently took in his surroundings as he made his way back. He wondered if there was a possibility that he might now be welcomed to worship. As he walked, heads of unfamiliar faces turned towards him, talking about him and asking questions. He began matching voices of neighbours and friends to the faces as they wondered if he was the same blind man that they knew, and if he could really see. Benjamin tried in vain to answer, but his affirmations were met with disbelief. He didn’t understand. Why weren’t they happy and celebrating his healing? His path was now blocked, and he found himself being forcefully led in another direction.

“I think we need to pay a visit to the temple,” someone said, “to find out what’s really going on.”

Benjamin was overwhelmed by his new sensory experience. Trying to make sense of everything was exhausting. The last thing he wanted was an interrogation, but the questions began as soon as the Pharisees saw him. If this wasn’t enough, accusations were also thrown at the man who healed him.

“But it’s true,” cried Benjamin, in the man’s defence. “I was blind, but now I can see. This man must be a prophet.”

“This is outrageous. If he was a prophet, he wouldn’t have healed you on the Sabbath. Can someone go and find this man’s parents? We need further verification that Benjamin’s story is true.”

Benjamin had hoped he would be able to see his parents privately and explain what had happened, but news of his healing had already reached them.

“So, is this your son? How is it that he was blind, but now has his sight?” asked a Pharisee as soon as his parents arrived.

“He is our son, and he was born blind, but we don’t know how he received his sight. Can’t you ask him? He can speak for himself,” replied Benjamin’s father. He couldn’t believe what was happening. If his son had indeed been healed, perhaps by Jesus, he didn’t want to admit it for fear of being thrown out of the synagogue. But it wasn’t just this that bothered him. Benjamin was always ignored by others. It was as if people thought he was incapable of speaking, and they asked questions and talked about Benjamin to his parents, instead of speaking directly with him. It frustrated his father to no end, and he couldn’t believe it was still happening now, even after Benjamin’s sight had been restored. He and his wife watched on with concern as Benjamin was once again questioned. As terrible as this situation was, they felt a sense of pride as Benjamin stated his case with the boldness and intelligence that he had displayed since he was a child. His testimony and defence of his healer was again met with disbelief, and he was sent out of the temple.

Later, Benjamin and his parents sat down to eat, hopeful for a moment of peace away from prying eyes and endless questions. It wasn’t too long before voices could be heard in the distance. His mother sighed.

“May we join you?” asked the man leading the group. Benjamin recognized the voice immediately.

“It’s the man who healed me,” he said quietly to his parents.

“Benjamin, do you believe in the Son of Man?” asked the healer.

“I want to believe in him. Who is he?”

“He is speaking with you now.” Benjamin worshiped him.

Disability and the Church

In retelling the story of John 9, I hoped to provide some insight into the social and cultural issues surrounding disability, and begin to draw some comparisons between ancient Israel and the 21st century. I will expand on some of these issues throughout this paper. The last part of John 9, which I did not include in my retelling, involves a conversation Jesus has with the Pharisees concerning spiritual blindness. I will also refer to this in later paragraphs.

In the most recent National Church Life Survey, church leaders and attendees were asked questions relating to disability. Leaders were asked about building accessibility, whether there were disability policies in place, and whether information was given to parishioners about practical inclusion. Attendees were asked whether they had a disability or were connected with someone who had a disability through family, friends or in the workplace, and were asked whether or not they thought their church was inclusive. The limited scope of this paper does not allow me to provide details concerning all of the results, but I will point out those of most interest and relevance to the discussion. Bear in mind that the data may be skewed, given people’s interpretation of disability-related questions, and the fact that not all church attendees may have completed the survey.

According to the results, 8% of people who attend church have a disability. Within the broader Australian population, 16% have a disability. Family members of people with disabilities who attend church is at 18%, compared with 12% in the wider population, and 18% of church attendees work or volunteer in the disability field in comparison to only 6% of the population. Forty-eight percent of people with mild disabilities attending church felt they belonged in the church, but only 12% felt their church was inclusive. “What do we say about the fact that people with a disability are more likely to be absent from church, but not those who care for them? Are we better at caring for the carers than for those they care for?”[1]

We certainly need to be concerned about these findings, as it means that the body of Christ itself is disabled, since parts of it are missing. However, the above statistics don’t surprise me. When parents of a child with a disability are told by church leaders that he or she should not participate in youth group, when the sanctuary of a church is not designed well for wheelchair users, when well-meaning Christians approach people with disabilities and pray for their healing, is it any wonder that people with disabilities are anxious and unwilling to explore what being part of a church might mean for them?

The images and common perceptions about disability we see today are usually negative or overly positive, with middle ground views being the exception. I believe the church needs to take some responsibility for the role it has played in the perpetuation of these perceptions. In the Hebrew Bible, Lev 21:17–23

prohibits anyone “blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes” (vv. 18–20) from the priestly activities of bringing offerings to God or entering the most holy place in the temple. These and similar passages have historically been used to warrant barring persons with disabilities from positions of ecclesiastical visibility and authority.[2]

People have also used passages in the New Testament to support the idea that disability is linked with sin, or, alternatively, that disability helps people to form a special relationship with God—we, as people with disabilities, can teach the rest of the Christian community about patience, endurance, and perseverance through suffering. “Disability is a temporary affliction that must be endured to gain heavenly rewards.”[3]

John 9 picks up on these themes. Jesus seemingly addresses the disciples’ concern about sin causing disability by saying that the disability is present in order to reveal the glory of God. However, I don’t think it is Jesus’ intention for people with disabilities to display God’s glory any more than those who are able-bodied. Nor do I believe it is a story that should be used to teach a spiritual and moral lesson—namely, be aware of your current or potential spiritual blindness. While it is certainly important to reflect on and try to change the shortcomings of our spiritual lives, I feel that too often John 9 has been used to remind people of this, and its deeper message has been ignored. Furthermore, John 9 has influenced societal perceptions of people with disabilities, viewing us as having greater spiritual insights and wisdom than those who are able-bodied.

For me, this story is more about creating loving and inclusive communities than it is about physical healing. The aforementioned Leviticus passage stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ ministry and its impact. Jesus is constantly met with opposition from the Pharisees and other religious leaders, who try and instigate the Levitical law at every possible opportunity. Prior to Jesus meeting the blind man, he was forced to leave the temple after a heated discussion with religious leaders ends with a death threat. After his healing, the blind man is removed from the temple by the Pharisees following their interrogation. Now, both the healer and the healed have been excluded from the very place where they should be welcomed. The unhealed were also not welcome. Jesus, therefore, often met people outside designated places of worship. He was very much aware of the social, cultural and religious issues that surrounded disability. Too often we have failed to understand these issues ourselves, and impose the passage from Leviticus on others. Creating accessible and inclusive churches, while it is an important task, is just the beginning.

In her book The Disabled God, author Nancy Eiesland calls for the development of a theology of disability. She writes:

A theology of disability must be made a visible, integral, and ordinary part of the Christian life and our theological reflections on that life. As long as disability is addressed in terms of the themes of sin-disability conflation, virtuous suffering, or charitable action, it will be seen primarily as a fate to be avoided, a tragedy to be explained, or a cause to be championed rather than an ordinary life to be lived. As long as disability is unaddressed theologically or addressed only as a “special interest perspective,” the Christian church will continue to propagate a double-minded stance that holds up the disabled as objects of ministry and adulation for overcoming the very barriers that the church has helped to construct. Moreover, the church will squander the considerable theological and practical energies of persons with disabilities who, like other minority groups, call the church to repentance and transformation.[4]

In developing a disability theology, it is critical that we engage with contemporary issues surrounding disability. In Australia, one in five people have a disability, that’s over four million people. About 2.1 million Australians with disabilities are of working age. Fifteen percent of Australians have a physical disability, one in six Australians experience hearing loss, 357,000 Australians are blind or vision impaired, and 668,100 Australians have an intellectual disability. More than 90,000 Australians experience mental illness. In 2009, only 54.3% of people with disabilities were employed, compared with 83% of people without disabilities. Graduates with disabilities take longer to find work. Two thirds of people with disabilities earn less than $320 per week, compared with only one third of the broader population. Australia ranks 27 out of 27 among OECD countries for people with disabilities living in or near poverty.[5] Women with disabilities experience far higher rates of violence than men with disabilities, or women without disabilities. Issues surrounding access to health care, and parenting rights, are much more complex for women with disabilities than their able-bodied peers.[6]

It may seem that my attitude towards the church is negative. The church has created some positive initiatives regarding disability throughout its time which should certainly be acknowledged. Nancy Eiesland writes:

Historically, church-based charitable societies have also merged charity and healing, establishing numerous hospitals and clinics for people with disabilities. The benefits of these organizations should not be underemphasized. They have provided humane care, medical advances, and indispensable financial support. Yet one unintended outcome of the practices of some charitable societies has been the environmental and social segregation of people with disabilities from the Christian community rather than restoration to social and religious participation.[7]

Today, there are a number of individuals, churches and organisations who are slowly helping to create a shift in thinking about disability, theology and inclusion. The little known disability rights movement, which followed on from the civil rights movement, has been gradually making changes within mainstream society for some time. The 2012 London Paralympics, and the recent political debates and grassroots activism leading to the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme in Australia, have given the disability community more media coverage than we have had in some time, much of which has tried to begin normalizing disability. Yet the voices of people with disabilities are still relatively quiet compared with those of other minority groups. Within the church, however, their voices are even quieter.

We rarely see people with disabilities in leadership roles within the Christian community. The reason for this is perhaps twofold. First, until recently, there has been little or no curriculum relating to the theology of disability in Australian theological colleges. Former resource coordinator of CBM’s Luke14, Lindsey Gale, has developed a week-long intensive subject called Disability and Normality, which was initially piloted at Ridley College, and is now being introduced to a number of schools within the Australian College of Theology. I hope that the introduction of this course will mean that in years to come, we may no longer have a need for the subject, and that disability inclusion will happen of its own accord.

Second, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are few students with disabilities enrolling in theology courses. This could stem back to the verse from Leviticus I referred to earlier, which may have lead church authorities or people with disabilities themselves to believe that they are unfit for ministry. Another barrier is the lack of physical access to churches and theological institutions. In my own experience, as a recent graduate of Whitley College, there were difficulties in acquiring theological material in accessible formats. With no disability support staff, and not having had a student who is blind before, I would like to commend the staff at Whitley for ensuring that I was able to study equally as well as my sighted peers.


There is much we can learn from the history of disability, both positive and negative, and the various biblical interpretations of disability. Leviticus 21 clearly excludes people with disabilities from participation in the life of a faith community, which in turn has excluded participation from the broader community. Jesus tries to illustrate that this law is only descriptive of how society responds to disability, that it isn’t set in stone and needs to be changed. The people on the margins of society, like the blind man, understand this more than those who hold positions of religious power. The body of Christ will not be complete until people with disabilities are fully included. I hope that together we can come to the Bible with open eyes, and listen attentively as we seek to understand God’s word through the lens of disability.


[1] Lindsey Gale, “New Disability Findings from the Latest Church Life Survey,” Luke14, CBM International, 2013; https://www.cbm.org.au/content/our-work/luke14/ncls-results#.VhsXE2t8lOR.

[2] Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 74.

[3] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 74.

[4] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 75.

[5] “Stats and Facts,” Australian Network on Disability, http://www.and.org.au/pages/disability-statistics.html.

[6] For further information concerning issues for women with disabilities, particularly in Victoria, see Women with Disabilities Victoria, http://www.wdv.org.au.

[7] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 73–74.

Image: Victor, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Gabriel Hingley, "I-Thou in an Age of I-It: Martin Buber, Mission and the Gospel of John"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.



This paper explores Martin Buber’s philosophy of “I-Thou” in relation to discipleship and mission. It calls for critical and biblical reflection on the impact of contemporary technology on how we engage with others, and how this technology has the potential to create a dominant “I-it” reality. It also argues for a return to the Johannine concept of mission, which is essentially about those in the Church loving one another in such a way that the world is called to respond. This paper also explores some of the life stories drawn from the author’s own experience as a mission worker with Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH) in South-East Melbourne. It assesses how UNOH as a religious order attempts to be present in neighbourhoods facing poverty while at the same time obeying Jesus’ command to “Love one another.” It argues that none of this is possible without comprehending the I-Thou relationship of the Trinity as being at the centre of Christian life.


Gazing into Eternity

Have you ever gazed into another person’s eyes for more than a few seconds?

I hope you have. You must admit, if it’s done without distraction, it can be a profound experience. Whether it is your lover, your child, your parent, or simply a best friend—there can be a connection there that somehow transcends space and time.

Why? I wonder if God deliberately created our pupils to be black. Not simply for practical reasons, but to reflect the night sky. When we gaze into the blackness of space at night, and the distant stars light years away from us, we become in touch with the infinite.

Could it be that we were created by God to carry a bit of infinity around with us in our feeble, finite bodies? A wise Jewish man once said: “God has set eternity in the hearts of humankind” (Eccl 3:11). If God is (by definition) infinite, as you gaze into another person’s eyes, you are gazing at the image of God. You are then more likely to treat them with dignity and respect, as you might treat God if he was in the room. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, God is in the room!

Another wise Jewish man, Martin Buber, gave a name to living in this profound reality. He called it “I-Thou.” We all have an individual self, that is, an “I.” But our experience of life shows that there are significant others in the world who have a separate consciousness from us. They too experience life as an “I.” They have separate thoughts and feelings, a separate body, conscience and will. They are not simply objects, but living subjects like us. We all know intuitively that the Golden Rule of life is to treat these Others as we would treat our own Selves (Matt 7:12). Hopefully we don’t start out life just calling people an “it” or shouting “hey, you!” We learn that we have a name, and we learn to address others by name. We also address the other as “you,” but the English language has lost a more profound name for the other in the word “Thou”. Somehow, “Thou” accords the other with more of the dignity and respect every person deserves. Why do Christians believe everyone deserves equal respect? Because we believe they are created in the image of what Buber calls “the eternal Thou.” In other words, when we address the finite other as Thou, and gaze into their eyes, we get a glimpse of the Eternal Thou, the Infinite Other, who resides, in some mysterious way, within everyone.

Answering the Call

My wife and I were enjoying a beautiful evening together, looking out across a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Not far in front of us I noticed another couple, also sharing a romantic moment together. Like us, they were clearly in love.

Suddenly, the peaceful moment was shattered by a harsh jangling noise. I watched the young man take his left arm away from his lover and reach into his pocket, pulling out a mobile phone. He answered the call, and within seconds the moment of intimacy with his partner was broken. The young lady was now sitting apart from him, waiting for him to finish the call.

I remember this moment vividly because it was at a time when mobile phones were only just beginning to hit the market. While there was a lot of hype in the media about how convenient they would be, my early observation gave me a window into the future—how this new technology would rapidly change our private lives forever.

Today I observe a concerning habit in my own neighbourhood. Often when I am with a neighbour and one of our phones goes off, we seem to have this compulsion to answer it. We might be having a meaningful conversation, or it could be an important event we are attending, but we still have to answer the call. Although I know this is unintended, the message we are sending to one another is that the time they are spending with each other is highly interruptible. But for our own sakes it is worse: we are not able to focus on being truly present to the particular people and the particular place we are in now. Many people these days seem haunted by the feeling that there might be something more interesting happening somewhere else.

Jesus encourages us to answer a very different call. It is the call to be present in our neighbourhoods. It is the call to be there when one of our neighbours is bereaved, so that we can offer a hug. It is the call to offer hospitality to strangers, and receive their hospitality. It is a call to enter into real dialogue with others.

It’s a Dog-Eat-Dog World

“All my life, I have been treated like a dog.” Such were the words of my Iraqi friend “Asid,” who confided in me one day at our mission centre. His life story is infused with tragedy, suffering and despair. Asid lost all his family members in the Kurdish massacre of the late ‘80s. He fled to Iran for safety, but continued to be mistreated because of his ethnic and religious background. He is now seeking asylum in Australia, while also caring for his only child. “My son is the only family I have,” Asid often remarks, holding his boy protectively.

One day I found out it was Asid’s birthday. In the evening I said to my wife Catherine, “Why don’t we go over to Asid’s house and surprise him?” So we bundled our three kids in the car, and on the way there bought a cake and birthday present. When we arrived at his house, Asid greeted us with astonishment. He invited us warmly into his little lounge room, and we sang “happy birthday” to him. Virtually the whole time, Asid shook his head in disbelief. “No one has ever celebrated my birthday,” he told us. His deep brown eyes were wet with tears.

But there was nothing really special about what we were doing. Catherine and I had simply accorded Asid the dignity he deserved as a man created in the image of God. What we consider a normal part of Aussie culture, in celebrating another person’s birthday, made a profound impact on Asid only because he had never before been treated as a significant “Thou” in other people’s lives.

Unfortunately, Asid’s experience of life is all-too-familiar for so many people in the world today. Where entire countries are ruled by violent dictatorships, where religious ideology enforces people to behave in certain ways, or where people are simply treated as “consumers,” this is the realm of what Buber calls “I-it.” It is the world in which all of us, most of the time, live out our daily existence. The temptation is continually there in the world to expand our own ego at the expense of others, or on a larger scale for groups, businesses or governments to expand their empire by treating others as objects rather than real people.

Buber argued that the realm of “I-it” is not bad in and of itself. It is necessary to carry out our daily tasks using the technical knowledge we have gained. My son would not be alive today if it wasn’t for the doctors with their expertise, who treated the condition he has by monitoring his blood sugars. They see him essentially as a bundle of statistics and blood cells, and that’s okay! If we continually lived in “I-Thou” reality, it would be difficult to survive. But problems arise when “I-it” becomes our primary reality. When we begin to think it is okay to label a certain group of people “queue-jumpers,” when we spend more time on our smart-phones than playing with our children, when our conversations revolve more around material things than feelings or ideas, or when companies treat employees as an expendable resource, then we need a serious reality check. This reality is not actually “real” at all, but gives us only the superficial illusion of life.

Unfortunately, for many of us, even as Christians, it is easy to allow “I-it” to become our dominant, default reality. As Buber puts it, “How powerful is the unbroken world of It, and how delicate are the appearances of the Thou.”[1] Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, we are all too easily attracted and obsessed with the world of things, and in the process we become disfigured—a “shattered, mutated version” of what we are supposed to be,[2] becoming less and less able to appreciate true beauty and intimate relationship, and more likely to be self-seeking and covetous.

The things that draw us away from our embodied life within our own neighbourhoods are numerous and varied, and different for each individual. For some, it might be computer games. I have a neighbour, “Thomas,” who barely goes out of his house because he is glued to his Xbox. He is more adept at navigating the Lord of the Rings Lego Game than finding his way around his own neighbourhood. He gets easily agitated around people, and would rather hide away inside. If we spend more of our waking time in cyberspace or looking at a screen than we do with real people in real time, isn’t there a danger that we are losing valuable social skills that define us as human beings?

For me personally, it’s probably an older form of technology that draws me away from community: books! Being more of an introvert, it’s easier for me to plunge into a book than engage with a real person. I need to remind myself that there are lonely people like Asid and Thomas who could use some real company.

God Loved the Kosmos in such a Way that …

The disciple John simply called the realm of “I-it” the kosmos, meaning “the world.” Kosmos signifies “a massive, coherent reality that becomes manifest in hostility to Christ and his disciples.”[3] Meanwhile, John frequently refers to Jesus as “the Son of Man,” which could be translated in modern language as “One Who Represents all of Humanity.” If Jesus is the embodiment of our God-given humanity, and the world is hostile to Jesus and his “sent ones” (as taught by Jesus in John 15:18), it therefore follows that the world is essentially hostile to our very humanity as it was originally conceived by God. In John’s cosmology, the world is under the sway of the Evil One (John 17:15), a thief whose mission it is “to rob, kill and destroy.” John also refers to him as the Prince of this world (John 21:31; 14:30; 16:11). He is anti-body, anti-relationship, anti-love. One could almost say he is the “embodiment” of I-it, but he is without form or substance. He is an absence so strong that at times we experience him as a presence—a dark force that seeks to suck up all life and rob us of our joy, like “The Nothing” in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.

In contrast to this, Jesus commands his disciples to “Love another, as I have loved you,” (John 13:34) in order that the kosmos may believe that he is the Sent One of God (see John 17:21–23). Jesus’ call to reciprocal love and intimacy with God is in direct opposition to the divisive, ruthless violence of the kosmos, the reality of I-it. In this simple commandment, Jesus reveals that one of the Church’s primary roles is to model to the world what true I-Thou relationships look like. It is through the temporal I-Thou relationships that a Christ-centred community shares with one another, by means of the gift of the Spirit, that people may get a glimpse of the eternal I-Thou relationship between Father and Son. This will ultimately break the power of the Prince of this world, who is only given reign because the world has allowed “I-it” to be the dominant reality.

So the good news is that the world is not utterly irredeemable. It may be under the sway of Satan, but Jesus assures his disciples that he has conquered the world (John 16:33). God has already won the world over by his love, by sending his one and only Son, the epitome of humankind, so that whoever believes in him will have life in abundance (John 3:16). Rather than seeking his own power and glory, Jesus’ “hour” of glory is on the cross, naked and stripped of all power. He is a King, but his kingdom is not of this world. He allows himself to be treated worse than a dog. He becomes an “it” to the “I” of the world, but rather than responding with violence, which would only continue the “I-it” reality, he chooses simply to love the world by laying down his life. In this radical act of love Jesus treats all human beings as “Thous,” who are created in the image of his Father, the eternal Thou. Thus the cross could be understood as the single event that restored all of us to our true humanity. But only those who are born of the Spirit (John 3:5), who guides them into all truth (John 16:13), can comprehend the profundity of this event.

It is possible that John (or the Johannine community) wrote his Gospel partly in response to Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a growing sect in the second century, whose beliefs were starkly dualistic. The world and everything in it, including the body, was seen as utterly evil. The only way to escape from this world was through gaining gnosis (knowledge) of our true home, which is in heaven with God.

The Prologue of John’s Gospel refutes this worldview. It states that Jesus came “into his own” or “into his own home” (John 1: 11), meaning this world! He became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood (John 1:14; the Message). Salvation occurs not through some kind of esoteric knowledge of our divine essence, but from “knowledge” in the sense of an intimate relationship with God. Jesus affirms his disciples in the Last Discourse: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). Later he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (John 15:9). At the centre of Christian discipleship is an I-Thou encounter with the eternal Father, made possible by the action of the Son, which is revealed to the believer in this age as true “Life” with a capital L by the Holy Spirit. “In him was Life, and the Life was the light of all humankind,” writes John in the Prologue (John 1:4). This Life and salvation, John attests, may begin now, in this world.

Wholly Present, Holy Presence

For Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH), “Presence” is listed as one of our top priorities. As people working for the transformation of urban neighbourhoods facing poverty, we want to be as present as we can be to our neighbours. This requires sacrificing time and energy we could be spending “somewhere else’ to be intentionally and wholly present to others.

However, as with any Christian living in community, I know I eventually hit a wall. The wall is my own sin. I have learnt that my temper can only be kept so long, my compassion is not limitless, and I am by no means immune from those things that seek to distract me from my core purpose as a mission worker and Christ-follower.

This is why, alongside “Presence,” UNOH also holds “Worship” as a top priority. Jesus must be at the centre of all that we do. If we are primarily present to him, we can be wholly present to others. If we make it our daily practice to address the eternal Thou in prayer and worship, we are more likely to be able to address others as “Thou.” Jesus’ presence, by means of the Holy Spirit, is then able to infuse the present with holiness, so that everyday interactions with neighbours (such as celebrating a birthday) have the potential to become sacred moments. The Spirit is also given space to impart to believers the fruit we so desperately need for genuine transformation to occur: love, joy, peace, gentleness, self-control, and so on. This is the essence of the sacramental life modelled by religious orders throughout the ages, which UNOH and other “new friar” groups seek to emulate.

Jesus is clear in his Last Discourse in the Gospel of John: if we want to worship and honour him, we must begin by honouring each other. He practically demonstrated this by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–20), and then giving them a new command to “love one another” (John 13:34–35). I believe this is a crucial point that often gets missed by churches or mission teams seeking to reach out to their local neighbourhood. We must first and foremost love one another, as fellow disciples, before we can go out and change the world. Because ultimately the world is changed by witnessing how much the people in the Church love one another (see John 13:35; 17:21–23). This is how the world will know that Jesus is the Sent One of God, and how they will know we are true-blue followers of him.

Too often mission teams can draw an unhealthy distinction between their own team members and the people they are ministering to. “Whatever it takes to see the Kingdom come” has been our catchcry in UNOH, but our driven-ness to be present to our neighbours can result in the wellbeing of our fellow teammates being disregarded. We forget that we are called to listen to and encourage our fellow Christians as well. I have witnessed first-hand the results of an “I-it” reality manifesting on the mission field: it creates division and competition between teams, and feelings of inadequacy creep in as I compare myself to other workers, who seem to be loving their neighbour better than me! People begin to measure their own self-worth and other people’s worth according to what they can or cannot contribute to UNOH (like cogs in a machine, which can be discarded if not functioning well), rather than accepting each other’s God-given worth as children of God.

Knowing that the disintegrating effects of the “I-it” reality pose a constant threat to our integration as a team, it takes the daily practice of repentance and re-consolidating relationships with one another to achieve a common bond of unity in Christ. The UNOH team are currently putting into place what are essentially “I-Thou” practices: hosting regular member meetings in which the aim is not to make decisions so much as truly dialogue with one another; assigning various roles to people on the basis of their strengths and gifts, rather than treating them as cogs in a machine; and to foster spiritual unity within the order, we distribute common devotions (written by every worker on a roster) that we all participate in on a daily basis across teams. Most importantly, UNOH is a “covenanted” community. That is, we share a common set of commitments and rhythm of life which helps us stay connected, even across different regions. Our three commitments of obedience to Christ, service to our communities and simplicity of lifestyle mean that our lives are not centred on things but on relationships.

On a local level in my neighbourhood, many of the churches in the Greater Dandenong region of Melbourne have laid aside denominational differences and come together to tackle the issue of asylum seekers and how best to care for them in our community. It has been wonderful to see the Church rise up to be the loving, caring presence she is called to be in our neighbourhoods, looking out for the needs of the most vulnerable. We have seen many Persian people come to faith in Christ in this way, and I am sure a lot of that has to do with the love they witness within the Church community.


My point is really very simple, but in its simplicity I think it gets too easily neglected. The central point of all mission, all discipleship, all Church endeavour, must be the I-Thou relationship shared by the Son and the Father, which through the work of Jesus on the cross, the entire world is invited to participate in. As disciples participate in this intimate relationship and reap the harvest which is the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, and so on), others witness this and become swept up in the love and glory that the Son and Father share.

As soon as we depart from this dynamic, relational aspect of the Trinity, mission, discipleship and other forms of ministry become centred more on programs than people. As soon as we move from genuine “I-Thou” encounters with God and others, our ministry will become centred on formulas, techniques and manipulation. The Spirit will be quenched, with no space to breathe. In other words, we fall back into the insidious reality of “I-it.”

I hope this paper can be a challenge for all of us to take stock of how much we spend our lives in the reality of “I-Thou,” and consider how often we might fall prey to the temptations that the false reality of “I-it” brings. You might like to go over your past week and consider these questions, journaling your responses:

  1. When did I spend some time with another person, but was more focused on things, tasks or my own agenda, rather than listening to that person and being truly present to them? Reflect on that moment. You may wish to offer a prayer of confession to God.
  2. When did I spend a significant moment with God in prayer or worship, and address him as a “Thou”? Contemplate this.
  3. When did I spend a significant moment with another person, and address them as a “Thou”? Try and recollect this moment in your mind and remember what it was like.
  4. In what ways could I prevent myself from making “I-it” my dominant, default reality? Write a list.
  5. In what ways could I maximise opportunities to share I-Thou moments with others? Make a list.


[1] Martin Buber, I and Thou, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 98.

[2] Mark Sayers, The Vertical Self (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 115.

[3] Paul S. Minear, “Evangelism, Ecumenism and John Seventeen,” Theology Today 35, no. 1 (1978): 10.

Image: Michael Summers, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Greg Manning, "Untraditional Custodians: Transport Corridors as Creation Stories of Australian Cities"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.[1]



The words which are used to describe movement in Australian cities present a profound challenge to the practice of respect for the Traditional Owners in Australia. People, who “see without perceiving and hear without understanding,” is an apt definition of urban populations describing movement around Australian cities. Australia’s vocabulary of urban place names is based upon a phenomenon of creating memorials, in the form of street and place names. The origins of many of these memorials have been forgotten, lost or ignored. Those which are remembered are often remembered within a particular antiquated framework for speaking of the past. “Speaking in street names” re-invigorates these memorials to enable healing. Every commuter is the “untraditional” custodian of at least one face of the multi-faceted story about the creation of Australian cities.

Acknowledgement of Country

In order for people to gather in Australian cities, even before there is an Acknowledgement of Country, and before assertions of respect to the elders of the Traditional Owners in Australia, there is another acknowledgement of “elders” and “country.” This acknowledgement comes in the form of the addresses of meeting places, and the directions, and routes used to travel to and from these meetings and gatherings. This paper identifies a relationship between these two forms of acknowledgement. This relationship accommodates unresolved tension as well as the prospect of reconciliation.

The ideas in this paper were presented at a meeting at 488 Swanston St., Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria. I acknowledge that people from the Kulin nations are the Traditional Owners of that land where we gathered to share ideas about “Urban Life Together.” I offer my respect to the elders of the Kulin nations, past and present. Having offered my respect, I recognize that sustaining and demonstrating that respect in my words and actions remains challenging. Words, which are used to describe movement in Australian cities, present a foundational challenge to sustaining and demonstrating that respect for the Traditional Owners in Australia. This paper is written in pursuit of a language of respect.

To begin with, I will illustrate the way my vocabulary complicates my attempt to pay due respect to the Traditional Owners in Australia. Australia’s vocabulary of place is dominated by place names, which are memorials recalling the disrespectful dispossession of the Traditional Owners. I live in Queensland, in a place where the Jagera People are the Traditional Owners. The place we call “Queensland” was defined and named by Queen Victoria in 1859.[2] The assertion of the name Queensland in the Letters Patent of 1859 was associated with assertions of British possession, British law enforcement and British control over land described as “waste” and “unsettled.” The existing custody of the land, and human presence, culture and law were ignored in the establishment of “Queensland.” The construct, “Queen’s land,” itself perpetuates the idea that the Traditional Owners in the North East of Australia receive neither acknowledgement nor respect.

Before undertaking the journey from Queensland to present the ideas in this paper, I conducted a very brief inquiry into the address of the “Urban Life Together” Conference. Whom or what did I need to acknowledge in order to be present at the conference, and there, to offer my respect to the people of the Kulin nations, and their elders. I was not familiar with the names Swanston and Carlton, which defined the location of this meeting, though I have heard them many times before.

Identifying the naming of Carlton proved elusive. Who put it there on the map? Why is it in that place? My inquiry yielded only that the word itself is an old word, mixing Old Norse and Old Anglo-Saxon languages. It means “a settlement of free peasants.”[3] I was not able to confirm that these findings were in any way related to the naming of Carlton in Melbourne.

The Council of the City of Melbourne was very helpful in identifying Swanston. [4] A man called Charles Swanston was part of a syndicate, called the Port Philip Association. Swanston’s role in this association was to help organize finances for an expedition in the lands of the Kulin nations, during which John Batman claimed to have signed a treaty with the Traditional Owners.[5] As a banker in Australia, Charles Swanston was also an agent for a man called William Jardine. William Jardine’s opium trading during the 1930s is associated with the precipitation of the First Opium War, in the name of free trade.[6] My attention was drawn to Swanston’s link with the opium trade because the destruction of Aboriginal society throughout the State of Queensland was advanced by The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of Sale of Opium Act of 1897. This piece of legislation is still painfully felt in the lives of the people who hear the Acknowledgements of Country in the North Eastern State of Australia. [7] I have many unanswered questions about opium in Australia in the 19th century. Charles Swanston is one point of contact with that story. Another is the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time of the First Opium War. He is often remembered as Lord Melbourne.

In order to introduce myself in the city of Melbourne, I drew attention to the dispossession of the Jagera People, simply by saying I came from Queensland. In order to physically attend the Urban Life Together meeting on Swanston St., I needed to refer to memorials, which aggravate painful and open wounds in the lives of the Jagera People. This is a problem that Australia’s vocabulary of place presents everyone who lives and moves in Australian cities. The protocol of Acknowledgement of Country is an important step towards living together with respect, but it does not prevent urban populations using contemporary language as a means of sustaining a lack of respect. By stating the problem in this way, I am not proposing the elimination of existing place names. Instead, Australian place names remain important signposts in the journey to healing, at least for the moment.

Here is one final introductory example. I use the words “Australia” and “Australian” throughout this essay. These words presume the unification of hundreds of distinct Nations. They are used in this essay with an awareness that my usage does not communicate the involuntary nature of this unification under the name “Australia.” I may even re-inforce false perceptions about notions of unity and national identity, both before and after the word “Australia” became widely used. This is a weakness of my current contribution to the broader discussion. There are ways that the words “Australia” and “Australian” can be used to point us towards understanding and respect, just as there are ways they can be used, which demonstrate a lack of awareness of the First Nations.

Seeing without Perceiving

Jesus spoke of a people “seeing without perceiving” and “hearing without understanding” (Matt 13:14). People, who “see without perceiving and hear without understanding,” is an apt description of populations describing movement through Australian cities. It is a useful description when memorials are forgotten, but still acknowledged. When using addresses, and giving directions in Australian cities, what is not perceived is that the words used to describe place and movement are commonly memorials of the formation of the city—memorials to people, events, boats, families, wars, memories, and so on. They are memorials to imperial administration, colonial administration, monarchy, democracy, land surveys, land speculation, commercial interests, war, landforms, infrastructure development, family heritage, fragments of local language and culture, treasures from ancient languages, sentimental memories, and so on. The origins of many of these memorials have been forgotten, lost or ignored by very large sectors of the population. They have not ceased to be memorials.

There is a widespread and shared experience of not knowing to whom or to what most street or place names refer. Specific street and place names are perceived as irrelevant and arbitrary, because they are simply labels, which enable the social and legal processes of urban life together. These names have no widespread meaning of their own when they are used in urban vocabulary. The meanings that street and place names acquire usually come from the experience of seeing them in the course of urban life, and hearing and using them in the vocabulary of location and movement. The memories and experiences, which generate this more contemporary set of meanings for street and place names are accessible only to smaller subsets of populations. This paper is interested in larger and more diverse populations than these subgroups. It is interested in the shared experience of the entire population who share the urban vocabulary of place.

The widespread experience of not knowing to whom or to what place names refer may not be a passive experience of “seeing without perceiving.” When Jesus spoke of people seeing without perceiving, he referred to an active process when he said, “they have closed their eyes.” There is an active process in Australia, which discourages the widespread public discussion of the origin of cities.

Hearing Stigma and Judgmentalism

Australia, in the early 21st century, is a volatile setting for a diverse population to explore its urban origins together. The risks of polarising populations and scapegoating people are high. It is often easier and safer to say little or nothing of our urban origins. The little we do hear about our urban origins may explain the prevailing silence because it is rarely far away from stigmatisation and judgmentalism.

This paper was one of at least three distinct attempts, during the “Urban Life Together” conference, to specifically address stigma and judgmentalism in Australia.[8] Addressing stigma and judgmentalism is a subject of great urgency. The History Wars[9] have equipped Australians to stigmatise, accuse and condemn each other, when issues related to history are raised in conversation or in public. Stigma is easily aroused through the use of labels, such as “black armband history.” Accusation and condemnation are easily aroused by reference to laws. The Ten Commandments have proven to be extremely useful for articulating accusation and condemnation. For example, the Sixth and Eighth Commandments “Do not steal” and “Do not kill” are recalled in references to stolen land and to unpunished murders and massacres of aboriginal people. To discuss and explore memorials related to the land in Australia is to risk exposure to stigma and accusation and condemnation.

People who want to acknowledge the past and communicate respect in the present, without being disempowered by division, guilt and shame, may be able to learn something about negotiating stigma and judgmentalism from populations who are living with HIV. Stigma and judgmentalism can be activated in an HIV epidemic by asking a person who is living with HIV “How did you get it?” (i.e. “How did you become infected with HIV?”). Populations who are living with HIV have made progress in dismantling some stigma and judgmentalism by changing the dangerous questions into life-giving and life-saving questions. Instead of asking “How did you get it?” or “How did they get it?” the question has become “How did we get it?” When the question is in the form of the second person (e.g. “you”), the question can imply judgment and accusation. When the question is asked in the third person (e.g. “he,” “she,” “they”), it is processed using labels, stereotypes and theoretical constructs, all of which can fuel stigma. When the question is asked in the first person (e.g. “I”), it asserts ownership, rights and responsibility. When it is articulated in the first person plural (e.g. “we,” “us”) it enables inclusion. When inclusion is the default position, people can be more attentive and equipped to negotiate unintended stigma and judgmentalism. A population speaking in the first person plural can provide permission and support to explore previously forbidden subject matter.

One question facing Australians in this generation is “How did we get it?” (i.e. “How did we get land, wealth, entitlement, and so on?”). This paper proposes that place names provide an inclusive vocabulary and way of speaking, which can include and sustain the populations of entire cities in the inclusive pronoun, “we,” in the question, “How did we get it?”

The need for a way of communicating that affirms a shared existence and identity is behind my choices to speak of “populations” rather than people, “movement” rather than travel, and a “vocabulary of place” rather than place names. While these may be clumsy or ineffective choices, they have been made with the view that urban life is shaped by structures (such as “transport corridors”), and not merely shapeless and random concentrations of individual people, individual journeys and individual words. The following comments about a “process of memorialisation” (rather than memorials) continue this pursuit of an inclusive language (rather than a few more descriptive words). It aims to perceive individual memorials within a broader phenomenon that brought them together in one place, i.e. in an Australian city.

Perceiving Relationships

Street and place names are not isolated memorials. They are elements of a larger process of memorialization, which took place during the mapping, subdivision and sale of the land. The implication is that the street names of Australian cities might be better understood in relationship with each other, rather than in isolation from one another.

Many of the street and place names of Australian cities can be located within the perspectives presented by a man whose name has been given to one of Brisbane’s large railway bridges—Herman Merivale, a Professor of Political Economy at Oxford University. At the time when Brisbane was being surveyed and subdivided for sale under freehold title, Merivale was delivering “Lectures on Colonization and Colonies.”[10] These lectures provide insight into colonization and its stakeholders. For example, Merivale discussed “Methods of Obtaining Labour in Colonies without Slaves or Convicts,” and what he called the “Disposal of Land” in the colonies. Alongside the “Disposal of Land,” he considered “the policy of Colonial Governments towards Native Tribes, as regards their Protection and their Civilization.” Among the stakeholders in this theme, he positioned Christians in relation to the State as well as to the First Nations. Christians, through “Missionary Instruction” were positioned specifically in relation to the “Amount of Civilization hitherto achieved by Savage Tribes in Modern European colonies.” Merivale’s lectures present an influential[11] perspective of the sorts of relationships that existed between the cast of characters involved in the processes of colonization. He presented these lectures under the subtitle “Progress of Wealth and Society in Colonies.”

The ideas of “progress” and “civilization” shaped the production of much of the English history that was written in the 19th century and into the 20th century. Within the idea of progress, social systems were justified by asserting linkages between various historical phenomena and the present, in a progression from the inferior to the superior.[12] In Brisbane, “The Progress of Civilization” is literally enshrined in the centre of the Brisbane City Council’s logo, which is visible throughout the entire city. The logo is a stylized portrayal of Brisbane City Hall. Over the entrance to Brisbane City Hall is a sculpture, by Daphne Mayo, entitled “The Progress of Civilization in the State of Queensland.”[13]

Daphne Mayo’s sculpture presents three overlapping “action sequences.” These three action sequences may incorporate the majority, if not all of the names and events memorialised in the street names, which describe the creation of the city of Brisbane. In the centre is the action of the State.[14] One side of the artwork represents a point of contact between the colonial movement and the world of the First Nations. The other side represents exploration and industry. [15]

The following lists illustrate how “The Progress of Civilisation” artwork might assist in locating specific street and place names within the memorialisation of a colony’s and a city’s creation.

  1. The State is memorialised in streets named after monarchs, royal families and events, imperial office-bearers, colonial office-bearers, law-makers, law-enforcers, battles, wars, soldiers, and so on.
  2. Contact between Europeans and the First Nations is memorialised in flora, fauna, characters, European descriptions, impressions and moments, as well as in place names and languages. These place names and languages include the languages of the First Nations as well as places and languages remembered by Europeans.
  3. Discovery and economic ambitions can be recognised in the listing of participants in exploration, industry and commerce. Surveyors and people, who secured freehold title on the land, feature prominently in this group. This part of the pageant includes memorials to art, innovation and introduced species.

Both Merivale (from 1839) and Mayo (from 1930) have superimposed notions of “progress” and “civilization” onto the happenings in Australia in the 19th century. Neither Merivale nor Mayo present these happenings in a way, which communicates, in the current day, respect for the Traditional Owners of the land.[16] Narrating the story of the creation of Australian cities, in a way that enables respect of the First Nations, is an outstanding responsibility of the current generation of Australians.

Understanding “Untraditional Custodians”

Street maps document the essential vocabulary of place in Australian cities. However, as mentioned above, the words, themselves, generally have no common meaning. The meanings of the words on the street map are based on the experiences and memories of whoever is using the map. As mentioned earlier, these memories are only shared by sub-sets of the overall urban population. My interest is to build a vocabulary with meanings shared by the entire population.

Street maps generate meaning by representing relationships between places. One relationship between places is a relationship of distance. Another relationship is that of direction. The relationship of distance provides meaning in terms of the quantities of space and time. Distance informs such questions as “How far is it (from one place to another)?” and “How long will it take?” The relationship of direction provides a logical sequence by which the land can be negotiated during travel.

On a street map, words appear in a graphical configuration, without appearing in any particular order. Travel organizes place names into logical sequences, which are specific to each different journey. These sequences of words are of particular interest for the purposes of this paper. In practice, the words themselves are simply labels, enabling a successful journey. However, when they are perceived as memorials, which are related to each other, they can present a unique and specific perspective of the creation of a city. This is the narrative that people are ever seeing but never perceiving and ever hearing, but never understanding.

Travel can be summarized and simplified by identifying a relationship between two places—a point of departure and a destination. Urban commuters can travel to and from a fixed workplace, or educational institution ten times every week for many years. Therefore, many commuters are particularly conscious of unique combinations of place names. Each unique narrative is accessed by first identifying the memorials which have become the labels of the point of departure and the destination of a journey. The narrative is, then generated by identifying and exploring a relationship between these two memorials.

Every commuter is the custodian of at least one facet of the multi-faceted story about the creation of an Australian city. “Custodian” is used here to mean a caretaker—someone who is entrusted with nurturing a specific element of the story of the city, and telling this story in a way that equips the current generation to respect the Traditional Custodians of the land. The description “untraditional custodians” distinguishes between the two different uses of custodian, without losing sight of the present or the past.

People who repeatedly converge on schools, offices, churches and meeting places have the opportunity to explore the complexity of each character or moment memorialised in the definition of the location of those meeting places. Each different journey to that meeting point offers another facet to the story. Each face of the memorialisation of colonisation can give substance, meaning and urgency to the Acknowledgement of Country.


Jesus described the opportunity to perceive what is seen and to understand what is heard as a “blessing.” He described the responsiveness to this blessing as a “turning.” He described the result of this turning as “healing.” When asked why he spoke in parables, Jesus’ response resolved around the possibility of the healing of a people (Matt 13:10–17). It is with this hope of healing that I speak in street names.

There is enormous scope for healing in Australian cities, considering the disproportionate mortality, morbidity, incarceration and socio-economic statistics between the population as a whole, and the people who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. The healing considered here includes the healing of the entire population who share the urban vocabulary of place. This healing demands extensive, broad-based public discussion. Such a discussion needs to be supported by a robust and inclusive vocabulary. Australian vocabulary of street and place names already operates at a very large scale and is used by the entire population, which lives and moves within Australian cities. Therefore it may be robust enough to be useful in difficult and complex discussions, which might demand long time frames to develop.


[1] The ideas presented in this paper are explored for further consideration, discussion and development in my blog, pocitsoq.wordpress.com. Also present in this volume is my case study which applies the overall concept of this paper to a busy transport corridor of Brisbane, “199 Songs.”

[2] Colony of Queensland, “Letters Patent,” June 6, 1859 https://www.legislation.qld.gov.au/LEGISLTN/

REPEALED/L/LetPatColQld1859_01_.pdf (accessed December 20, 2014).

[3] Name Origin Research, 1980–2014, http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Carlton (accessed December 20, 2014).

[4] City of Melbourne, “Streets and Roads,” http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/AboutMelbourne/History/Pages/Streetsandroads.aspx (accessed December 20, 2014).

[5] “Swanston, Charles (1789–1850),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, first published in hardcopy 1967, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/swanston-charles-2713/text3815 (accessed December 20, 2014).

[6] Jay P. Pederson (ed.), “Jardine Matheson Holdings Limited History,” International Directory of Company Histories, vol. 20. (St. James Press, 1998). Available at http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/jardine-matheson-holdings-limited-history/ (accessed December 20, 2014).

[7] Interestingly, and perhaps coincidentally, the Second Opium War is sometimes referred to as the “Arrow War,” and the meeting was held at “Arrow on Swanston.”

[8] See Karl Hand, “Identifying with the Stigma: Christian Authenticity and the Affirming Church Movement,” Urban Life Together (2015): 31–39; Matt Bell, “Confession, Repentance and Atonement on Stolen Land,” Urban Life Together (2015): 18–24.

[9] See Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003).

[10] H. Merivale, Lectures on Colonization and Colonies, vol. 2 (London: Longman, 1842).

[11] In 1848, Merivale was appointed Permanent Under-Secretary to the Colonies.

[12] For a brief overview, see Jeremy Black and Donald M. MacRaild, Studying History, 3rd ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[13] Daphne Mayo created this sculpture in the light of at least two other sculptures, entitled “The Progress of Civilization,” which had been created seventy years earlier. Over the South Entrance to the British Museum in London, an artwork, entitled “The Progress of Civilization,” portrays an “ignorant being,” emerging from a rock, and being transformed into an “educated man,” who can “dominate the world around him.” Over the Senate Entrance on the East Front of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., huge marble characters are engaged in the same three activities which are reflected in Daphne Mayo’s work (see http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/other-sculpture/progress-civilization-pediment).

[14] The Official Souvenir brochure for the opening of Brisbane City Hall (1930) described the “Progress of Civilization in the State of Queensland” as follows: “The central figure (9ft high) is the State protecting the citizens. On the left-hand side, the native life is represented dying out before the approach of the white man. The right-hand side represents the early explorers discovering the possibilities of the new land and its industries.”

[15] Brisbane City Council, Public Art Trail Cultural Heritage (on page 9) says: “The central figure in the classical design is robed to represent the state who sends her explorers, industrialists and artists throughout the land. The displaced Aboriginal people are depicted as fleeing.”

[16] The Queensland Government sponsored a publication about Daphne Mayo in which the authors claimed that the Aboriginal people were offered respect by positioning them like ‘water gods’ of classical Greek temple sculptures (J. Mackay and M. Hawker, Daphne Mayo: Let There Be Sculpture [Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 2011]). This interpretation seems inconsistent in the light of both the commentary in the Brisbane City Council brochure describing them as ‘dying’, and the similarity of design with Thomas Crawford’s sculpture of ‘The Progress of Civilization’ on the Capitol Building, where the demise of the Indigenous people is represented by a grave. I can’t find any reference to Thomas Crawford’s work in the scholarship about Daphne Mayo’s work in Brisbane.


Image: ryanscottdavis, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Lynne Taylor, "Life to the Full: How Local Congregations Can Help Older Adults Thrive"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.[1]



Despite being a large and increasing demographic, older people can be subjected to ageism, resulting in deep senses of isolation and loss. Older people are frequently under-utilised in terms of the wisdom, skills and personal resources they have to offer. Erik Erikson’s ego development outcome for the final developmental stage of life is Integrity vs Despair, and the basic strength is Wisdom. Thus older people, more than others, have a role and a need to impart their wisdom and insights. This paper outlines ways local churches can resource the spirituality of older people in the church and wider community. It considers ways churches can help older people to look back and see their lives as well-lived, with a sense that life has meaning and that they have made a significant contribution, and to look forward with hope and courage. The paper advocates ensuring that older people are involved in meaningful gift-sharing ways in the local church and community.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares that he came so that all “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b nrsv). This abundance of life does not have a use-by date. Life to the full is Christ’s desired reality for all: old and young, rich and poor. This paper outlines how local churches can provide opportunities and resources to assist older people to live life to the full. In doing so (and in response to the psychosocial understandings of Erik and Joan Erikson)[2] the paper provides important insights on ways in which churches can help older people to look back and see their lives as well-lived, and to look to the future with hope and courage. It considers ways in which older people can be involved in fulfilling, meaningful and gift-sharing ways in the local church and wider community.

Our Population is Ageing

Ageing is clearly a natural process. Ageing is experienced by individuals and on a societal level as macro-level demographic and social changes occur. Australia, in common with most developed countries, has an ageing population. This is caused by the dual phenomena of decreasing fertility rates (meaning less children are born)[3] and increasing life expectancy (due to declining mortality rates across all age groups),[4] and is not balanced by the effects of net overseas migration.[5]

In the twenty years to 30 June 2013, the median age of the Australian population increased from 33.0 to 37.4.[6] The proportion of people aged over 65 years increased from 11.6% of the population in 1993 to 14.4% of the population in 2013,[7] and is expected to increase to 22% in 2060, and 25% in 2101.[8] The proportion of people aged over 85 years nearly doubled from 1.0% in 1993 to 1.9% in 2013.[9] Australia’s ageing population, particularly the increased and increasing proportion of people aged over 65 years, presents unique challenges and opportunities to the Church in Australia today.

Older People Frequently Encounter Ageism

Despite this increasing number and proportion of older people, Australia’s Council Of The Ageing (COTA) describe ageism, or age discrimination, as “endemic” in Australian society today. They note that ageism is experienced by older people in a variety of ways, including, “in the forms of speech by which they are addressed, in the media where negative and ageist stereotypes are promulgated, and in the health system where health professionals tend to give older people and their illnesses a lower priority.”[10] Further, ageism can be seen “in access to employment, in the attitudes of employers to older workers, in access to appropriate training and professional development and in general, in the undervaluing of the skills, experience and wisdom of older people.”[11]

These forms of age discrimination can be experienced personally, or privately (for example in patronising speech, or assumptions about inabilities based on age). In addition ageism can be experienced, observed and/or participated in publically. Such public expression of age discrimination can further propagate ageist concepts, while all forms of age discrimination have the potential to be personally damaging to the victim.

Due to word restrictions, this paper cannot provide a review of the various forms of ageism. Instead it focuses on the positive dimensions of how churches can help older adults live life to the full. [12]

What is Life to the Full for Older People?

Before we discuss what the local church can do to assist older adults live life abundantly we need to consider the unique developmental task of older people and with that the capabilities older people have to offer.

As is the case for all generations, older people face both opportunities and challenges. Psychologist Erik Erikson identified eight developmental stages that individuals progress through, from birth and early childhood, through adolescence to adulthood.[13] The final developmental stage is that of late adulthood, from age 55 or 65 to death. Erikson called the “ego development” outcome for this stage Integrity vs Despair, and the basic strength of this time of life, Wisdom. This desired outcome of integrity means a sense of “coherence and wholeness[14] and “involves a feeling of wholeness, meaningfulness, and continuity as one regards the end of one’s life.”[15]

At this final stage of development therefore, we hope individuals are able to look back and see their lives as well-lived, with a sense that life has meaning and that they have made a significant contribution. The wisdom that older people have to offer needs to find expression and opportunity. Where such integration does not occur, the result can be despair born out of perceived failure and inadequacy.[16] While simply growing older does not make one wiser, every older person has wisdom and strength in some dimension of life that they can impart to others.

Based on Erikson’s psychosocial understanding, it is clear that older people need opportunities to offer and use their skills and wisdom. Unfortunately, as has already been discussed, this is not always the experience of older people.

How Can the Local Church Help Older People Live Life to the Full?

It is important to note that helping older people live life to the full is of mutual benefit for the older person, for the church and for the kingdom of God. It is not an act of service towards older people, nor is it an exploitation of older people. Rather it involves a symbiosis of older person and the wider church offering what each has, for the betterment of all.

Aware of this, my research identified several ways churches can help older people live life to the full. The local church can embrace and communicate a holistic understanding of what it means to be human and to be spiritual. The local church can provide resourcing in a variety of areas. Local churches can be places where relationships and connections flourish, as well as contexts in which each person’s unique gifts and resources are shared and celebrated.

The Local Church Can Embrace a Holistic Understanding of What It Means to be Human, to be Spiritual

Christian Spirituality has been defined as “the lived experience of Christian faith and discipleship.”[17] In being about “lived experience,” spirituality is best understood in holistic terms. As Albert Jewell maintains, “the spiritual is not one dimension among many in life; rather it permeates and gives meaning to all life.”[18]

When we consider what a local church can do to help older people live life to the full, we first need to understand (and promote) this holistic and integrated view of spirituality. This means being aware of the “whole of life” for older people in our churches, recognising mental, physical and emotional wellbeing as integrally related to, and interrelated with, spiritual health.

This works both ways. On one hand, because spirituality is an intrinsic part of our humanity, churches have an opportunity and responsibility to resource the spiritual growth of their members, as well as offering such spiritual resourcing beyond the walls of the church. On the other hand, churches need to be attentive to more than just the spiritual well-being of members and neighbours. Churches can and do express this in a myriad of ways, including through food banks and opportunities for social interactions and by running sports and children’s programmes.

While such initiatives can frequently be seen by church members, and sometimes leaders themselves, as peripheral to the church’s main business, these programmes are best seen as integrative within the whole that the church has to offer. When people engage with a social service offered by a church, how can the church also enhance the spirituality of that individual? What connections can be made from each particular event or activity and other activities of the church? How can relationships be encouraged and developed between participants in community activities, and also with the wider church? If individuals come with physical or material needs, how can their spirituality also be resourced? These are questions churches should consider of all their programmes and events. In doing so, churches can also be offering clear paths to other areas of involvement in church and community life. Such involvement can further enhance the holistic wellbeing of church and community members.[19]

Another way the local church can be attentive to more than the spiritual dimension, is by celebrating the joys and successes experienced in all areas of life, as well as supporting one another through difficult times. Clearly this can be expressed through pastoral care of church members, as well as celebrating milestones like baptisms, significant birthdays, anniversaries and funerals. Individuals also need opportunities to share the “lesser” events: an achievement of a child or grandchild, a worrying diagnosis, a holiday enjoyed or a family home sold. These are things people carry with them to church, that can be shared appropriately within a caring church community that will celebrate, support, encourage, pray and remember.

Considering older people specifically, Ursula King points out that “spiritual development [is a] process of growth that can still flourish when all other growth has stopped and our physical and mental powers begin to decline.”[20] This concept of flourishing draws from the Old Testament (e.g. Hos 14:7; Ps 92:12) where flourishing is likened to the organic growth that occurs in a well-tended garden.[21] A similar theme is reflected in 2 Cor 4:16: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (tniv). This is good news for older people who may be facing decline in other areas of their lives. Our spiritual lives can always be renewed, restored, deepened.

Therefore churches should be attentive to the whole of life; strengthening and celebrating all dimensions of life so individuals and the community can flourish whatever their unique circumstances. Aware of this whole-of-life emphasis and understanding, we turn now to consider specific ways that local churches can provide a range of resourcing to assist older adults live life to the full.

The Local Church Can Provide Resourcing

Churches are uniquely placed to resource congregational members as well as the wider community. There are three particular areas where churches can resource older people, which help them to live life to the full.

Ensuring Existing Resources are Available

It is generally not necessary to “reinvent the wheel.” Several government, private and not-for-profit agencies produce or distribute resources related to active ageing, or ageing well. Churches can assist with ensuring these resources are distributed appropriately. At Pilgrim Uniting Church, an older woman had a particular passion and gift for gathering and distributing a wide range of practical resources. She was given the task of maintaining an area in the church lounge, where the latest material relating to ageing well could be made available. It is obviously important that such a resource area is kept up to date. Inviting a suitably gifted and enthused older person to do this is appropriate practically. This was also in keeping with the insights learnt through this project, of providing a place for the gifts and talents of all people to be shared and enjoyed. Many churches produce a regular newsletter for attenders. The author has developed a set of fifty “active ageing” tips. These can be reproduced in the church newsletter, one for each week of the year.[22] By resourcing older people in these ways, the local church helps older people live life to the full, by providing them with access to information that can help them flourish in this later stage of their life.

Filing the Gaps around Transitioning to Retirement

Although there is a large amount of information available in the public sphere about making the transition to retirement, the vast majority of these materials relate to financial planning. Given the dramatic changes that retirement brings to many areas of life, this is a serious deficiency.

As part of my role at Pilgrim, I developed a six week course designed to help people as they made the transition to retirement. [23] Entitled “Living life to the full in retirement,” the course helps people look back and to see their lives as well-lived and to look forward to retirement with hope, anticipation and courage. At the end of the course people are aware of some of the challenges that may be ahead, but more confident that retirement is an adventure to be enjoyed. Whilst including some practical information, the course is considerably more holistically focused, aiming to help people obtain or maintain a sense of vocation, and a sense of God being present in the whole of their life.

The course provides a range of resourcing and reflection tools that assist participants to see the value in their lives to date as well as to anticipate some of the best things that retirement has to offer. It is realistic about the fact that retirement will have difficult times, and it draws on the work of Albert Jewell and the MHA Care Group[24] in “twinning” aspects of ill-being and wellbeing, and showing how the wellbeing dimensions can be used to counter those times when the negative is intruding.[25] This helps participants to look forward with hope and courage, rather than experiencing the despair that can be a reality of older people’s lives.[26] Such a course could be run by local churches for church members as well as for those in the wider community. It resources older people and helps them to explore and discover what fullness of life means to them.

Shining a Light on Fears around Illness, Death and Dying

We live in a life-focused, death-defying culture. Medical advances mean life lasts much longer than it ever has before. While this is positive, the flipside is that death is frequently relegated to a medical event, perhaps even a “failure” to remain alive. Death, whilst sad, is a natural and inevitable part of life. A denial of this reality contributes to deaths made difficult for both the dying and those who love them.[27]

The “Scriptures reveal a God who is extremely positive about the very process of ageing, whilst being realistic about the problems and failures it sometimes brings.”[28] The Bible reveals ageing and death to be natural parts of life, and God is shown to be with us in all stages of life, including in death. Churches can reclaim and express a theology of death and dying, one that is infused with hope and anticipation. Such a worldview offers both hope and realism to older people, particularly as they become more aware of their own mortality.

As well as fearing death or dying, older people can be afraid of illness particularly as it relates to mental and physical incapacitation. Again churches can offer hope to those with such fears. Churches can help people see life as holistic and celebrate the ways older people can flourish spiritually even while other areas of life deteriorate. Churches can also remind people that God always remembers them. In addition, churches can help all people to see that their value is not dependent upon their ability to produce particular outputs. Churches can celebrate and utilise the particular gifts each person has. They can also point people to appropriate resources that help them to be as holistically active as possible. Churches can help people develop theologies of illness, death and dying to assist us when we face these in our own lives or the lives of a loved one. Such matters should be talked about in church services and through other resourcing opportunities.[29]Thus local churches have a significant opportunity to resource older people in a variety of ways, helping them to look back and see life well-lived as well as to look forward with hope and courage.

The Local Church Can Be a Place where Connections and Relationships Develop and Flourish

As humans we are created for connections, for relationship: with God,[30] with other humans and with the world.[31] Helping older people live life to the full involves helping them build these connections. Local churches can be places where such connections and relationships develop and flourish. Most churches would see helping people grow in their relationship with God as an essential part of what they do. Churches can also be places where human relationships flourish, as well as places that enhance members’ connection with all of creation.

Part of living life to the full is living well in the midst of relationships with others. As the World Health Organisation’s statement on active ageing says, this includes both relationships with peers and intergenerational relationships.

Ageing takes place within the context of friends, work associates, neighbours and family members. This is why interdependence as well as intergenerational solidarity … are important tenets of active ageing.[32]

Peer relationships can be encouraged and strengthened by the local church as like-minded individuals come together to share faith, spirituality and life. Programmes and groups that occur beyond Sunday worship services serve as opportunities for such relationships to develop and deepen.

In our increasingly fragmented world, where geographic mobility[33] results in different generations of families living in different cities and countries, local churches often offer a rich source of intergenerational relationships. Intergenerational relationships are understood to be of mutual benefit to both the older and younger person.[34] Churches have a unique opportunity to formally or informally link people of different generations, particularly those who do not have family living locally. Intentionally encouraging peer and intergenerational relationships to develop and grow (and providing appropriate contexts for this to occur) reduces the danger of social isolation that some, including (and increasingly) older people can experience. In doing so the local church also provides a place to belong.

The Local Church Can Be a Place to Contribute and a Place that Recognises, Celebrates and Utilises Unique Giftings

Local churches should be places that recognise, celebrate and utilise the gifts of all their members. This means valuing what people do best and celebrating their involvement in that activity. It means recognising, utilising and appreciating whatever wisdom older people have to offer. It means offering a place to volunteer, but also celebrating people’s involvements beyond the walls of the church. The next section explores this further.

In Doing Whatever They Do Best

The spiritual journeys of all people, older and younger, can be celebrated through the sharing of lives and stories. Churches should be sure to utilise the particular gifts and abilities of people of all ages in both “seen” and “unseen” roles. As well as enjoying their gifts and abilities, these opportunities communicate clearly that people of all ages and stages are welcome and valued.

Ageing can be accompanied by declining health and lessened abilities in some areas of life. Churches can be proactive about realising what individuals can do, rather than focussing on what they can no longer do. Praying for others is one example of something we can always do. Our oldest members may be willing to receive regular prayer requests and to pray diligently for particular needs in the church and wider community. This can be recognised by the church as a wonderful gift that these people are able to provide. Older adults can know they are making a significant contribution when they share their gifts.

In Eldering or Mentoring

Jewish culture has, since biblical times, recognised the wisdom of the aged.[35] There are 175 references to eldering in the Bible, where elders are “marked by moral rather than official authority, not elected but recognized within the community, never alone but representative of a group that reflected the well-being of the whole community.”[36]

Houston and Parker see the biblical roles of such recognised elders as being “custodians of families”[37] and “fully human, seasoned servants of God.”[38] As custodians of families, elders are involved in forming and fostering community, with the wellbeing of the community as the goal. This offers an opportunity for older people to proactively work to establish and maintain the sort of community where everyone can flourish. As servants of God they can be about the work of God in the world God loves. Houston and Parker name six ways in which elders act as exemplars or mentors. Elders foster community, minister from the inner person, enlarge a vision of reality and are devoted to prayer. Further, elders are aware of their own mortality, and serve as a living curriculum, resourcing the next generations.[39] As “fully human, seasoned servants of God,”[40] elders have the opportunity to model dependence upon God, commitment to lifelong learning and continued spiritual growth. Elders are ordinary people, living well and blessing others through their everyday lives.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s 1995 book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing[41] grew out of his questioning about his own ageing. He encourages the reader to view older people as sages, with wisdom to pass on to future generations. This offers a rich alternative to an understanding of ageing that focuses on either an embracing of leisure or an inevitable deterioration. In acting as sages or elders, the gifts and wisdom of older people can find expression.

A Place to Volunteer

Volunteering has many positive effects for the volunteer as well as for the organisation or individual they are serving.[42] Formal volunteering has been found to lower levels of depression in older people. Both formal and informal volunteering have also been found to have positive health impacts on the volunteers.[43] Volunteering also has a range of social and self-perception benefits. These include offering a sense of social engagement, strengthening informal networks and social support systems, providing a sense of worth, and increasing contact with a range of people.[44]

As well as these benefits that are reported in the literature, Zöe Gill highlighted several self-reported benefits from volunteers themselves, including “keeping busy and active,”  “feeling like you are doing something useful and active,” “taking responsibility,” learning new skills or developing existing skills and interests, contributing to the decision-making of an organisation and having an opportunity for social interaction.[45] Therefore, when churches provide opportunities for meaningful and significant volunteering, it can be of mutual benefit to the church, to the particular group served and to the volunteers themselves.

Significance in volunteering can be found when people use their gifts and skills in meaningful ways. This occurs either because they are particularly gifted for the role in which they volunteer or because there is particular significance or importance in the work that is being done by the agency in which they are volunteering. It is essential not to keep people working in roles that no longer bring them a sense of fulfilment. This not only diminishes the effectiveness of their involvement but also restricts the potential involvement of newer people coming into a role. Thus a healthy organisation will have people moving into (and out of) voluntary roles.

A Place that Celebrates Volunteering into the Wider Community

Churches should expect and celebrate the fact that church members will volunteer beyond the walls of the church. Some agencies (Golden Gurus, for example)[46] help skilled volunteers find opportunities for which they are uniquely suited. Volunteer involvement beyond the church is an excellent way of establishing and maintaining relationships with people not associated with church: an opportunity to be salt and light in the world (Matt 5:12–14). It also enables those with specific gifts and passions to find expression. Churches should celebrate the involvement of church members in volunteering beyond the ministries of the church. This could be done in conjunction with Volunteers Week (held annually in October in Australia). Thus volunteering can help older adults live life to the full, as their gifts and abilities are shared, enjoyed and celebrated.


Local churches are uniquely placed to help older adults live life to the full. Churches can be places of resourcing, of relational interaction and of celebrated voluntary involvement. Ageism has no place in Australia today. Older adults can flourish and live life to the full at all stages of life. They can be helped to look back and see their lives as well-lived and to look to the future with hope, anticipation and courage.


[1] With grateful thanks to the people of Pilgrim Uniting Church, Adelaide and to the Ken Leaver Foundation for the opportunity and the funding. (This paper reflects the work and opinion of the author, and not necessarily the opinion of the people of the Pilgrim Uniting Church nor the Ken Leaver Foundation.)

[2] Erik H. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed: A Review (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985).

[3] Since 1976, the total fertility rate (TFR) for Australia has been below the replacement level of 2.1. In 2012 Australia’s TFR was 1.93 babies per woman. Australian Bureau of Statistics, “3301.0—Births, Australia, 2012” (Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013).

[4] Over the past century, life expectancies at birth have increased by twenty-five years. Boys born between 1901 and 1910 could expect to live for 55.2 years; girls for 58.8. By contrast, boys born 2008–2010 can expect to live for 79.5 years; girls 84 years (“1301.0—Year Book Australia, 2012” [Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012]).

[5] In the two years to 30 June 2012, Australia's population increased by an average of 1.6% per year. Net overseas migration contributed 56% of this growth and natural increase contributed the remaining 44%. “3222.0—Population Projections, Australia, 2012 (Base) to 2101” (Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013), 4.

[6] “3101.0—Australian Demographic Statistics, Dec 2013” (Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013).

[7] Ibid. It is interesting to note that the proportion of people aged between 15 and 64 years has not changed in the last twenty years: the increase in the population of people aged over 65 years has been countered by a decline in the proportion of people aged up to 15 years (from 21.7% in 1993 to 18.9% in 2013).

[8] “3222.0—Population Projections, Australia, 2012 (Base) to 2101.” (These projections are based on current fertility, life expectancy and net overseas migration figures.)

[9] “3101.0—Australian Demographic Statistics, Dec 2013.”

[10] National Policy Office, “COTA Australia Policy & Position Statements” (Barton, ACT: COTA, 2012), 8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] For more on ageism, see Kim Cheng Patrick Low and Sik-Liong Ang, “Ageism,” in Encyclopedia of Corporate Social Responsibility, ed. Samuel O. Idowu et al (Berlin: Springer, 2013). For more on workplace age discrimination, see Patricia Brownell and James J. Kelly, Ageism and Mistreatment of Older Workers: Current Reality, Future Solutions (Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media, 2012). See also the section entitled “Age Discrimination,” in “Realising the Economic Potential of Senior Australians: Turning Grey into Gold,” (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2011). To read about one form of media discrimination, see Tom Robinson, Mark Callister, and Dawn Magoffin, “Older Characters in Teen Movies from 1980–2006,” Educational Gerontology 35, no. 8 (2009): 687–711.

[13] Erikson’s wife and research partner, Joan Erikson, added a ninth stage to the model, following Erik’s death, and taking into account both Erik’s later reflections on his work, and their own experiences of ageing. Erik H. Erikson and Joan M. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed: Extended Version (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997). In this she noted that “aged individuals are often ostracized, neglected, and overlooked; elders are seen no longer as bearers of wisdom but as embodiments of shame” (144).

[14] Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed: A Review, 65.

[15] James E. Marcia, “From Industry to Integrity,” Identity 14, no. 3 (2014): 170.

[16] For a recent exploration of this, see the beginning sections of Simon Hearn et al, “Between Integrity and Despair: Toward Construct Validation of Erikson’s Eighth Stage,” Journal of Adult Development 19, no. 1 (2012): 1–20.

[17] Arthur Holder, “Introduction,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, ed. Arthur Holder (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 5.

[18] Albert Jewell (ed.), Ageing, Spirituality, and Well-Being (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2004), 16.

[19] A cautionary note is important here; churches should not view attendance in Sunday worship as the main or sole goal of programmes offered. If churches genuinely desire to resource the whole-of-life of those who attend their programmes, they should be doing so as much as they are able in the programmes that people are coming to, in addition to considering how church worship services may be connective for them, not expecting that their spiritual wellbeing will just be addressed in worship.

[20] Ursula King, “The Dance of Life: Spirituality, Ageing and Human Flourishing,” in Ageing, Spirituality and Well-Being, ed. Albert Jewell (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2004), 131.

[21] Grace Jantzen argues for embracing a symbolic of natality in terms of Christian theology, in contrast with a Christendom emphasis on death. She sees flourishing as an expression of this natality. Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion, Manchester Studies in Religion, Culture and Gender (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998).

[22] Available from the author.

[23] Contact the author for further information.

[24] Founded as Methodist Homes for the Aged, providing residential care in the UK.

[25] Albert Jewell, “Nourishing the Inner Being: A Spirituality Model,” in Ageing, Spirituality, and Well-Being, ed. Albert Jewell (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2004), 23–26.

[26] Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed: A Review, 65.

[27] Tara Tucker, “Culture of Death Denial: Relevant or Rhetoric in Medical Education?,” Journal of Palliative Medicine 12, no. 12 (2009): 1105–6.

[28] Ian S. Knox, Older People and the Church (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 148.

[29] In terms of practical examples, Pilgrim Uniting Church addresses this in part through its “Contingency Matters” initiative: occasional seminars which provide much-needed information and support to older people. Hope Valley Uniting Church recently offered a day seminar entitled, “Leaving your mark on tomorrow.”

[30] What Schneiders calls the God-human relationship. Sandra Schneiders, “Approaches to the Study of Christian Spirituality,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, ed. Arthur Holder (Walden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 16.

[31] See the creation stories in Gen 1 and 2.

[32] Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health Cluster, “Active Ageing: A Policy Framework” (Geneva: World Health Organisation, 2002), 12.

[33] In Australia, over 300,000 people move interstate each year (“3412.0—Migration Australia” [Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013]).

[34] See for example Jeni Warburton and Deirdre McLaughlin, “‘Lots of Little Kindnesses’: Valuing the Role of Older Australians as Informal Volunteers in the Community,” Ageing and Society 25, no. 5 (2005): 721–24.

[35] James M. Houston and Michael Parker, A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 55.

[36] Ibid, 56.

[37] Ibid, 64.

[38] Ibid, 65.

[39] Ibid, 79–90.

[40] Ibid, 67.

[41] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older (New York: Warner Books, 1995).

[42] See for example Nancy Morrow-Howell et al, “Effects of Volunteering on the Well-Being of Older Adults,” The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 58, no. 3 (2003): S137–45.

[43] Zöe Gill, “Older People and Volunteering” (Adelaide: Office for Volunteers, Government of South Australia, 2006), 12–13.

[44] Gill, “Older People and Volunteering,” 13.

[45] Ibid.

[46] To find out more, see www.tinyurl.com/goldengurus

Image: Viola Ng, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Steve Taylor, "Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods: Plot by Plot, Plant by Plant"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.



Gardens offer rich insight regarding how we might inhabit our neighbourhood. This paper considers gardens in Scripture, start, middle and end. It researches the development patterns of two inner-city Australian community gardens. The story of each is brought into dialogue with Scripture, including Luke 10:1–12 and 1 Cor 3:6–9. The insights from this dialogue between Scripture and two urban garden case studies is then enriched by consideration of two movies. Gardening with Soul is a documentary about an urban missionary who turned the lawn of her religious community into a community garden. Grow your Own is the story of a stranger’s gift that grows healing among a well-established British allotment garden. Both point to the power and potential of a seasonal spirituality. Throughout this paper, beginning and end, is also woven experience—mine—into the place and potential of gardens in mission and ministry. The argument from Scripture, case study, film and experience is that gardens invite us and our neighbours to become good, plot by plot and plant by plant.


In this small thing is all of creation! God made it, God cares for it, God loves it.[1]

A First Plot

Early in life, I came to value gardens, gardeners and gardening. I grew my first garden, aged ten. Carefully I planted. Correctly I weeded, watered, then wept, as the hooves of wandering cows casually ground my first crop of corn into the earth. Leaving school, I trained in horticulture and became an orchardist. I found identity in the connections between soil and seasons. I learned resilience as I contract pruned through icy winter frosts. I gained satisfaction, seeing the work of my hands yield fruit in autumn time. Then one summer, picking apricots, I heard God’s call to mission. Youthfully impulsive, I naively assumed that a call to mission and ministry meant leaving the gardens behind. God had other ideas.

This paper explores the place and potential of gardens for urban life today. Using a range of resources, including my experience, Scripture, film and community case studies, it uncovers the dimensions through which gardens and gardening enable us to inhabit our neighbourhoods.

My argument, while original in drawing from contemporary Australian case studies, has deep roots. From across the ditch, Ann Gilroy has argued that the spirituality of gardening is essential to New Zealand identity.[2] In Australia, Yvonne McRostie has described how a community garden helped Coorparoo Uniting Church imagine church in different ways.[3] It made discipleship “time consuming” and generated “cross-pollination” across the fences that enclose suburban life.[4] In the United States, Hands-On Pastoral Education using Clergy Sustaining Agriculture (HOPE CSA), transport clergy from mega-churches to a farm for monthly reflection on sustainable farming and healthy churches.[5] In each of these writings, the argument is made, that plot by plot and plant by plant, gardens change neighbourhoods.

While some gardens are planted in straight lines, structured in orderly, linear lines, what follows is more organic in design. It is a written expression of the philosophy of companion planting. I earth this paper by offering research into two contemporary inner-city Australian community gardens, both seeking to cultivate community in the shade of high-rise apartments. These local stories are nourished by two additional, but very different, sources of compost: gardens in Scripture and gardens in contemporary film (Grow your Own and Gardening with Soul). The companion planting is completed by a set of garden stories. Shaped by my experiences, they suggest a set of practices, patterns and postures by which urban life together might develop. Before we enter the first of our inner-city Australian gardens, we pause to listen to Scripture. In the Bible we find gardens taking centre stage: start, middle and end.

God Plots: From Genesis to Revelation

The Christian story begins in a garden. The first chapters of Genesis offer two creation accounts, one of which describes God as the Gardener and humans created to dwell in neighbourhoods both visually pleasing and practically sustaining (Gen 2:4b–25). In Gen 2, the Adam is a co-creator in God’s garden. The Hebrew verb in Gen 2:15, historically so poorly translated as “dominion,” is better understood as a call to care. We are partners (gardeners) with God, creating environments of visual pleasure and practical nurture.

The Christian story re-begins in a garden. Jesus appears to Mary, who thinks him a gardener (John 20:15–18). Jesus, called the new Adam (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:12–18), has been re-planted in a new Eden. His conversational responses to Mary act as a redemption of the avoidance of God by humans in that first garden in Genesis (Gen 3:8–9). It is part of his divine “work” to restore the call to “take care” of all creation, including the “bruised reed” after the resurrection (Gen 2:15; Isa 42:3; Matt 12:20). It is a salvation that is redeeming of people, place and plot.

This resurrection in a garden is continuation and culmination of the “garden” teaching of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, disciples are expected to learn not only from the words of Jesus, but also from the birds of the air and flowers of the field (Matt 6:26–30). Jesus describes the kingdom of God in terms of seed sowing, weeds and mustard trees (Matt 13). With allusions to Gen 2, in these metaphors humanity continues to be called, tasked to prosper and reproduce. In John 15, Jesus is the vine and God is a gardener. An activity of the kingdom of God is thus the careful pruning for the enhancing of productivity. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus makes a choice toward God that will reverse the choices made by Adam and Eve in the first garden. Gardens thus function as sacred spaces in which we make choices, as to how we watch, pray and live our lives.

The Christian story ends, as it begins, in a garden. Significantly for this paper, this garden of healing is an urban garden, located at the centre of the New Jerusalem. With trees for “healing of the nations … No longer will there be any curse” (Rev 22:1–3).

In summary, gardens are a recurring theme in biblical literature. God’s Plot unfolds in multiple God plots. From beginning to end, we encounter a vision in which it is in gardens that humans inhabit the neighbourhood.

Pavement Practices in Downtown Adelaide

Twenty square metres. That is the size of the demonstration plot at Heronswood. Located just outside of Melbourne, it is grown as “an inspiration to all budding backyard gardeners. It shows how to successfully grow a years supply of vegetables for 2 people in just 20m2 using Diggers seeds.”[6] Heronswood is one of four Victorian gardens listed in The Oxford Companion to the Garden.[7] Home of heirloom seed supplier, the Diggers Club, they even offer a seed pack (it used to sell for $45) containing all the seeds a family of two would need to feed themselves from their twenty square metres.

It is tempting to relegate the inhabiting ministry of gardens to the lifestyle blocks that surround Heronswood. Yet on a main city street in Adelaide, and a rooftop in Kings Cross in Sydney, two churches remind us that gardens are important ways by which to inhabit any neighbourhood, urban or suburban. Both offer important insights into inhabiting our neighbourhoods.

In 2012, Uniting Church minister Rev. Sandy Boyce, herself a keen gardener, secured a local city council grant. Minister in placement at Pilgrim Uniting, an inner-city church on the edge of Victoria Square in central Adelaide, the grant was given for the development of an urban community garden. For Sandy, it was an expression of partnership, of the church cultivating connections with local (Council) bodies, in order to engage local bodies.[8]

On the concrete pavement outside Pilgrim Uniting, Sandy and a team from the church placed three metal raised beds and prepared to plant. The cynics said the plants would die in Adelaide summer heat. Any produce that grew would be stolen, while the garden would surely be trashed by drunken revellers in the late of night. Sandy begged to differ. She wanted to plant partnerships, to welcome weekday lounge visitors, office workers and members of Pilgrim, to share and enjoy the green space and the produce. Today the garden remains alive and vibrant. It enriches Pilgrim Uniting’s drop-in ministry, offering another way to cultivate community. Produce harvested is utilised in healthy cooking classes.

Sitting in the sun, watching the community swirl around the inner-city community garden planted by Pilgrim Uniting, my thoughts drifted to the church in Corinth.[9] To an urban church, located at commercial crossroads among a pluralistic and diverse set of faiths and cultures, Paul described his ministry using the image of gardening. Paul plants, Apollos waters, God causes growth (1 Cor 3:6–9).

We live in cultures that like to locate leadership in one person. Leader talk tends to be sheeted to the one techni-preneur, the one CEO, the one Prime Minister, the one Senior Pastor. In contrast, when Paul described his leadership as being like that of a gardener in 1 Cor 3, we are being invited to diversify. Paul is asking the Corinthian church to stop looking for leadership from one person. Both Paul and Apollos are gardeners and the ministry of both is valued. Equally, both are unique and their diversity is celebrated. In Corinthians, we are being asked to stop looking for one way of exerting leadership. Instead, we are to celebrate the diverse ways in which diverse individuals contribute to God’s garden.

As I pondered 1 Cor 3, I reflected on what I was observing in this inner-city Adelaide garden. The people gathered included a group of indigenous folk, an office worker sipping her takeaway coffee and a church volunteer quietly making connections. This garden, just like in Corinth, was indeed connecting diverse individuals, each of whom could contribute in diverse ways.

Such are the understandings of inhabiting the neighbourhood that are generated when Pilgrim’s urban garden is read in dialogue with 1 Cor 3:6–9. “You are God’s garden,” is a call to inhabit the neighbourhood in ways that celebrate diversity.[10] Gardeners not only plant and water. They also provide support and create wind breaks. Fred Bahnson, in Soil and Sacrament, observed that,

Coffee shops are touted as our cultural commons, but very few people in coffee shops actually interact with strangers; everyone just stares at their screen. A communal food garden is really one of the few places in our society where you can go and meet someone outside your ethnic or class boundary.[11]

Gardens allow us to inhabit our neighbourhoods in ways that connect the diversity of our community.

Companion Planting in Central Sydney

In 2011, Wayside Chapel, located in the heart of Kings Cross, planted their community garden. Situated on a roof top with views over the skyscrapers of central Sydney, it provided a great view, but difficult growing conditions. Yet today, two hundred square metres is filled with over fifty different varieties of organic fruit, herbs and vegetables.

[T]he garden features the latest in sustainable design and architecture. It has two rainwater tanks, solar panels, two worm farms, a compost system and a bee-hive. Growing organic produce is only a small part of the reason for gardening at Wayside. The wider purpose of the garden is to create community, teach living skills, practice sustainability, engage with our neighbours and beautify Kings Cross.[12]

Unlike Pilgrim Uniting, this garden is not located in a street space. Rather, it is a safe space, sited four stories high, “a community space where disadvantaged people and local residents can work together, sharing skills and supporting each other to nurture a vast array of plants.”[13]

The garden is an essential component in three of Wayside’s programmes, Day to Day Living, the Aboriginal Project and Wayside Youth. The garden helps these ministries connect with the whole person. Practically, they help in the teaching of life skills, including gardening, cooking and eating. Socially, they enhance connections, including with fellow gardeners in the Day to Day Living programme and with the Wayside Café on the ground floor, where the food goes to help feed the street dwellers of Kings Cross.

Psychologically, the garden ensures nurture. Participants, tender themselves, are invited to tend. Says Wayside worker Anna Partridge,

They can’t take ownership of a cooking programme. They can take ownership of a garden … I just went up there ten minutes ago. I took a picture of Adam. He is a seventy year old man who comes every Thursday. He waters plants because he sees progress. He sees hope and life. [14]

This garden is inviting both a seeing and an experiencing of redemptive compassion.

Looking from the Wayside garden across the central city skyscrapers, my thoughts turned to Luke 10:1–12.[15] In telling the story of how this four stories high, inner-city community garden developed, Anna Partridge described how at the beginning, Wayside felt they lacked gardening experience. Their decision to start the garden involved a deliberate decision to ask for help, to reach out for the knowledge they lacked.

As a consequence, local gardeners are now deeply integrated into the Wayside garden. Later in the interview with Anna Patridge, I returned to clarify if I was correctly understanding their approach to inhabiting their neighbour. “It sounds to me,” I said, “like your lack of knowledge actually became like a gift. By starting with what you did not know, it gave the community a way in, a way to get involved.” “Absolutely,” was Anna’s animated reply. “Absolutely. Start with something you do not know how to do. And as a result you open up very different relationships with your community.”[16]

Such a response offers insight into the instructions Jesus gave to the disciples in Luke 10:1–12. They were being sent to inhabit a neighbourhood, in particular the towns and villages between Samaria and Jerusalem.[17] Gardens are not directly mentioned, but are implied by the command in v.7 to eat and drink whatever you are given. These instructions are echoed in the next verse, “eat what is set before you” (Luke 10:8). There are further echoes, including one of Jer 29:5, which has the command to stay and enjoy the produce of the gardens you plant.

This understanding of community development is consistent with the instructions by Jesus to his disciples. They are to greet the neighbourhoods they might potentially inhabit with the offer of peace (Luke 10:5).  Heard in light of Old Testament understandings of shalom, this invites a holistic understanding of how we are to inhabit the neighbourhood. We are to value relationships up with God, across with neighbour, including the poor and alien, and down, toward God’s earth.[18]

Further, Jesus’ sending of the disciples included the instruction that they are to take nothing (Luke 10:4). A very practical implication of taking neither purse, bag nor sandals, is that when you enter a neighbourhood, you will need help. In essence, in Luke 10, entering a local neighbourhood involves a posture in which you will need to find what you lack. As a result, the community is being invited to practise a radical hospitality toward the arriving visitor.

Within a few verses, Jesus will be asked for his theology of neighbour (Luke 10:29). Reading Luke 10 in light of how Wayside developed their urban garden suggests a radical understanding of what it might mean for Christians to be neighbours. Wayside Chapel has inhabited their neighbourhood not from their strength, but from their weakness. For Wayside, this meant inviting local gardeners to be sharers of knowledge and providers of time. One specific example is that of

Wayside Ambassadors Indira Naidoo. Indira is a gardening expert, broadcaster and author of the best-selling book The Edible Balcony. She shares her passion for reconnecting with nature through gardening during a weekly gardening class for Day to Day Living. [19]

What if the task of inhabiting a neighbourhood is not to be a good neighbour? Rather, what if it is to act in ways that enable our community to become better neighbours themselves?[20]

Often churches seek to engage with their community out of strength-based models. They draw upon their internal expertise and resources. In contrast, by choosing to engage in an activity in which they lack knowledge, by taking “no purse or bag or sandals” in regard to their gardening expertise, Wayside have allowed Indira Naidoo and other local gardeners to demonstrate “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:4, 29).

In these two sections, I have considered two inner-city gardens. One is in downtown Adelaide, the other in central Sydney. One is public, the other is elevated. Each has been developed differently, creating diverse experiences of community. One welcomes and creates connections. The other welcomes and creates nurture. A rich set of insights emerge, first as Pilgrim’s garden is read alongside 1 Cor 3:6–9 and second, as Wayside’s rooftop garden is read in dialogue with Luke 10:1–12. Plot by plot, plant by plant, each have allowed the local church to inhabit their neighbourhood.

Allotments as Mission in Grow Your Own

In order to deepen this theme, it is time to move from the street to the cinema. Stanley Skreslet, in his survey of contemporary trends in mission, notes that the vocation of the missionary is increasingly being portrayed in biography, fiction and film.[21] The implication is that film—in this case, films about gardens—can help us think about the ways we inhabit our neighbourhoods, plot by plot and plant by plant.

Grow Your Own (2007) is directed by Richard Laxton. It emerged from a garden. Film maker Carl Hunter found himself working alongside a group of refugees, who had been given an allotment to garden as part of a Liverpool City Council initiative. The opening credits of Grow Your Own involve keen gardeners emerging, mole-like, from winter hibernation.[22] Eyes blinking, they make their way to their allotment garden sheds at Blacktree Road, in the north of England. However, their calm is disturbed by the arrival of several families of severely traumatised recent migrants.

Grow Your Own explores a range of complex themes, including migration, racism and mental health. It mixes moments of comic genius, including the scene in which the cranky British men test out their ring tones, with scenes of tragedy, most poignantly as the asylum seeker Kung Sang names the trauma of his migrant journey to a chain metal fence and an unfeeling security guard.

In the midst of these gritty urban realities, Grow Your Own suggests that hope and healing can emerge from the common life of a shared garden. It is Kung Sang’s homemade shark fin soup, grown from seed, that brings the community together. The vegetable might be alien to the British palate, but shared in community, it provides healing. It is this gift, from a neighbour initially perceived as a stranger, which allows this community to inhabit their neighbourhood in new ways. Such are the insights that bloom when we consider gardens and mission at the movies. Anyone can grow. Anyone can initiate healing. Trust the organic processes that will allow hospitality and vulnerability to blossom.

Turning Turf in Gardening with Soul

Moving from a northern to a southern hemisphere, Gardening with Soul (2013), directed by Jess Feast, is a documentary that follows the New Zealand Gardener of the Year through four seasons.[23] Nominated in all four documentary categories at the 2013 New Zealand Film Awards, it lovingly uncovers the inner and outer worlds inhabited by Loyola Galvin, a Catholic sister. Despite turning ninety, her life provides a revealing glimpse into how to inhabit a neighbourhood.

Gardening with Soul begins in winter, with snow gently carpeting Galvin’s garden. Through summer, spring and autumn, we follow the rhythms of the seasons: the winter gathering of seaweed for compost, the spring companion planting (essential for pest resistance and soil health) and the autumn drying of seeds for spring.

In an age of fast food and flash-in-the-pan garden shows, Gardening with Soul offers a different, more deeply dug, set of spiritual practices. First, there is the slow work by which community gardens emerge into community development. Loyola Galvin was named the New Zealand Gardener of the Year in 2008 because of her role in starting the Common Ground community garden scheme. Galvin turned the lawn at her nunnery into allotment-style gardens for neighbouring apartment dwellers. In Gardening with Soul we witness the final stages of community development, as Galvin hands over what she began to a younger generation from her surrounding neighbourhood. It is a challenge for any religious community to consider how their land, even if only twenty metres square, is actually all the resource needed in beginning to inhabit a neighbourhood.

Second, there is the formational work provided by seasons. Both Grow Your Own and Gardening with Soul are framed by seasons. They are themes easily missed when making one-offsite visits to research urban gardens in Adelaide and Sydney. Neither are seasons often read into an exploration of how gardens are portrayed in biblical narratives. Yet seasons are essential in considering what it might mean to inhabit our neighbourhoods.

Parker Palmer, in Let Your Life Speak, invites us to embrace a seasonal spirituality. As we consider the beauty of autumn, we are faced with the ever present interplay of life and death. In winter, we are offered gifts including dormancy and clarity. Spring teaches us to nurture small beginnings. Summer urges us to abandon ourselves to abundance.[24] For Palmer, such reflection is crucial in the task of influencing our work, homes and neighbourhoods: “We can and we must—if we want our sciences to be humane, our institutions to be sustaining, our healings to be deep, our lives to be true.”[25] A wise gardener discerns the seasons of their lives and their neighbourhoods. This is slow work, but essential work.

In the Cool of the Evening: Practices, Patterns and Postures

So far I have considered gardens in Scripture and described the impact of gardens on two inner-city Australian churches. Two contemporary films have broadened our insights, making us aware of the healing power inherent in the stranger’s gifts and the slow turn of the seasons. But gardens are ultimately not only about reading and watching. They are about getting our hands dirty. I need to end by returning to experience. Let me relate four experiences that, in their handling and holding of soil, offer rich insight into the practices, processes, patterns and postures by which we inhabit our neighbourhoods.

First, there is an experience of shady spiritual practices. Some nights ago we as a family ate ratatouille. The onions had been sweated over a low heat for forty-five minutes, the herbs added fresh from the garden, followed by the fruits of autumn harvest, courgette, eggplant, pepper and tomato. The eggplant had been grown from seed, planted in spring.[26] To be honest, the eggplant had struggled. Only a few germinated. Those that did grew slowly. It was a constant battle to protect them from snails. Then the eggplant was rapidly overtaken by broccoli. When we left for our summer holiday, only two plants remained, each about two centimetres high. On return, the two plants remained, still only two centimetres high. I was disappointed. One month on and there was so little evidence of growth, so few signs of progress. I reluctantly removed what was large and competing (the broccoli) and continued to water. Within a few weeks, the first flowers appeared, followed by the fruit. It hung heavy and black, a gorgeous sheen amid the garden green. Home grown, home cooked, the ratatouille offered a richer sense of deliciousness that evening.

As I tended the garden later that week, I find myself pondering over those with whom I inhabit my neighbourhood. I considered how I had needed to remove the broccoli in order to fully appreciate the eggplant. Removing broccoli was not easy. It looked large and impressive. Yet, with hindsight, it was actually harming the growth of another. I began to realise that the loss of a key person, a key leader, even if an essential part of the team, might in fact be an opportunity for another person to begin to bear fruit—differently, uniquely. I began to inspect my own life, to wonder what habits, attitudes and priorities are in fact choking the life of something else. Such are the practices by which gardens offer insight into how to inhabit a neighbourhood.

Second, there is an experience regarding the process of composting. As with most things spiritual, composting involves a paradoxical mix of great fun and hard work. In my case, it involves pulling on gumboots and a favourite old jersey, to lug around big bags of animal manure, to toss, rake and shovel straw. As I compost, I often find myself in the process of prayer. I think about those who inhabit my local neighbourhood, those who struggle, those who are not yet in faith. I reflect over the news of the week, holding before God the life situations that seem bleak and barren. I offer myself again to God as a co-creator, working to “take care,” to create neighbourhoods that are “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Gen 2:9, 15). Such are the processes by which gardens offer insight on how to inhabit a neighbourhood.

Third, there is an experience of patterns. It is an imaginative experience. It comes out of a conversation with Christy Spier. She has a vision for “edible churches.” In her vision, she imagines a pattern in which every church in Australia is literally edible. Each is growing communities of both food and people. Imagine if edibility was the dominant pattern by which God’s people inhabited their neighbourhood?

Fourth and finally, there is an experience of posture. After a sixteen day absence, my vegetable garden recently gained some well-deserved attention. Some winter compost was spread. The early potatoes were mounded up in case of early frosts. Vegetables were harvested: peas, broccoli, silver beet, spinach, broad beans, cauliflower. Summer vegetables were planted: lettuce, beans, quick-growing cabbage, early season tomatoes. After I finished, I sat in the late afternoon sun, enjoying a beer and some peas picked straight from the garden. It struck me how none of what I was enjoying eating had come easy. There are no shortcuts. Compost takes time. Peas and broccoli need to be planted in autumn if they are to be harvested in spring. Gardening takes a few hours per week, slow and steady, in order, over the year, for the garden to take shape.

This probably says much about urban life together and how we might inhabit our neighbourhoods today. We live in an instant age and expect instant results. It is tempting to copy an urban garden from Adelaide or Kings Cross. Yet gardening with soul takes months and years. It is the invitation, plot by plot and plant by plant to inhabit our neighbourhoods in ways that will let our neighbours become neighbours, in ways both good and diverse.


[1] Ralph Milton, The Essence of Julian: A Paraphrase of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love (Kelowna, B.C.: Northstone, 2002), Chapter 5.

[2] Ann Gilroy, “Green Fingers,” in Land and Place: He Whenua, He Wahi, Spiritualities from Aotearoa New Zealand, ed. Helen Bergin and Susan Smith (Auckland: Accent, 2004), 201–15.

[3] Yvonne McRostie, “Coorparoo Community Garden,” in Colouring Outside the Lines … Celebrating Postgraduate Work in Mission and Ministry from the Adelaide College of Divinity 2010–2014, ed. Rosemary Dewerse (Adelaide: Mediacom, 2014), 27–32.

[4] McRostie “Coorparoo Community Garden,” 30, 33.

[5] Sara Toth, “Pastors in the pasture grow organic congregations,” Science and Theology News (August 2, 2004); http://www.stnews.org/rlr-1346.htm (accessed November 3, 2005).

[6] “Heronswood,” The Diggers Club, http://www.diggers.com.au/gardens-cafes/gardens/heronswood.aspx (accessed December 16, 2014).

[7] Patrick Taylor, The Oxford Companion to the Garden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[8] Sandy Boyce’s presentation at the Leadership Formation Day (Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide, July 2013).

[9] Site visit, October 2013.

[10] The “you” in “You are God’s garden,” in 1 Cor 3:9 is a plural. A literal translation would read, “You, the community, are God’s garden.”

[11] Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 247.

[12] See “Communal Garden,” The Wayside Chapel, https://www.thewaysidechapel.com/communal-garden.php (accessed December 16, 2014).

[13] 29 Hughes Street, Potts Point, Sydney. For the story see “Communal Garden,” The Wayside Chapel, https://www.thewaysidechapel.com/communal-garden.php.

[14] From notes taken during telephone interview with Anna Partridge, Wayside Chapel, October 16, 2014. Name changed to preserve anonymity. This interview built on a visit I conducted in July 2014, which included a presentation by Rev. Graham Long.

[15] Site visit, July 2014.

[16] From notes taken during a telephone interview with Anna Partridge, Wayside Chapel, October 16, 2014.

[17] This is presuming that Jesus sending the seventy-two into “the towns and places where he was about to go” with Luke 10:1 being read alongside Luke 9:51–53, in which Jesus sets out for Jerusalem by passing through a Samaritan village.

[18] This reading occurs as phrases from Luke 10:8–9, including “eat what is set before you,” “heal the sick” and “the kingdom of God has come near,” are read alongside the Deuteronomic code, including the year of Jubilee (Deut 15), building cities of refuge (Deut 19:2–3), a care for neighbour and creation (Deut 22:1–2, 6–7) and justice for the alien (Deut 24:17–18).

[19] See “Communal Garden,” The Wayside Chapel, https://www.thewaysidechapel.com/communal-garden.php (accessed December 16, 2014).

[20] Thanks to Dr George Wieland, Carey Baptist College, for a conversation during the Urban Life Together conference, Melbourne, October 2014, that helped clarify this insight.

[21] Stanley Skreslet, Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2012), 190.

[22] For a full film review of Grow Your Own, see Steve Taylor, “Grow Your Own,” Touchstone, August 2008.

[23] For a full film review of Gardening With Soul, see Steve Taylor, “Gardening with Soul,” Touchstone, August, 2014.

[24] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 95–109.

[25] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 98.

[26] Purchased from The Diggers Club, mentioned earlier in this paper.

Image: mcav0y, Flickr (Creative Commons)


Andre Van Eymeren, "Relating for Gold"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.


I wonder how do you see the people whom you work with? What are the views you hold of the communities that you seek to change? As you reflect on your answers to these questions, a challenge for us in the busyness of the everyday of caring community work, is to remember that each person we come across, whether an old friend, work colleague or a new connection from the street, has inherent worth, because they are a loved creation of our creative God. Each one is made in God’s image and innately reflects something of the divine (Ps 8:4–9). However, for some people and for some communities, this spark of gold is hidden under layers of hurt, rejection, pain and heartbreak.

If we are to be true to the high value God bestows on humankind, we need a framework that will help us dig below the surface that emotional and existential pain present. Relational Thinking (RT)[1] together with Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)[2] helps us establish such a framework and provides us with a rationale and demonstrable methodology or set of principles for our community work.

Through exploration of the relationships that make up community, I will unpack their importance in how they serve to unearth hidden strengths, opening the door for personal and community empowerment. I will introduce you to “Peter,”[3] who began a journey of transformation through forming new relationships. Whilst his journey was an individual one, it readied him for involvement in a process like ABCD that points us to whole communities, and the power of shared vision forged in relationships. The story of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis is a great example of this in action. Understanding the power of relationships in the context of community will help to shape a theology of engagement that recognises God’s Kingdom is in the world and that he invites each one to play a part in its advancement.

Understanding the Relational Web in Our Communities

Think with me for a moment about your local community, either where you live or where your work is based. What are the elements that make up that community? Sometimes it’s hard to stop and analyse the waters that we swim in or the air we breathe. In each of our communities there will be elements that seek to meet the needs we have, whether they present as physical, emotional or spiritual. These include the business community, schools, medical care, friends and family, sporting clubs and other varieties, churches and the religious expressions of other faith communities, libraries, local government, social services, media outlets and so on.

If these elements of the community are working well and in harmony, they form an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world.[4] If you like, a safety net of relationships has been established which affords the individual the opportunity to explore more of their external and internal worlds. There may even be the opportunity to explore new abilities in this context.

Figure 1: Jane’s Community. The ideal community recognises the individual placing them in a relational web, which provides for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs and those of their family.

Unfortunately we know only too well that our communities aren’t like this and in fact the relational web that provides this safety is broken in so many places. The causes of this rupture are numerous including individualism, consumerism, family breakdown, domestic violence, tall poppy syndrome, selfishness, addictions of various types, and the list goes on. The results are equally devastating both for individual psyches and for communities more generally.

Figure 2: Effects of the Broken Web. These are just a few of the results of a broken relational web, as we look at our communities the story is way too familiar.

During the time I spent leading a missional community in Pakenham, on the South Eastern outskirts of Melbourne, I sat on the welfare committee of one of the local primary schools. Each Wednesday of the school term we gathered in the staffroom to work through solutions to some of the most concerning issues that the young students were facing. One morning we discussed the unfortunate divide present in many families and its effects on the children. Pakenham is a sleeper suburb with over 70% of the population leaving the community everyday to go to work. It was also one of the fastest growing suburbs in Australia. These factors had a number of immediate implications. First, it meant that many parents spent long hours each week commuting up to 120 km a day into the CBD. As well the time away from the community, this often led to the focus of the parents’ lives being elsewhere. Even recreation could be removed from the place where their house was situated. On the other side of the equation were the children in the community. They lived their lives in the local community, were encouraged to become active in it and learnt about its history. In a sense made their “home” in the community. The children were experiencing a relational disconnect between their family and the local community. We saw direct links between this disconnect and children “acting out.” They couldn’t name it, yet the divided focus they were asked to live with and the confusion it caused were palpable.

Even within a household the relational web can be broken, leaving the members floating and feeling disconnected from each other and from broader society. Some would question that if the basic building block of a community were to be broken, i.e. the household, is there any point looking to a more utopian hope for our communities? Sociologist Jim Ife believes that we must start with this utopian view, as it provides inspiration and a framework for development that moves us from merely reacting to focus on medium to long-term goals.[5] This thinking is echoed by the prophet Isaiah as he outlines what a community could look like. He sees a place where there is joy, the young and old are valued, each have what they need in terms of shelter and food, there is a strong connection between work and purpose, and the people recognise their dependence on God (Isa 65:17–25). The building blocks for this type of world are relational local communities.

The Rise of Local Relational Communities

Whilst not subscribing to every aspect of “localism,” as a political philosophy and an economic strategy it has something of merit to offer to the conversation around relational communities. As its name suggests, localism prioritises the local. It supports the local production and consumption of goods, local control of government, production of local history, culture and the forming of a local identity.[6] If the connection between these elements were strengthened in any local community, the broken relational web would begin to heal.

Proponents of localism tend to favour the local over the regional, national or global interests. A better way may be to follow the old adage of “think global and act local.” In this sense, we can promote the local with an eye to broader concerns. Local government is beginning to pick up on these notions, not only looking to strengthen the identity and economy of a municipality, but also to foster a place-based approach, which recognises smaller hubs of community by seeking to empower them.

Media expression is also picking up the concept of the local with the rise of what is known as hyper-local journalism. Yarraranges.tv is a burgeoning website focused on the telling of local stories for the purpose of building familiarity and relationships between members of the community.[7] In and of itself the telling of story is important to cement identity and create commonality, however with the further aim of building local connections, storytelling takes on a deeper and increasingly significant role in the community.

Localism is one way to help us understand the importance and to motivate us to be part of the rebuilding of the relational fabric of our communities. I can’t help wondering how different life might have been for my mate Peter, if that fabric had been stronger.


I first met Peter at our Op Shop in Pakenham. Big House Communities, the missional endeavour that Amy (my wife) and I were leading, had finally managed to secure a double shop front. We used the space to sell clothes, furniture, books, bric-a-brac and a host of other items. Then in the spacious back room we were able to create a lounge area and a kitchen space. Each week day a small team of volunteers would make sandwiches or soup, sometimes a cake, which would all be available for those that needed a feed, community or just a place to come, sit and be.

One day, a particularly rough-looking man came for a sandwich. His grey hair was dirty and messy, his skin was a funny yellow colour, with tattoos covering his arms. He arrived with his two best mates Collie and Taebo, who waited patiently outside with a bowl of water. Peter had lived a tough life, someone I suspect who just couldn’t find their fit in the world. Over time, a relationship began to form between Peter and a few of us in Big House. He eventually accepted an offer to stay with one of our families. It wasn’t long till he had bonded with the kids and began to feel somewhat at home. The journey wasn’t always simple and there were a few hiccups along the way, however, in all of this process, through a few key relationships, a new Peter began to emerge. We saw a kind, articulate man who loved to help others. There were constant stories of him working in people’s gardens, building planter boxes and generally being around if people needed a helping hand. The first day he helped at the Op Shop saw him showered, hair tied back and a huge smile on his face as he set off to vacuum the whole shop. Life was never simple for Peter, despite seeing the colour of his skin change and him coming to faith, he eventually died of alcohol-related causes and experienced many ups and downs along the way.

For me, Peter’s story raises a few questions: what are the expectations that we have of a transformed life? As Bart Campolo (now a Humanist Chaplain) said a few years ago at a Conference in Melbourne, “his ticket has already been punched.” Campolo was referring to people like Peter who have lived a very different life to most of us and are fairly entrenched in that life, to the point that they may not be able to make a complete break from it, or at the very least will continue to wear the physical and emotional consequences of chronic alcohol and drug abuse, and possibly criminal activity. Taking into account the complexities of working with people like Peter, what are some guiding principles and the methodology that will help us form meaningful and potentially life changing relationships?

Rebuilding the Relational Web: Creating Relational Proximity

Many of us tend to give airplay to the fact that relationships are important, yet so often we behave in a way that betrays this understanding. I suspect part of the reason for this is the intangible nature of relating to others. As we think about relationships in the context of community, there is the internal relationship that we have with ourselves, the inter-personal relationships and then our interaction with the broader social fabric. The Relational Proximity Framework gives us the tools to understand the complexities of these relationships and what is going wrong when they feel like they are falling apart.

Put simply, the Relational Proximity Framework consists of the five dimensions or levers of a relationship: directness, continuity, multiplexity, commonality and parity. They relate to the domains of a relationship and they have a felt outcome (see Figure 3 below).[8] The following is a little subjective as we explore the experience of the relationship in terms of the type of relationship. The levels of each dimension vary and would be different in a spouse relationship compared to a business relationship. As we go through the five dimensions think about them in terms of one of your significant relationships.

Figure 3: Relational Proximity Framework


This refers to the amount and types of contact. It asks questions like: is the time we spend connecting enough? Directness also explores the mode of communication, whether face to face, phone or email. Today email is fast becoming core to the way we relate, however, what is left out when face to face contact goes missing?

In my relationship with Peter, face to face contact was vital, it was important for me to be able to eyeball him and remind him of the person I saw.


This is about a shared story or history over time. A few years ago I saw my cousin for the first time in ten years. During our later teen years we had a close relationship, often spending the weekends at each other’s place. We then both got married and our paths separated. When we reconnected, after some momentary awkwardness, we picked up right where we left off. Other relationships aren’t like this, as I heard rumour that my High School graduating year is organising a 25th Year Reunion. I haven’t seen or had contact with most of the people in my year over those 25 years, which is rather awkward.

Continuity looks at the foundation or history: have there been time gaps in the relationship’s development? It also looks to the future: do you anticipate a positive future or are the difficulties going to swamp the connection? A sense of belonging is also important for continuity. Belonging is often fostered through genuine welcome and shared tasks, where the other knows that their contribution is seen and valued. Other questions that bring continuity to light include: do both parties show loyalty to the relationship? Do they hold the relationship at the same level of importance?

There were a number of people from Big House who built continuity with Peter. This sense of connection led to Peter affirming one day that the Big House was his home.


This refers to the breadth and depth of knowledge that you possess about the other person. Do you know how they will respond in different circumstances and why? What do you know about their background and their culture? What do you know about their skills, interests and talents? Gaining this sort of knowledge about the other person presumes a level of trust and openness to each other, and so multiplexity is also concerned with appreciation. Does each party feel known and appreciated by the other?

Once every couple of months I catch up with a group of guys to talk about life’s journey and how we are responding to that journey. Although we don’t see each other all that often, we each know a lot about the other men’s lives and can input into the situations they face with a high degree of accuracy. We have spent the time and made the choice to develop the trust that allows us the freedom to be open and honest with each other.

As I think about my relationship with Peter, over time I did begin to recognise patterns of behaviour, but I don’t think I really understood what caused them. I don’t think we had a great degree of multiplexity.


This has to do with the distribution of power in a relationship. As we think about working with marginalised communities, parity is very important to consider. When a trained social or community worker, or even someone volunteering with a church welfare program, is connecting with a client or participant, the power tends to be all in the worker’s favour. These encounters tend to be very disempowering for those for whom we are seeking to make a difference. Thinking about your significant relationship, can each person take action without fear of being told off? Are you consulted, heard? Can you influence the relationship? Can the other person?

The perception of fairness is also very important. Is it fair that a job network provider can decide whether someone is entitled to their Centrelink benefits or not? Is there excessive power on one side? Are the risks and rewards shared fairly in the relationship? Respect is key: is each party valued by the other, for who they are and for what they have to offer?

The relationship between CEO and board is always interesting. As a CEO I was working on a project with a board member and I found my frustration levels increasing. We stopped and took the time to talk it through. I felt that the parity was out because I perceived I was taking the time and financial risk, and if things went south the fallout would affect me more. On talking it through, I realised the board member was making considerable sacrifice to be a part of the project, and in fact we were both equally committed to its outcome.

Was there a level of parity in the relationship between Peter and I that both of us considered fair? For those entrenched in some kind of poverty this question is key. There are a couple of dynamics at work. First, some people on welfare have an entitlement mentality, that they have a right to a certain type of help. This attitude can ultimately disempower the carer and the one being helped. The other dynamic can be one of victim, which can lead to all the power being in the hands of the receiver. I believe for the most part we would both have said the parity was fair, however there were times when Peter chose to play the victim, which caused me to come running. At those moments the level of parity in the relationship was not fair.


This looks to the future: are there shared goals? What will get in the way of achieving them? Is there enough common purpose to overcome the difficulties? Does each party have similar commitment to the goals? Does your connection go beyond achieving the goals? Is the energy created greater than the sum of the parts? Do you have a convergence of values and spirit that almost doesn’t need a goal?

Essentially, commonality asks: what does the future look like? Is there a shared path towards it? Many married couples can struggle once the kids leave home, and commonality can be a part of that struggle. When the kids are at home the common goals are often around raising the family and making sure they are safe and well cared for. As this role changes, couples can find it difficult to re-orientate to a shared future outside the kids.

In the helping relationship, commonality can also be an issue. What is the appropriate level of investment for me as a worker in the goals of a friend from the street? There was a time in our relationship that Peter and I had shared goals for his future. One thing he wanted to do was save money, so each week he would come to me and “deposit” some money that I would hold for him. Then when he wanted to “withdraw,” we would talk through what it was going towards.

The Relational Proximity Framework is a helpful way to think about our relationships, including our “helping” relationships, and check in to make sure our connection with others is empowering them to move forward, not leaving them frustrated and feeling unheard. For Peter being heard and feeling valued were keys to unlocking the gold that was buried under layers of hurt and feelings of being misunderstood. Using this framework to evaluate our helping relationships is key if we are going to empower people to be ready to make the contribution to the broader community that Asset Based Community Development says is so crucial.

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)

Put simply ABCD is a process for the empowerment of whole communities through the utilisation of strengths within that community.[9] Though not a response peculiar to Christian thinking, in our language ABCD recognises the inherent worth and value present in individuals, each person being a loved creation. It also affirms that within each community there are Kingdom possibilities yet to be unearthed.

ABCD builds on and values the contribution of three levels within the community: individuals, organisations and institutions. Kretzman and McKnight emphasise that everyone within a community has something to offer to build it up. This could be in the form of a gift, skill, perspective or some other talent. They especially include the mentally and physically handicapped, and those who sit on the margins within a community.[10] Kretzman and McKnight advocate for an intensive mapping of these assets alongside what organisations and institutions have to offer. In the pure form of this methodology individuals are interviewed to determine their skills, what they might be prepared to offer the community and even what they might be willing to teach others.[11]

The next level of contribution are organisations, or what is called in the United States “citizen associations.” These include churches, sporting clubs, hobby groups, not-for-profits and so on.[12] Kretzman and McKnight believe that the possible contribution of these groups is greatly underestimated, and that they can often be stretched passed their original purpose to become full contributors in the development process.[13]

This potential was demonstrated by recent work I was involved in with the City of Wyndham. They wanted to do a strength-based community planning process, and so we designed a set of questions that helped the community members identify the community groups around them, what they saw as their current strengths and how these strengths could be utilised to realise a vision for the community.

In this kind of mapping, the third level in the community are formal institutions, including businesses, schools, libraries and hospitals. These are some of the most visible aspects in a community and it is relatively easy to list their contributions. It can be difficult to help them gain a holistic view of the community and so motivate them to be involved in the development of the whole community.[14] However, in a local context I believe this conversation is becoming easier as place-based approaches to development are gaining momentum.

Five Steps to Whole Community Mobilisation

By employing an ABCD based methodology, someone in Peter’s position has the potential to be caught up in a process that perhaps for the first time encourages them to see themselves as a valued and needed member of a local community. For those of us who are reasonably functional we can take that perspective for granted, but for someone on the margins such as Peter, that realisation is profound and potentially life-changing.

Kretzman and McKnight outline a five step approach to classic ABCD. Many communities are picking up on the principle of working from a strengths approach, but are not necessarily employing all five steps. However, for our purposes, understanding the original methodology will help in its application.

Step 1: Asset Mapping

As described above, the process of creating a register of skills and perspectives is instrumental in helping each person feel that they have a worthwhile contribution to make. A church with a robust Kingdom theology and appropriate orientation towards the world would be in a good position to facilitate such a process, in fact to be key in all five steps. As completion of the register nears, the community can then ask the question: what resources do we have to tackle the concerns in front of us?[15] The asset map is a living document and one that continually needs to be updated, as new people and organisations become connected into the process.

The Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis has been re-orientating itself over the last decade to truly embrace a strength approach to its community. According to a church member, “the church decided its call was to be good neighbours. And that we should listen and see people as children of God.” This is demonstrated through the work of a roving listener whose job is simply to connect with people and uncover their hopes, dreams and abilities.[16]

Step 2: Building Relationships

Healthy connections are key to the success of this process. Traditionally, churches have done well at fostering internal relationships. This skill can now be turned outward to help the community construct meaningful connections. These networks could be between individuals, or between any of the three layers of the community. Meals and other informal gatherings allow the opportunity for trust to grow and for people to find common ground. Celebration is also another key way to foster the building of relationships.

In the neighbourhood where young people were being killed through involvement in gangs, Broadway’s roving listener discovered forty-five gardeners. He brought them together around a meal with no agenda. Individually none of them had seen their green thumbs as a gift, but together something special emerged. In a community that was dying from obesity and considered a food desert, they began planning a farmers market.[17]

Step 3: Economic Development and Information Sharing

Many parts of local communities are depressed economically, with people suffering from unemployment or under-employment. As people become aware of the skills they have, their ability to start micro-enterprises increases, which in turn increases confidence, and the negative cycle of poverty can begin to be turned around. Businesses, associations and institutions are also encouraged as much as possible to source what they need locally, helping to stimulate the local economy.[18] This has many positive effects, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, since goods are not being transported large distances into the community.

Communication is also key to successful community building. Today, communication can be complicated, however, as the information flow needs to be tracked through local papers, community radio, social media and the “grapevine.” These are also avenues to actively promote new messages.

In Pakenham there were a couple of key communication nodes, the publican at the bottom pub and the barber. I found the barbershop a fascinating phenomenon: the barber was fourth generation and the old men of the town would gather at the shop, sure for haircuts, but I suspect more to have a chat and a catch up on what was happening in the town. So if we wanted to promote a project, I would often talk with him, and if he came on board you knew the informal chain of communication would get worked. We were also regularly in the local papers, with the journalists beginning to chase us for stories at certain times of the year.

Step 4: Community Visioning

If we are working to see community regeneration, this step is vital. The community begins to come together around the creating of a shared identity, vision and values. Without this common thread, the process of regeneration can stall, people can turn inwards and the possibility of a fuller community experience so necessary for human flourishing is diminished. It is important that everyone is invited to the planning table, especially the marginalised. Typically in these sorts of meetings common themes are discovered which begin to set a course of action for the community. It is important to invite buy-in to this process and its outcomes, so people are invested and willing to work together toward change. It is important that the change envisioned is grounded and not excessively future-orientated,[19] as this allows people to enjoy early success and provides motivation for future endeavours.

Broadway Church is now seen as a place you go to for connections. Every spare inch of the church is used for enterprises and initiatives started by locals. The vision for the regeneration of the community comes from people with shared interests and skills. From here various enterprises and groups are formed. As they work towards their shared dreams, one of the outcomes is the creation of a new community, where instead of fear and paralysis, there is ability and hope.

Step 5: Leveraging Outside Resources

As a community develops there may be the need to enlist specialist services, which the community doesn’t have. It is essential that this is the last step in the process.[20] Many communities look at what they are lacking and lament that “they should fix it.” This attitude locks these communities in poverty as they wait for a magic handout. The community working through the ABCD process has become an empowered community, and instead of expecting a handout to fix the community’s issues, they look to partner with the provider of the services they need. The nature of relationship with outside help is vastly different to that of a needy community putting out their hand.[21]

Very early on in the regeneration process, Mike Mather, the pastor at Broadway, called for his congregation to stop helping people.[22] What he meant was for them to stop doing things that continued to entrench poverty and disadvantage. The ceasing of these “helping” activities began a spark that led to the slow process of regeneration.

Another way of expressing ABCD is Asset Based Community Driven. It is essential that the work of regeneration is done by the community, not for it. This approach challenges the welfare models predominant in the social services. Many of these models have a biblical root, where we are told to feed the hungry, look after the poor and so on. Simply handing out goods and services is a misunderstanding of this biblical mandate. For the most part, when the Bible talks about the alleviation of poverty, it is so individuals and the community can participate socially and economically in the broader society. This is what the Broadway church has done so well. A key to ABCD and preparing people for involvement in this kind of enterprise is relationships. In poorer communities, hope has quite often gone missing. There is very little belief that things can ever be any different, personally or for the community. As relationships are developed and trust grows there is the opportunity to feed in an alternate message.


A local community can be described as a place where there is an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world. As we know the relational web in our communities is broken, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction affecting individuals, families and the very fabric of society. However, as people of faith we recognise that God is present in each individual and there are Kingdom possibilities in every community. Each person and every community has gold to be discovered, for many this gold is hidden under layers of poverty, unemployment and a raft of social issues, leaving the individual lost, alone and in pain. To unearth the gold we need to listen and build relationships that focus on the strengths of individuals and communities. In addition, we need to help these strengths come together around a common or multiple planning tables that will help inspire a community to move towards God’s picture of it. The most effective way to build and work towards this common picture is to foster healthy connections that reflect the importance God puts on relationships.

My mate Peter struggled to find a place in life, but slowly over time as our relationship deepened, a beautiful man emerged, who despite many ups and downs was able to make a positive difference in the lives of many. Might we hold the same high view of people that God does, and seek to unearth the gold that is there in individuals and in our communities.


[1] Relational Thinking refers to the work of Michael Schluter, from a Kingdom of God viewpoint he has designed a framework of Relational Proximity which can be used as a guide to establishing life promoting relationships (http://www.jubilee-centre.org, http://relationalthinking.net).

[2] Asset Based Community Development is a methodology for community worked designed by John Kretzman and John McKnight. They established the ABCD Institute that furthers this thinking around the world (http://www.abcdinstitute.org).

[3] Name changed to protect anonymity.

[4] Working definition of a community, developed and taught by Andre Van Eymeren.

[5] Jim Ife, Community Development: Creating Community Alternatives—Vision, Analysis and Practice (Melbourne: Longman, 1995), 98.

[6] “Localism (Politics),” Wikipedia, last modified July 17, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Localism_(politics) (accessed August 4, 2015).

[7] “About Us, ” Yarraranges.tv, http://yarraranges.tv/ (accessed August 4, 2015).

[8] Various in-house training modules, the concept first appeared in Michael Schluter and David Lee, The R Factor (London: Hodder & Stoughton Religious, 1993).

[9] John Kretzman and John McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilising a Community’s Assets (Chicago, IL: ACTA, 1993), 1.

[10] Andre M. Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom: An Argument for Asset Based Community Development in Local Communities as a Practical Expression of the Kingdom’s Advance” (MA Minor Thesis, University of Divinity, 2012), 66.

[11] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 6–7.

[12] Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 66.

[13] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 6.

[14] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 8.

[15] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 346.

[16] “Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church,” Faith and Leadership, 3 https://www.faithandleadership.com/death-and-resurrection-urban-church (accessed September 22, 2015).

[17] “Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church,” 10.

[18] Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 68.

[19] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 352.

[20] Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 69.

[21] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 354.

[22] “Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church,” 2.

Image: oatsy40, Flickr (Creative Commons)


Michael Blumel, "Seekers of the Light" (Case Study)

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.


Living in a world of multinational non-government organisations and longstanding denominational institutions, it can be easy to think that the only way to serve those on the margins is through one of these vehicles. But, as most of us are very aware, as soon as we try to put the Trinitarian God into a box they break free and once again show us the power and presence that drew us to them in the first place. The story of Seekers of the Light is one that shows how the Trinity is able to work through a few faithful but fairly inexperienced followers to serve a group of people who our nation’s leaders have openly stated aren’t welcome here. While the boats may have stopped, those who miraculously made it to our shores before this policy are still here. And they’re still being ignored.

In many ways, Seekers of the Light failed to expand into anything more than a small group of disciples following a simple plan. Our mission was to create a program that would support asylum seekers as they became interdependent members of Australian society. We sought to do this first by meeting their material needs, and then by empowering them to serve their new neighbours, to become active participants in a society that still treats them as worse than convicted criminals.[1] How did we do this? By identifying what gifts this group had to share. Why were we doing this? Because Jesus did it, and it seemed to be the only way forward to change the conversation and to seek transformation at a time when there still appears to be little hope.

So we began to journey with a small group of men, women and children from Iran and Afghanistan, enjoying many feasts together that some might describe as “biblical.” In Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus telling his followers that when they organise a banquet, those on the margins should be included on the guest list (Luke 14:13). What we aren’t told is that a lot of the time those on the margins are the ones that make it fun and worthwhile. The hospitality that we were shown by our new friends from overseas taught us so much about how to welcome strangers. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that people from the Middle East can teach us more about our faith, by seeing the Christian movement’s origins as “down the road” from where they grew up.

The miracle that took place during these meals was more profound than just learning about hospitality. During these “banquets,” we saw people from all walks of life coming together to share a meal. We saw lawyers, mothers, fathers, students, Christians and Muslims eating at the same table. These labels disappeared as we gathered as neighbours. In a lot of ways, the best way to describe our new view on the world is through a quote of Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”[2] And out of this view came an idea.

Advocacy had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t seen too many examples that really seemed to work. The protest marches in the city were great at shining a spotlight on an issue, but would very rarely engage those who needed to hear the messages being shouted down Swanston Street. So we decided to try a different approach. Instead of us “doing” the advocacy by ourselves, we should empower our friends to do it. At the end of the day, they were the ones who were doing it tough, we were just walking alongside them and trying to share the burden a bit. Our community needed to hear their stories from their mouths, not through a spokesperson, as I had gradually started to become. But how could we share their stories in a way that people could relate to them? The answer was simple: share a meal with them.

After organising several well-attended advocacy events in the lead up to the 2013 Federal Election, we started to divert our energy into a different style of advocacy. We invited people over to our homes for meals. We talked to local churches about hosting a Persian Feast or an Afghan BBQ. And we had a lot of fun along the way. Due to the informal nature that Seekers of the Light had adopted, we were able to move quickly when opportunities arose, using our own personal resources to fund the events and praying that the money raised would be enough to reimburse us. It should come as no surprise that we were very rarely left out of pocket.

At the end of this run of events, we were all a bit rundown and tired, but we were fuelled by the positive feedback that we received by almost everyone who came along. We were able to provide a platform for our friends to do what came naturally to them, while taking a step back to let them receive the praise. It felt good not to be the centre of attention, as so often happens when we step out in faith and serve those on the margins. Over time, we also started to a noticeable change in some of our friends, who were finally starting to see that not everyone in Australia was against them. It was a great experience for them to share about the struggles that they have faced and continue to face, and to see the compassionate response of those in the audiences. After the events, many people would go out of their way to talk to our friends, encouraging them and offering to help out in their own way. Some great friendships were also formed as strangers became neighbours and “illegals” became people.

Despite this successful season, at the end of last year Seekers of the Light came to an end. Not because we gave up, but because seeds that God had planted in the hearts of others were starting to grow. Other organisations were sprouting up around us and we saw no need to keep building our own group. We felt as though our work was done and it was time to support others as they embarked on a similar journey. Today these groups are thriving. Every so often I have the privilege of paying them a visit and cheering them on as they continue to be God’s hands and feet on the ground. Many of our friends who we’ve now been journeying with for two or three years still remain part of our lives. The feasts aren’t as regular or as big, but on special occasions we still gather together to celebrate the little milestones. I wish I could say that their lives have been transformed, but for many the future doesn’t look bright. They live in fear, praying that they won’t be sent back to their countries of origin. Somehow this fear doesn’t stop them from laughing with us, sharing their food and making us feel welcome in their new homes. There is still a hope that drives them, and will continue to do so. The attitude of many of them is that after all they’ve been through there’s no way that they can give up now.

So that’s the story of Seekers of the Light. An ordinary program that failed to expand, but in the process had the opportunity to see a small glimpse of God’s Kingdom. As I read through the gospels today, I find myself being able to understand many of the stories in a much deeper way. By trying to follow in the footsteps of our Creator, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by all the injustice and despair that never seems to end. But as I get to the end of Matthew’s gospel, I find solace and encouragement in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31–46). At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is the way that we love God and God’s people. If there’s one thing I can say about our little program is that we really tried to do both.


[1] Asylum seekers on Temporary Protection Visas receive 89% of the lowest welfare payment, and their status as residents of Australia is assessed every three years. Also taking into account the underlying racism that exists towards people from Muslim backgrounds, it could be argued that asylum seekers are firmly placed at the bottom of Australia’s societal ladder, despite never breaking the law. Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, “Temporary Protection Visas,” http://www.asrc.org.au/resources/fact-sheet/temporary-protection-visas/ (accessed August 5, 2015).

[2] J.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994), 636. 

Image: su-lin, Flickr (Creative Commons)

John Catmur, Jo Wieland, and George Wieland, "Prayer-Led Community Engagement: Mangere Baptist Church, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand" (Case Study)

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.


Mangere is a south Auckland suburb of about 40,000 people, spreading from Auckland Airport to the iconic Mangere Mountain that descends to the shore of the Manukau harbour. Notable for its Māori history and for the market gardens that flourished in the fertile soil in the shelter of the mountain, the area underwent dramatic change in the 1960’s and 70’s with residential development, including major state housing provision, taking over some of the market gardens, and through demographic change largely consisting of significant immigration from the Pacific nations. Mangere today shares the experience common to many urban communities of high unemployment, low levels of education, inadequate accommodation, poor health, and high rates of crime and gang-related activity. And yet Mangere is one of the most churched areas in New Zealand. At weekends, hymns, songs, prayers and preaching ring out from over a hundred churches, school halls and other public buildings, mostly in the languages of the Pacific peoples who comprise over 70% of Mangere’s population.

Mangere Baptist Church was founded in the 1960’s in what was then a growing suburb, and it flourished for a number of years. Like other largely Euro congregations in the area, however, it began to experience numerical decline as the demographic composition of the neighbourhood shifted, and at the end of last year the small group of seven or eight remaining members had to decide whether—and if so, why—the church should continue. This group, comprising for the most part people who had felt a call of God to love and invest in the Mangere community, came to the decision that we would look for someone to join the group and serve as pastor, but not in the conventional sense.

John takes up the story:

As the new pastor of Mangere Baptist Church I had some choices to make at the beginning of my ministry. A strong resolve that emerged was to build my ministry around the metaphor of missionary. This threw up a number of missionary questions such as “What shall I do?” The most pressing answer seemed to be to engage immediately in praying for the community. I formed two resolutions. One was to spend the mornings walking around Mangere praying, and the afternoons doing everything else. The other was to lead the church on a parallel journey, with the metaphor of the missionary being our guiding and organising principle.

The prayer ministry yielded fruit on a number of levels. First, the spiritual engagement with God was a fruit in itself. Second, I found a very strong sense of vision for the community developing as I sensed the Spirit inspiring specific prayers and dreams for different sectors and groups. But third, the constant exposure to and preoccupation with the community displaced the church as my centre of attention. This helped to lead me and, I believe, the church through a paradigm shift. Instead of starting with the church as our main focus and concern, we started with the community.

When we do this we find ourselves asking different questions. Instead of, “How can we grow our church?” we ask, “How can we transform our community?” Instead of asking in a vacuum, “What shall we do to reach out?” we engage constantly with the community in prayer and relationship and see what God throws up. Instead of “growing the church” centrifugally but adding more and more ministries, programmes, staff and buildings, we pray for and support groups in the community, looking for them to be themselves transformed and able to carry out their own kingdom mandates. The churches in the community become spiritual sponsors rather than primary protagonists.

A few months ago our church started to pray for our local marae (the centres of Māori community life). I then met the manager of the marae closest to our church building and discovered that, just after we had been praying, she had begun to have dreams from God and had become a follower of Jesus. She has a strong sense that her kaupapa (mission) is to lead her people on the marae into faith in Jesus and into serving the community from that perspective. Our role, instead of “reaching out,” has become to encourage this “church plant” and explore with them what it means to express authentic faith and following of Jesus in an authentically Māori way (a difficult topic in New Zealand).

It soon became apparent to me pragmatically and spiritually that our church of fifteen people was not going to be the saviour of Mangere! So once again the “start with the community” principle changes our attitude and interactions with other churches. To us every church and every believer in Mangere is as relevant and important as our own church as stakeholders of the vision for transformation. This is reflected in our prayer life as we ask God for the strengthening, purifying and empowering of all our hundred plus churches in the community. Because our vision is not for our church but for the community, more than one church can embrace it. I have been able to begin building relationships with other churches in the area and, for the first time in twenty years, local pastors have begun gathering together, specifically for the purpose of praying for our community. Once again God has gone before us as the passion our other pastors displayed immediately was quite unexpected and has even grown through our early meetings.

The common conundrum of holding together the eternal and temporal aspects of salvation has proved to be no problem in our setting. One of the first prayers I felt God leading me in was simply, “Salvation in the community.” By this I mean repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus, baptism, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit. But if we take seriously the imparted righteousness that begins with the giving of the Paraclete, then we see the possibility of social change as people gain new loyalties (to Jesus and his way), new values and new behaviours. So, like a flower, the root is “salvation” and the fruit is social change. This of course is not the whole story regarding social development, but personal conduct must play a huge part in it.

The vision that grew was, in summary, of Mangere as a light to Auckland. This could be extended to the nation and even internationally. Mangere is the location of New Zealand’s foremost airport and as Mangere residents who work there interact with passengers, so the grace of God may be poured out upon all sort of people from all sorts of places. The responsibility for this vision lies not with me, or us, but with God and all the believers in the community and is achieved firstly through laying a very deep foundation of prayer. This may or may not take years.

The practice of prayer as our primary “outreach” tool brings some interesting reflections on the missio Dei. As we sense God giving us prayers to pray for all manner of people and organisations in our community, we are not immediately propelled into programmes and activities, but primarily into more prayer. This puts the brakes on our activist tendency to rush into what seem to be good ideas, and accordingly it leaves room for God to demonstrate what God has begun to do about the things that we are being stirred to be concerned about. The experience recounted above with our local marae is just one example of being led in prayer for an area of concern and finding out later that God has already been at work. When this happens, the way forward is much clearer, as we are responding to a specific divine act and so are able to synchronise our support more naturally. It’s like joining a game of sport that is already in progress—it’s pretty clear what you need to do as you come onto the field.

On Sunday the missionary metaphor directs our services. Instead of regular “expository preaching,” the talk is often about one aspect or another of our community. This serves to keep Mangere before the eyes of the congregation and beating in our hearts. When we have “visiting speakers,” they are people from the community, such as the police or our MP. The climax of the service is intercessory prayer, fuelled by the information and exhortation we have just received. Pastoral care and Bible teaching does occur and will grow in the future, but because the Sunday service is so significant for setting the culture of the church, it has been crucial that our Sunday gatherings are shaped by the mission mode, community focus and emphasis on prayer by which we participate with God in his saving transformation of the community that we love.

Image: Nancy Gowler Johnson, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Jude Waldron, "Armadale Baptist: Not Just a Pretty Face" (Case Study)

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.


My church was built more than 120 years ago. It has an attractive facade that is heritage listed, and the council has prohibited us from demolishing parts of it that are falling over because it has nice cornices. It has an organ that is also heritage listed, and noted in the Melbourne Organ Society for its elegance and beauty. I have heard it played twice in five years: once was for a wedding, another for a funeral. This is the story of the suburb of Armadale. A pretty face, a facade, is of high value. The street around the corner from our building has many beautiful cafes, antique stores, galleries and bridal shops. There are, in fact, eleven bridal shops on High Street in one block, between Kooyong and Glenferrie Roads. There is an industry here of making an impression.

There is also a culture of self-sufficiency. It would be terrible in our culture here to lose face. This translates to looking impressive, and being closed. Most houses, many of them single occupancy, have large imposing front gates on thick walls, with security systems. You don’t get to know your neighbours here. My husband and I tried to get to know our neighbours, but after five years, we have failed. No one borrows things here. Things are bought. No one does things on the street, unless you are running in Lycra with the iPod plugged in your ears. James and I asked the ultimate question of neighbourliness: “What would Simon Holt do?” and decided to bake gingerbread to give to our neighbours at Christmas time. On the first Christmas we had been living there four months. No one knew who we were when we knocked on their doors with the gingerbread, and after establishing that we weren’t trying to sell them electricity (the only people who knock on doors in Malvern are from an energy company), they were delighted to accept the gingerbread. It was another year before another conversation, again with the gingerbread. The next, we were greeted warmly as the gingerbread men for our yearly catch up. Once we tried to invite people to watch the Grand Final with us, but they all politely declined, explaining that they were members and would be attending in person. Telling my congregation to do mission by being good neighbours was just not going to work. The church has a mission statement that refers to meeting people’s needs with acts of love. But we were constantly scratching our heads as to what needs these people have. Their whole life was organised around the principle of not needing anything or anyone. I went to the local council and asked what they perceived the needs to be. They said one thing: the biggest health problem was isolation. I could believe it: you don’t build a community on one gingerbread Christmas conversation per year!

This is what I stumbled upon. I had started a community choir, knowing that this was an “artsy” suburb, and built some good relationships around the music. One day I was having coffee in one of the High Street cafés with a choir member, and as she talked I realised that her overpriced muffin was going to count as lunch, since she wasn’t able to afford three square meals. We were friends, so I invited her and her partner to join James and me for dinner later that week. We ate thick juicy steaks with fresh veggies and had lots of leftovers to take home. But it wasn’t charity. We were friends. She was doing us a favour by taking the food off our hands. We had lots of mutual respect: she’s a good singer and her partner is a great musician. But they were young hopefuls from the country, come to study in Melbourne, and had found out the hard way that Armadale is an expensive place to live. They would never consider themselves poor ... but they couldn’t afford to eat. The more I made friends with the choir members, the more I kept hearing this story: the hopeful fortune seeker, come to Melbourne for an opportunity in education or their career, from interstate or overseas. They look for a place to live that is close to the CBD, has good public transport and so on, but don’t realise that this isn’t Brunswick. Too late, they realise that they can’t keep up the cost of living and they are about to lose face. They would never go to a soup kitchen. They would never accept clothes or material goods from charity. They would never admit to being poor, and they continue to pay their exorbitant rent for as long as they can. But they are happy to have dinner with us, and quietly admit that they don’t have furniture in their house.

Similarly, at “mainly music” (again, the arts, but for toddlers), our most common family profile is the father who is furthering his career, moved from interstate or overseas with his wife and one little one for a year or so. They have no family, friends or community connections. They need someone to believe they have something good to offer, to recognise them. They wouldn’t admit they are struggling, but we’re the only ones who can give their child a birthday present personally, or pop around with a casserole.

So the strategy for mission in Armadale is this: no charity. Do not offer help. In fact, I find myself asking these friends for favours long before I can offer them anything I have. Instead, do the “arty thing”: because we can keep our dignity in sharing our talents. Speak as though everyone is absolutely competent, because to assume less is an insult. This is slow, patient work requiring keen eyes and ears. One time when our choir had taken a supper break in rehearsal, I noticed people hoeing into the Tim Tams. I was cheeky enough to ask about it, and discovered that for some it was the only meal (plus some Doritos or a muesli bar) for the day. I suggested that the next week we have dinner beforehand, I bake potatoes and everyone bring a topping: most people can afford a can of corn, some ham or sour cream. We had a year of potato dinners and became the closest thing to family these people had. But it wasn’t “charity”: everyone was contributing. We were being friends.

Does this translate to metrics like “bums on pews” or baptisms? It doesn’t. But it has resulted in saving the lives of the depressed. It’s been the lifeline of stability during transition. As one person said to me, “This choir is the only good thing in my life since I came to Melbourne.” Of course, they’re also quite curious about how I live my religious life in such a down to earth way. In lots of ways this has made me re-think the incarnation of God and Jesus’ interactions with others. We exalt Jesus, reading stories of him casting out demons, stilling storms and miraculously healing the sick. It helps my faith to remember these stories when I feel threatened, in a storm and powerless in mission. The Lord of the Universe is here among us, working mysteriously as the Kingdom does come. But also I’m learning from the stories of Jesus having need and asking for help. Jesus invites his friends to pray with him. He asks a Samaritan woman for a drink. He learns from the Syro-Phoenician woman. He is shown hospitality by Mary and Martha. He operates from a knowledge that every person has something to give. This is often the mistake of the Christian Church: we know that we have something to offer, but forget that maybe others also have something to offer us. I have benefitted so much from the genuine care, fun friendship, insightful advice, soul-inspiring sounds and intriguing stories of people to whom my church thinks I’m ministering.

The mistake of the average Armadalian is that they don’t know what they need. In these stories of Jesus being ready to receive, he is also able to allow them to be fragile. His vulnerability makes it okay to have need, too. This has been the case for me. I have had to show my fragility. These friends have seen me be sick, seen me cry, seen me stress and seen me stuff up. They’ve seen my brain freeze in rehearsal. They’ve seen me flustered with administration because I’m terrible at it. They’ve seen me wage war against my weight and exercised with me. They’ve seen me weep in grief ... and wept with me. And as I’ve been fragile, they’ve allowed themselves to tell me of their fragility: the unexpectedness of a pregnancy and the disapproval that this has brought, the bullying at work, the anxiety of being in a social situation, the miscarriage, the abusive relationship, the onset of cancer, the unforgiveness in a family, the suicidal thoughts that are answered in the lyric of a song we sing with hope. One person said to me, “I don’t know how to pray, but I say the words of these songs, and they help.” Armadalians don’t know that they need community, spirituality, ritual, rest, fun or power outside of themselves, until they see their new friends at the church demonstrate their need for it too. It’s not our competence that brings healing. It’s our incompetence that demonstrates the process of healing.

I’d like to finish with a song that I wrote for the choir’s Christmas event a couple of years ago. It’s exactly about the struggle of the typical Armadalian who is so self-sufficient that they have no room for the grace and generosity of God. This is us in rehearsal, so you get a sense of the spirit of our group being silly.


Don’t come knockin’ on my door, I got no room

Don’t come knockin’ on my door, I got no room

I got no room for joy, I got no room for light

Yeah, I would rather be sitting in the darkness and cursing the night.


Don’t come knockin’ on my door, I got no room

Don’t come knockin’ on my door, I got no room

I got no room for rest, I got no room for peace

Yeah I would rather be trapped in all my hurry than find some release


“I got a gift of love” Got no room for love

“I got a gift of hope” Got no room for hope

“I got a gift of joy” Got no room for joy

“I got a gift of peace” Got no room for peace, Don’t!


Don’t come knockin’ on my door, I got no room

Don’t come knockin’ on my door, I got no room

I got no room for help, I got no room for hope,

Yeah I would rather be working all alone at the end of my rope.

Image: Wikipedia

Greg Manning, "199 Songs" (Case Study)

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.


Lest old acquaintance be forgot[1]

And never brought to mind

Lest old acquaintance be forgot

I’d like to have a drink with Dunc

I’d like to meet his friends[2]


Like Kipper Jackey

The Reverend Hanley and

The Duke of York

I’d like to meet the boatman

From the customs wharf


Sweet water with Duncan

I’d like to hear them all talk.

In 2013, some friends (Peter and Jon) and I traveled on some buses during an international music festival, Fete de la Musique, to sing a song for the passengers. The buses we boarded plied the 199 route. The name of our song, “199 Songs,” implied an abundance of songs. The memorials along this route (mostly in the form of street and place names) are bursting with so much content that they could easily inspire at least 199 songs about the creation of Brisbane city.[3]

Our song aimed to provide a soundtrack, which might give meaning to what is visible through the window to commuters through Brisbane’s central business district. It referred to street signs, statues and other visible features, which are so common that they commonly go unnoticed. It acknowledged the music of Slim Dusty, the poetry of Robbie Burns (who makes a spectacular appearance along the journey), the sound of the electronic card reader on the bus, and an Irish tradition of singing the news and social happenings to each other. It reflected on “The Progress of Civilization in the State of Queensland,” which appears in the form of a huge stone pageant at the centre of the journey.

Our journey went between Cordelia St, South Brisbane, and Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley. The route crosses the Victoria Bridge, traverses Wickham St and crosses Duncan St (which is better known, today, as the China Town Mall), Wharf St and Creek St. It is rich in memorials to the origins of Brisbane city.

This journey takes place between the names of two ships: Cordelia and Fortitude. The S.S. Fortitude was a migrant ship chartered by the Rev Dr John Dunmore Lang.[4] In 1849, it arrived in Moreton Bay without warning or arrangement, and its passengers faced a series of official rejections. [5] HMS Cordelia was a warship involved in the Taranaki War of 1860.[6] In 1859, it brought Queensland’s first Governor to Brisbane. He was greeted with great ceremony. Captain John Clements Wickham processed the contrasting arrivals of both ships.[7] He is one of the many possible links between the names at the two ends of this journey.

The organisers of both ships wanted to define the North East of Australia. The destination of Her Majesty’s Ship, Cordelia, was “Queensland.” Those on the Fortitude saw their destination as “Cooksland,” thanks to the energetic agitation of the Rev Dr Lang. Both ships carried people who were identified with a memorial explaining how they had access to the land.

Ten years before the Fortitude arrived in Moreton Bay, Lang had organised a group of missionaries to live in the Moreton Bay area. In his promotion of “Cooksland,” Lang described a situation in which one of these missionaries was explaining to the Traditional Owners that they were being displaced, and dispossessed of their land by the many soldiers of “the great white Jin”[8] (also known as Queen Victoria). In doing so, this missionary introduced the concept of Queen’s land, long before the name arrived.

Our song set the scene for a commute through 21st century Brisbane, with some stylized introductions contrasting the initial encounters between the passengers of two ships and Captain Wickham. The introductions then move to the missionary’s warning of the coming dispossession in the name of the Queen.

Wickham to Fortitude

Come in Fortitude

Fortitude to Wickham

We’re the sheep of his pasture.


Wickham to Fortitude

We don’t want to see you.[10]

Wickham to Cordelia.

Come in Cordelia


Wickham to Fortitude

We don’t want to see you

Wickham to Cordelia

We’ve been waiting for you

Wickham to Cordelia

Come in Cordelia

Cordelia to Wickham

Welcome aboard


Since the great white Jin

Had the river surveyed,

She’s the queen of the salt water,

The queen of the shade

Queen Victoria’s queen of the bridge[11] long before it was made

Amidst the aspirations and exasperations in these introductions, the song aimed to find a way to offer respect to the Turrbul and the Jagera, who are the Traditional Owners of the land along this route. In order to do this, the song turned to another character named along the route and who was also present in the life of John Wickham: William Duncan. We took interest in Duncan, because of a speech by a Turrbal woman, Maroochy Baramba. During a speech at the unveiling of a statue, which is related to another statue along the route, she said,

I am a direct descendant of the few Turrbal People that survived the adverse impact of European settlement in Brisbane from the 1820s onward. Whilst the Turrbal experience was rather ugly, brutal and devastating, some humanitarians emerged around that time. They include people such as William Duncan and Isaac Moore.[12]

William Duncan, sub-inspector of customs, was one of three Brisbane officials who boarded the Fortitude on its arrival in Moreton Bay. In his company, Dr Ballow recommended the passengers be denied immediate access to the mainland, for fear it would create a Typhus epidemic in the colony. Mr Richardson, the store keeper, declined Lang’s written request that he provide food to the passengers of the Fortitude on their arrival in Brisbane.

We’ve been exposed! [13]

We’ve been exposed to

So many different versions of events.

Do we believe what the papers say?

Or William Duncan’s friends?

Well, not if you’re the magistrate,

He knows who’s been defamed.[14]

I’d like to have a drink with

anyone who can’t be named.


Like the pilots,

And the croppies,


The Moreton Bay man



And the owners of the grang-grang


Take me to the water with Duncan

I’d like to learn all that slang.

Our song drew on an article in the Moreton Bay Courier[15] in which Wickham presented a series of interviews he conducted, following a police attack on an Aboriginal camp in the vicinity of (what is now known as) Fortitude Valley. These interviews highlight distinct differences between Wickham’s and Duncan’s relationships with Aboriginal people. Despite these differences, Wickham and Duncan’s agreement about the location of the Customs Wharf shaped the city of Brisbane as we see it today. Wharf St is the location for the following lyric.

We don’t always agree

On where or

What was the effect of a shot or

The spot for the town’s most lucrative dock.


The customs wharf put Wickham and Duncan

In the same corner.


But they’d come out swinging

Over the Duke of York

And York’s Hollow’s





Tea and sugar with Duncan

And deadly Hollow talk.

It is not always obvious what is behind the naming of a street. Near Cordelia St, the route crosses Hope St and passes Fish Lane. The words “hope” and “fish” might harbour romantic connotations, but on this journey, Messrs Hope and Fish were both merchants in Brisbane. Wharf St is, however, the road to the old Customs Wharf. Creek St roughly follows a natural water course, which the English speakers initially called “Wheat Creek.”

The crossing of Creek St provides an opportunity to reflect further on what the street signs memorialize. This verse highlights a selection of ways in which Brisbane’s street names can be scrutinised in the process of trying to identify the memorials to which they point.

Look at the terrain.

I’m looking down the drain

For the creek

The street swallowed and crossed

And followed and flushed.

Lest old acquaintance be forgot. [16]


Who was this creek?

Whose mother?

Whose loss?

Were you really a creek?

I’m looking down the drain.


Are you Captain Creek?

Or the Earl of Creek?

Are you the sound of creek?

The cold English town of Creek?

Are you the battle?

The treaty?

The defeat of Creek?

Are you King?




HMS Creek?


Who fed the wheat fields,

And the Petries,

And the Duke of York?

The magistrate,

And anyone who’s come here before

Builders dropped the last drain

And drained the last drop?


I’d love to drain the last drop

with Duncan

In the course of his interview with Wickham, Duncan made a stinging accusation. He testified that the pilots and the surveyors had kidnapped Aboriginal women. Perhaps he used his interview with Wickham in the print media to try to stimulate a deeper reflection. Even if that is not what he was doing then, his testimony in the Moreton Bay Courier of 1847 is having that effect now.

I’m looking twice at

The statues in King George Square


Twice at the triangle, and

Twice at the square.

We get two grabs at industry,

Two candidates for mayor.[17]

Is that the cleaner with a stallion?

The Cook’s real hair?

“Some one’s missing,” says Dunc [18]


Look everywhere.


Twice at the triangle, and

Twice at the square.

Is that an introduced species?

Was that already there?

Twice at the street names.

It’s the same story there.

We get two Petrie bites [19] at

King George Square.


See the aging of the translator [20]

For the Duke of York

We get two shots

With the man who’s off to explore. [21]

Two shots with Duncan

Feels like we’ve been here before


I’ll have a double shot with Duncan

I’m seeing double,

Maybe more.

The respect this song intends is to acknowledge that we have heard the words of a living Turrbul woman. Her words have affected what we see. The sources informing this song contain a lot of distressing content, which add some detail to her summary comments. They also provide enough information to show why she might have affirmed one of the characters named in the streets along the route. It intends to be a song about listening and learning, more than a song about knowing and telling.


[1] A large statue of Robert Burns stands amongst the trees in Centenary Place. Burns is often credited with today’s popular versions of “Auld Lang Syne,” a tribute to relationships in times gone by.

[2] The streets are references to people in relationship with multitudes of people who are not mentioned in place names. This song focuses on William Duncan’s relationships, which are identified in the following article in the Moreton Bay Courier from 1847. Available at http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/3709940 (accessed March 17, 2015).

[3] An example of other lyrical content from this route is Samuel Wagan Watson’s poem, “Last Exit to Brisbane.”

[4] Joyce and Neville Bryant, “SS ‘Fortitude’,” personal homepage, http://www.halenet.com.au/~jvbryant/fortlet1.html#anchor488326 (accessed March 17, 2015).

[5] Elaine Brown, “The Voyage of the Fortitude,” in Schemes and Dreams: Nineteenth Century Arrivals, ed. Jennifer Harrison and Barry Shaw, BHG Papers no.23 (Brisbane: Brisbane History Group, 2014), 54–73.

[6] “World Naval Ships Forums,” Jelsoft Enterprises, http://www.worldnavalships.com/forums/showthread.php?t=13363 (accessed March 17, 2015).

[7] Mervyn Royle, “John Clements Wickham: A Man of Many Parts,” in Schemes and Dreams: Nineteenth Century Arrivals, ed. Jennifer Harrison and Barry Shaw, BHG Papers no.23 (Brisbane: Brisbane History Group, 2014), 74–90.

[8] John Dunmore Lang, Cooksland in North-eastern Australia, The Future Cottonfield of Great Britain: Its Characteristics and Capabilities for European Colonization. With a Disquisition on the Origin, Manners, and Customs of the Aborigines (London: Longmans, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1847).

[9] The passengers of the Fortitude sang Ps 100 on their departure from England. The psalm centres on the phrase, “We are the sheep of his pasture.”

[10] These are not Wickham’s words, but they express the rejection Wickham embodied as the senior colonial official in Brisbane when the passengers of the Fortitude were officially denied access to the people, the land and the food of Brisbane.

[11] I.e., Victoria Bridge.

[12] “Speech by Maroochy Baramba at the Unveiling of the Tom Petrie Memorial” (speech, Petrie, 21 September 21, 2010); http://dakibudtcha.com.au/Turrbal/ (accessed March 17, 2015).

[13] “Shall we drag their real names into daylight?” asks the Editorial on Saturday, February 13, 1847. The Moreton Bay Courier considers exposing personalities who seemed to want to expose other events.

[14] “There was no dependence to be placed on what he said, as he was so great a liar.” This is how Wickham, the magistrate, is reported to have resisted hearing the complaint of the Duke of York.

[15] “Local Intelligence—The Aboriginals Inquiry,” Moreton Bay Courier, February 13, 1847, 17.

[16] Two men called Walter Petrie drowned in the waters of this creek.

[17] The triangle refers to the sculpture, “The Progress of Civilisation in the State of Queensland” (framed in the triangular feature over the main entrance to City Hall). The “square” refers to the memorial to the Petrie family in King George Square. The “triangle” presents primary industries, whilst the “square” presents the construction industry. The triangle presents a generic mayor in the form of “the state,” while the square presents us with a specific mayor in John Petrie.

[18] William Duncan suggested that the kidnapping of Aboriginal women may have been related to the conflict which was in full public view. There do not appear to be any Aboriginal women in either statue.

[19] Petrie Bight was a name used for the river bank near the Customs Wharf, as it was where the Petrie family lived.

[20] Thomas Petrie served as a translator in the “Aborigines Inquiry,” as well as during “field” encounters between Turrbul-speaking and English-speaking people. He is portrayed as a child in one statue. An older, yet still son-like, character appears at the interface between the two races in another statue.

[21] The “explorer” in each statue is the man with the gun.

Image: stk20, Flickr (Creative Commons)