It seemed just the sort of place that might offer what I was looking for, so I applied, had an interview and was accepted as a candidate. At that time it was expected that our theological education should be done through one of the ACT accredited Theological Colleges and Church Army provided the practical training. I liked the faculty at Moorling Baptist College so studied with them while doing the Church Army training during the semester breaks.They were three very exciting years for me. I had left school thinking further study was beyond me. It stretched me, and gave me a good grounding in ministry and God’s word. Better still was being apprenticed beside two Church Army Officers who mentored me. It was just what I was needing and looking for.
Three years after beginning I graduated and was commissioned as a Church Army Officer, at the same time a vacancy came up in Airds, the place most of the kids I had been working with came from. God had things worked out perfectly. I applied for the job at Airds but I did not get an interview. Again what was God saying and doing. This was the place I had just spent three years training to work in. I had a passion for public housing ministry and a belief that I had a calling to it.
God works in surprising ways. Airds was closed to me, (but I love that recently Church Army has begun a work planting a church there) but another door opened. St Stephen’s Villawood had recently been amalgamated with a couple of other parishes into an experimental parish. I applied and was given the job as Assistant part time Minister to St. Stephens. I was given responsibility for ministry in a small church in the old public housing estate of Villawood.The old church building was in poor state, my carpentry skills came in handy, the building was reclad inside and out. The congregation was very small and had no contact with the community. A Church Army mission launched an after school children’s program. To make contact with the community we started a community garden that was going to use the grounds of the church for the garden plots. Around the same time I had a phone call from a man in the Villawood Immigrant Detention centre asking to talk to someone about Christianity.
He was a Muslim who had picked up a Bible in the detention centre, and wanted to find out more about what he read. I met with him, he wanted to hear more and so I arranged to meet with him again ... when next I saw him he had invited some of his friends to hear what I had to say. Eventually I was visiting the centre two days a week and meeting with a group of up to a dozen people at a time of all nationalities and faiths. We sang songs, prayed together, and looked at what the Bible had to say. Some requested baptism, some come to faith, and some who were already Christian were supported while in detention.
Bishop Brian King supported the work and appointed me Chaplain to the Detention Centre. The Australian government at this time had a policy of Temporary Protection Visas. Meaning that those released into the community could not receive a lot of the benefits of normal citizens. Some were released on temporary entry permits, meaning they were not entitled to any benefits. A Somali family was released so that the government would not have to pay for the medical treatment and childbirth costs but would eventually be paid for by a charity.To help and support these newly released asylum seekers I met the NSW Ecumenical Council and we together we started the House of Welcome (http://www.houseofwelcome.com.au/). This was the time of the Kosovo War. There were many in the detention centre at that time who had come from that conflict seeking a place of safety. There were unaccompanied children there as young as 5 who their parents had sent away hoping they might be cared for and safe in Australia. Those children were looked away in a virtual prison full of young single male adults. There was a Doctor who had fled Iraq because his job in Iraq included amputating the hands or feet of deserters and thieves.
I had to pray with an Iraqi who was to be returned to Iraq because he did not meet the requirements as an Asylum seeker. He was an army deserter. He knew what his fate would be once home. This was also the time of protests, of detainees going on hunger strikes; of sewing up their mouths so they could not eat or be fed; of meeting with people who could not speak to me because they had stitched up their mouths in protest. The authority’s response was to return these protesters back to where they had come from without appeal, or looking into why they were seeking asylum. This I believe led to the death of a few when returned to their country of origin.They were vulnerable, they needed someone to speak publically and make their plight known. Public opinion had been manipulated for political ends at this time. Asylum Seekers had been dehumanised and demonized, anything was thought possible of them, as was demonstrated by ‘children overboard’ incident. I told the people I met with that they could not afford to protest, that someone from outside had to speak for them, but who? Few people knew what was really happening in these centres. I decided I should speak on their behalf, and spoke at rally outside Villawood detention centre. I told three stories to give a human face to those locked away behind the razor wire of the centre. As a result when next I visited the Detention Centre I was told I was told I had been banned from entering any Immigrant Detention Centre in Australia.
Some month later the Iraq war was about to begin and our involvement as a nation was being debated. I listened to it over radio. One very well know government minister was defending the need for us to go to war by telling the Australian people of the way deserters are treated in Iraq, by having their feet amputated. How barbaric that was. He neglected to mention though that Australia sent asylum seekers back to Iraq to have this barbaric operation happen to them.Last night I witnessed a special broadcast on television of Parliament House where both sides were debating the recent tragedies of capsizing boats and the deaths of over a hundred people from these tragedies. I became sad and angry as I watched what was being said, I could not believe the hypocrisy I heard said by politicians about their “sincere interest” in the protection of innocent people. Now they are in opposition it has become unacceptable to send unaccompanied 13 year olds to Malaysia because of what might happen to them. If that is unacceptable for 13 year olds in Malaysia to face the possibility of rape surely it was unacceptable when it happened in Australia to 5 year olds. It was now unacceptable to send people to a country that was not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, supposedly because of how the refugees might be treated in those countries. Yet when they were responsible and in Government it was fine to released people from detention with no means but to begging of obtaining medical help, shelter, food, and clothing.
Once again I was not able to minister to the people I had felt called to. Funding for my position at St. Stephen’s Villawood also ceased at about this time. I was soon to be unemployed, and I was left wondering what God was doing.