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. 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.” 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.
 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).
 J.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994), 636.
Image: su-lin, Flickr (Creative Commons)