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.

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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.

“Innkeeper”

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