Bringing Church (Questions) to Canberra
– By Dr. Kate Harrison Brennan
Against the backdrop of Australia’s overseas aid lower than it’s ever been, and 102 children detained on Nauru, I travelled to Canberra last Thursday at the end of the Parliamentary sitting week. I was part of a Micah Australia delegation of female Christian leaders that included leaders representing a range of Christian communities, from Hillsong Church to the Salvation Army and others. Our purpose? In a word: mercy.
Along with other Church leaders in Australia, we serve the 15 percent of Australians who attend a Church service, more in number than those who gather in stadiums across the country during footy season. And the majority (60 percent) of those who attend Church in Australia, as the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) in 2016 has shown, are women.
More importantly, however, as Church leaders, we serve those who don’t grace the doors of a Church, including those who don’t plan to, any time soon. Our Church communities do this, as they have always done, through salt of the earth people. Their community involvement and impact in Australian communities, though little known but increasing every year, challenges what is often assumed by those who speak about the demise of religion in public life.
Leigh Ramsey, for instance, is Senior Pastor of Citipointe Church and part of our delegation. Citipointe feeds more than 3,500 high school students breakfast meals in Brisbane each week. Leigh also founded ITS NOT OK projects as well as helped spearhead She Rescue Home in Cambodia that cares for girls otherwise forgotten. Vikki Howorth, Social Justice Pastor at Seaforth Baptist Church and also part of our delegation, runs community advocacy events to address the issue of modern day slavery as well as workshops that equip people to consume ethically. These examples are indicative of the reach of faith-based social action in Australia, which is extensive. For example, faith-based charities are the single largest category of charity in Australia, according to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission, with almost half of these registering a charitable purpose in addition to advancing religion (ACNC, 2013).
Such involvement also flies in the face of the fear-mongering in party rooms that would have MPs in marginal seats believe their electorate has little interest in anyone but themselves, or what is in it for them.
With ever-shortening political cycles, the imperative to assume the model of ‘retail politics’ has great currency, and creates the challenge for our elected leaders to define, and then, connect with the average Australian in their electorates. There has probably never been a greater level of interest from politicians in defining who is (or who is not) their neighbour— whether the constituent who listens to shock jocks and whose opinion they need to court, or the person who is outside of our borders.
So when we met last week with MPs and Senators in Government and in Opposition, whether or not they were used to female Christian leaders as part of their constituency, I found their openness and interest to hear why we were united in our concern for the moral future of our country refreshing. Particularly as it is expressed in Australia’s commitment to foreign aid and in response to humanitarian crises such as the one on Nauru. They also seemed keen to hear how we managed questions in our own Church communities about whether simply to look after our own or how to look after someone in need beyond our church doors.
In response to their interest, we shared the popular story about an earnest young lawyer who asks the question, ‘who is my neighbour?’ As recorded in Luke’s Gospel of the Christian scriptures, the young lawyer asked Jesus this very question. But he asked in such a way that would catch Jesus out, setting himself up perfectly for what he had planned to say in the first place.
The young lawyer was playing politics with question time, so that he could score himself the most points with his own faction. But Jesus didn’t respond to the young lawyer as he expected. Rather Jesus told him of a man who was going from Jerusalem to Jericho, was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road and how a Samaritan man stopped to help the man who had been left for dead. The Samaritan was the complete opposite of the lawyer, culturally, economically, and religiously. Yet he, Christ said, was the model of a ‘neighbour.’
The story acts on us today, just as it acted on the young lawyer. It starts by accepting the crucial question, ‘who is my neighbour?’ but ends by confronting us with another: ‘what type of person am I?’
Churches across this country, in keeping with their long histories of charity don’t just deliver mercy and worship services, but deliver opportunities for mutual growth: for their congregants to grow into the people they were made to be. Our role, we told our parliamentary leaders, is helping our congregations to understand how and why this mutual growth occurs.
I believe the decisive question for Australia today is not who is my neighbour, but what type of country are we? Now is an important time for advocates to remind our elected leaders that we really do believe in courageous moral leadership that continues what is best about Australia, that we are a generous nation that cares for our neighbours at home and throughout the world. Why? Because we ourselves have been shown such grace.
The delegation included:
Donna Crouch, Hillsong Community Engagement Pastor
Eloise Wellings, Olympic Games runner and Founder of Love Mercy NGO
Colonel Julie Campbell, National Advocate for Gender Equity, The Salvation Army
Leigh Ramsey, Senior Pastor Citipointe Church and Founder of ITS NOT OK Projects and She Rescue Home Cambodia
Catherine Thambiratnam, Hillsong Church Aid and Development
Sue Irwin, Senior Pastor, The Grainery Church
Vikki Howorth, Social Justice Pastor, Seaforth Baptist Church
Dr Kate Harrison Brennan, CEO, Anglican Deaconess Ministries
Micah Australia is a coalition of churches and Australia’s largest Christian non-government oganisations, advocating for global justice and the world’s poor.