The NREMA-funded project, ‘Equipping the Church for Social Change’ was a 3-year project aiming to provide leadership and resources to the Uniting Church (and wider church community) in Sydney, to equip and support members and congregations to take social change action. The project started in April 2012. The project funded a 3 day/week project manager (Justin Whelan), plus a small amount of project costs.
This project aimed to encourage Churches to participate more actively in the mission of God in their local communities. In Corinthians (5:18) we are reminded that through Christ we have been given the “ministry of reconciliation” not just with Church attenders but to assist God’s mission towards the “reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” (Basis of Union). Reconciliation requires relationship, justice and forgiveness; renewal requires openness to new ways of thinking, relating and acting. For the Church to participate in the transformation of our society, including promotion of justice and equity for the poor and marginalised, encouraging social values such as fairness, compassion and collaboration rather than competition and modelling an alternative way of living, congregations need to be encouraged and equipped.
Community engagement and action for social change are an integral part of Christian discipleship. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments God makes it clear that caring and speaking up for the voiceless, challenging injustice, and refusing to submit to the values of Empire are what God desires of us, and indeed the basis of how we will be judged. The Uniting Church has a proud history of acting and speaking up for social justice, but at present is not committing significant resources to mobilise, support and mentor congregations to participate in this calling.
Paddington Uniting Church has for many years seen its role to speak out and act for those on the margins. The congregation often hosts speakers and events that have a focus on reconciliation, justice and social change and has been regularly engaged in social action. This project shared the strengths, experience and resources of the congregation and its leadership team across the Church, bringing lasting value to the wider Uniting Church and continuing to develop the experience and resources of the congregation in this area.
A key emphasis of the project was capacity building among Uniting Church congregations. Anecdotal observations over many years has revealed that many congregations and members are interested in community development and social change but do not know how to get started. Through mentoring, workshops and other events Church members and congregations were educated and encouraged to consider social issues and the Church’s response, and engage in action and activities that make a difference.
The Social Change Project has played a key role in leading the Uniting Church and wider church to engage their communities in acts of justice and peace. The core outcome of the project is a more active, prophetic and empowered church witnessing to God’s desire for justice and reconciliation in a broken world.
The project followed an approach of ‘following the Spirit’ rather than assuming the original assumptions about how to ‘equip the church for social change’ were necessarily correct. Many ideas were tested, and those that bore fruit were followed up more intensively. In all cases a capacity-building approach was followed, even when engaging in direct advocacy work.
One outcome of this was that the original idea of a range of resources and workshops for congregational mission planning did not fully eventuate, after initial attempts to offer this service were not followed up by congregations. A range of possible reasons may account for this: it could be that existing resources are considered adequate, that congregations either have plans already or are not interested in such processes at all, or possibly because the project’s location in a particular congregation hampered its visibility or attraction to other congregations (vs. a presbytery or synod role). One way in which this objective was realised was the Coal and Gas in Your Community: a Mission Study Guide, of which Justin was a co-author. Justin also gave numerous speeches and sermons to congregations, inter-church and para-church events about connecting faith, mission and justice.
Similarly, while the project began at a time when the Synod did not have a social justice officer or coordinating body, during the term of the project a Synod Social Justice Advocacy Coordinator role was created and filled, and the Social Justice Forum was revived. Justin played a key role in shaping the Coordinator role as one focussed on engaging congregations in justice work, and was a member of the selection panel. One of the Coordinator’s roles is to create and foster justice networks across the church. As a result of these initiatives, the original objective #4 was achieved by other means.
One approach not originally conceived that bore great fruit was working with other Synod justice and community development staff to educate and mobilise congregations and members on issues of justice, especially asylum seekers. Justin became an integral member of the Give Hope Working Group, providing a congregational and theological voice and leading the development of liturgical resources; Justin also initiated and led two ‘asylum seeker action nights‘ which brought nearly 250 church members together to connect them to inspiring campaigns for justice for asylum seekers run by leading non-government organisations, which were very well received. Another outcome of this collaboration was the Faith and Justice Expo, which shone a light on the great leadership of the Uniting Church on a wide range of justice issues, and re-centred justice in the life of the Synod.
Perhaps the two most inspiring and significant developments involved collaboration with Christian leaders across the theological spectrum in Australia. Love Makes a Way, a campaign of Christian nonviolent direct action in support of asylum seekers, has been hailed as one of the most significant advocacy campaigns of 2014 by people within and outside the Christian church. A small amount of Justin’s time was allocated to supporting this campaign, which he initiated with a small group of friends in March 2014. Beyond its immediate advocacy impact in contributing to political pressure on the government to release children from detention, the campaign has equipped and empowered hundreds of Christians, including many in the Uniting Church, to take nonviolent action for the first time in their lives. In Sydney and surrounds, Justin helped lead five public actions (four involving civil disobedience) and trained around 150 people to prepare them for these and future actions. The capacity building aspect of this campaign is thus deeply significant, and will bear fruit across a wide spectrum of justice activities in the years to come.
Another new initiative, launched in December 2014, is Common Grace – a diverse movement of Australian Christians passionate about Jesus and justice. A small amount of Justin’s time was allocated to advising the operations team during the research/feasibility study phase, providing strategic advice, a different theological perspective and helping with access to wide church networks. Since just prior to launch, Justin also acted as Asylum Seeker Campaign Lead, driving online engagement and mobilisation of Australian Christians to resist unjust asylum seeker laws. Common Grace is an exciting new development that will lead and shape the prophetic work of the Australian Christian community in the years to come.
Other highlights, detailed elsewhere in this report, include:
People are ready for bold action: initiatives such as the fossil fuel divestment resolution and the explosion of nonviolent action through Love Makes a Way suggest there are many in the church who are ready for bold action and have simply been waiting for the call. It may be that sometimes we pitch our appeals too small in an effort to provide ‘low bar entry points’, but in doing so are unable to convince people that their actions will make a difference in a deeply unjust world. The Uniting Church in particular has shared theological convictions about the ‘radical nature of the Gospel’ for many years, planting seeds which are bearing fruit in the leadership of the church on a number of justice matters today.
Grounding action in (public) Christian prayer is powerful: for many years the assumption was that the most appropriate way for Christians to engage in justice action was by joining secular efforts. These remain critical, but an emerging trend we are witnessing is that of a more explicitly Christian activism. The Uniting Church, perhaps surprisingly, has been at the forefront of some examples of this, including Love Makes a Way, Common Grace, the Our Destiny Together prayer vigil for Indigenous Justice, and the Give Hope public liturgies for asylum seekers. These actions directly connect our faith and our action for justice, but they do more than that: they locate prophetic witness as Gospel witness to the world, willing to publicly declare both God’s judgement and God’s longing for reconciliation with a broken world. Participants at every one of these initiatives have remarked on the transformative power these events have had on themselves. Many Love Makes a Way participants have expressed similar words to Rev David Gore, that it “has been one of the pivotal experiences of the last few years of my life and ministry”.
Leadership by the church is welcomed by the community: another unexpected development in recent years has been an increasing embrace of such ‘Christian activism’ and a deliberately theological voice by secular advocacy organisations and community leaders. For so long marked by suspicion, Christians engaging in prophetic witness are being hailed and encouraged by the community. Again using Love Makes a Way as an example, a profound outcome has been hearing so many non-religious leaders express their thanks and joy to sit-in participants, and even strategic advice that it is powerful as a campaign precisely because it is ‘exclusively’ Christian. Public reaction has also been overwhelmingly positive, with a common theme that “I don’t believe in God and I hate the church, but these people really seem to be acting like Jesus”. In a different way, the Sydney Alliance has consistently encouraged the Uniting Church to embrace a leading public role, sensing the community is more than ready to listen to and partner with a community of faith that is open about its religious beliefs while still deeply respecting other’s beliefs or lack of belief. At times they have even encouraged Uniting Church leaders to use more religious language!
There are strengths and weaknesses to locating this resourcing work in a congregation: it seems clear in hindsight that as a resourcing role, the project may have been more effective if located in a presbytery, or possibly the Synod. Congregations are used to asking for and receiving capacity-building resources from these regional bodies, whereas there is little precedent for such work being located out of a congregation. It is highly likely that a presbytery-located social change project would have had more success engaging congregations in the kind of mission planning work originally conceived as an objective of the project, although it may have struggled outside its presbytery. On the flip-side, the congregational location meant there was a space and community already in place for modelling some of the ideas and dreams of the project, and grounded the work in the life of a worshipping community. The partnerships formed with community organisations such as Amnesty, GetUp and Climate Action Sydney Eastern Suburbs through collaborative events will serve PUC into the future and show how the church can become a host and community hub for social action in the current era.
Common action deepens relationships and builds trust across theological differences: churches regularly talk about ‘meeting their neighbours’ and ‘reaching out to the community’, but do not know how. Indeed, this was one of the first appeals of the Sydney Alliance, as it gave congregations a ready-made network of community leaders in their neighbourhoods to form relationships with. But a key learning of community organising is that common action deepens relationships and builds trust in ways that just talking can never do. This has also been the experience of people engaged in and through this project: as Christians partner with others from different denominations and the wider community in working for peace, justice and the environment, barriers built on prejudice are broken down and differences of theological opinion are relativised. Thus for example in one Love Makes a Way sit-in, young Sydney Anglicans and Salvos prayed alongside Catholic priests, female Uniting Church ministers, and openly gay MCC pastors.