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Legacy…Australian Urban Mission

Published / by Dean Eland

Australian Association of Mission Studies Conference

July 2017 Rev Dr Dean Eland

djeland@bigpond.com

Abstract

In the 1960s and 70s Australian urban mission activists embodied their mission theology in community development practices. Located in disadvantaged inner city communities, small remnant mainline protestant congregations adopted the term urban mission to describe this ministry.

Models of community development ranged across a changing scene from left wing, old style confrontation and campaigning, sit ins, resident action, or green bans to the more holistic and systemic reformulation emphasis of the Chicago based Ecumenical Institute. The current asset-based community-driven development (ABCD) model has a focus on community strengths and assets.

The church’s involvement with community development projects were characterised as radical and experimental and included collaboration with social movements generated by a commitment to the common good. Community building projects created social capital and provided opportunities for people from different cultural and social backgrounds to work together by affirming cultural diversity and strengthen civil society.

This innovative mission style anticipated the challenge facing the church today, an invitation to join in Gods mission (missio Dei), being with God in the world. By partnering with isolated and disenchanted citizens, churches join with others to work for the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7). Churches on the margins are communities in exile and Brueggemann suggests this, “throws upon this vulnerable, small community a large missional responsibility (Brueggemann 1991: 32).

Urban Mission Experience

In his speech at the opening the 1974 South Sydney Festival at St Lukes church, Redfern, Al Grassby, Minister for Immigration in the second Whitlam Labor Government, used the phrase, what happens in South Sydney today happens in Australia tomorrow.  Members of the Inner City Parish team who were active in forming the South Sydney Community Aid agency in 1968, often referred to this comment. The phrase captured the pioneering spirit they felt in the commitment they made to community development practices in one of Australia’s most disadvantaged urban regions.  Sometimes known as the ”Black Capital of Australia the population of Redfern and surrounding neighbourhoods included diverse and culturally defined groups including indigenous Australians, older Anglo working class population and Greek and Lebanese families.

The Inner City Parish, later named South Sydney Parish of the Uniting Church, included several small Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches in inner city neighbourhoods. These congregations established in the mid nineteenth century, were second generation congregations, formed with the support of the first mother churches in the city.  Early in the 20th century middle class members moved to newer suburbs as inner city areas became industrialised and home for working class residents.

Many mainline congregations in Melbourne and Sydney from similar denominational traditions were also confronted by poverty and social changes in their host communities. Mission, evangelism and pastoral practices evolved to meet social needs and provide emergency relief.  When government grants were made available in the post WW2 years some congregation based voluntary efforts based on a word and deed theology expanded and became professionally staffed social service agencies.   Fifty years later these gentrified suburbs with residents from many cultural and diverse social backgrounds continue to develop creative forms of social capital and maintain innovative community building practices.

Inner City Context

The pluralist, diverse, cross cultural and multi faith nature of traditional working class inner city areas of the immediate post war years anticipated many features of Australias present metropolitan reality. With the advent of the Whitlam government, progressive social policies included an affirmation of multi-culturalism, provision of free tertiary education, support for the arts and funding for urban preservation and regeneration. Many of these policies were in response to the wide spread public debate about the scope and nature of poverty in Australia.

Research and public policy initiatives were a response to the Commission of Inquiry into Poverty set up in August 1972 by the coalition government. When Labor formed government in December that year the Commission expanded its work by, giving it specific responsibility to focus on the extent of poverty in Australia together with the groups most at risk of experiencing poverty, the income needs of those living in poverty, and issues relating to housing and welfare services.  (http://trove.nla.gov.au/people/554637?c=people). These issues were addressed in the Commissions first main report, Poverty in Australia, released in August 1975. Known as the Henderson report after its chairperson Professor Ronald Henderson, recommendations were based on widespread consultation and research about the extent of poverty in Australia. Poverty was defined in terms of inadequate income relative to need.

Social science disciplines provided background information, data and conceptual models to inform social policies. Insights from urban sociology and community studies, anthropology, demography, geography, political economy and social work traditions were used to inform and explain the causes of poverty and propose solutions. Social atlases based on census figures and socioeconomic status became indictors of community health and disadvantage. Data was used by planners to describe the character and social needs of neighbourhoods and this research informed applicants who initiated projects based on grant funding.

This more expansive social analysis provided the background for innovative proposals and government social policy solutions. On the ground community development projects and social action involving resident participation required practitioners with a range of skills. Successful projects involved leaders who were persistent and be able to cope with conflicting viewpoints. Other skills involved a capacity to negotiate, organise alliances and support networks and identify opportunities.

The Henderson report prompted widespread public debate and the ALPs national urban agenda stimulated locally based community development projects for inner city areas.  One example involved the role of South Sydney Community Aid located in the suburb of Redfern. With support from local government, churches, volunteers, residents, and university students, this agency was well placed to support a number of major projects involving Aboriginal and migrant families.

Community Development Practices

Reflecting the diverse and conflicting views about the scope and aims of community development different names were used and included, community building, social action and community development.  Some academics debated whether there was such a thing as local community and few local leaders were familiar with this debate.

A catalyst for the resident action movement involved plans by State governments to introduce slum clearance high rise public housing estates to replace 19th century cottage and terrace housing. Redevelopment plans in Melbourne and Sydney were based on assumption that new housing would create a safe environment and solve a range of social problems. Other pressures on the amenity of inner city areas included freeway extensions, resumption of parks and open areas for housing and compulsory acquisitions of land by commercial and educational agencies.  As contested spaces diverse cultural and social groups joined to opposed these policies. Residents were mobilised to preserve the character of neighbourhoods with their historic features and proximity to city centres.

Other locally based community development projects set out to address self-deprecating attitudes and long term social dependency. These projects encouraged residents to take initiative, become leaders of self-help programmes and strengthen and empower community networks.

Many inner city resident based projects involving congregations have continued more than 50 years while others have grown to become denominational community service agencies. The following projects are brief summaries of three community projects where congregations partnered with others in disadvantaged inner city suburbs. As case studies they demonstrate that community building initiatives are opportunities for congregations to work with others in their local contexts. These stories also illustrate the impact of social trends and changing attitudes over time. Locally based projects generate social bridging experiences, address social isolation, overcome fear of the other and were opportunities for residents to meet and work together for the common good.

South Sydney Community Aid

South Sydney Community Aid, (SSCA) Redfern formed in 1968 occupied several sites including St Lukes Church and is now located in the former Alexandria Town Hall. (http://www.ssca.org.au/). SSCA set the pattern for a number of other projects in the region and involved members of the local inner city parish. The parish included members from Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational denominational traditions. With the support of local government ALP councillors and residents, in 1968 a shop front presence at 142 Regent St Redfern was established and became a home base for other projects and programmes. Grants to support community building actions of the Whitlam government became available from late 1972 and this was a catalyst for new locally based social development projects.

Formed as voluntary organisation SSCA, provided premises and supported members of the first Aboriginal Legal and Health Services, a housing project named the Block, family support and pre-school education and the Black Theatre. Ownership of a Methodist property originally the site of Epworth Press at 33 Botany St was later gifted to a local Aboriginal organisation.

These projects were controversial and later opposed by right wing ALP members of the South Sydney Municipal Council. Some residents argued that existing services were for all people whatever their background. South Sydney Council was formed in 1968 by the decision of the Liberal State government in an attempt to regain control of the City of Sydney and provide opportunities for private developers to invest in nearby suburbs including Glebe, East Sydney, Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross.

SSCA sponsored a range of other services including financial counselling, tenants association, community information directory, emergency relief, the annual South Sydney festival, developed links with the local primary school and support for diverse multi-cultural traditions represented initially by Greek and Lebanese communities.  Financial support from the Disadvantaged Schools Commission made it possible to produce a local social studies text book and run vacation programmes.

While there was debate about conceptual models of community development, in practice ideas were modified and adapted in response to many cross currents and diverse expectations. While case workers were trained to assist on a one to one basis community organisers developed the skills to negotiate and take account of political pressures, local traditions and existing community networks. Some embraced the confrontational style to address racism and others work in a more cooperative way and encouraged residents to recognise advantages in working together.

SSCA committee members and staff were aware of and took into account other socially defined groups, street life, community traditions and the changing landscape. Political decisions in inner city areas were dominated by strong ALP branches and existing social services included senior citizen centres, kindergartens and sporting facilities. Cultural diversity was represented by religious and ethnic traditions including Irish Catholics, (St Patricks Day was often a local public holiday!), Greek and Antioch Orthodox congregations and others with Lebanese Maronite and Melkite traditions. In many ways the growth and decline of inner city congregations reflected the social changes that emerged through immigration, described by H. Richard Niebuhr as “the social sources of denominationalism (Niebuhr 1929).

Changes in the social composition of the community were also influenced by commercial developments involving the resumption of property for the Sydney Mail Exchange in Cleveland St and later expansion and resumption of property by the University of Sydney in Chippendale and Darlington.

The success of SSCA was due to the support it received from a range of groups and the continuing commitment of members from the Inner City Parish. I was secretary for the first eight years until a coup was organised by increasingly confident members to replace me at an AGM!

2.  The Junction Community Centre

The Junction Community Centre in Ottoway SA, an inner city suburb of Port Adelaide, was formerly opened in 1989. Until the early 1970s this site was the home of a strong neighbourhood Congregational church formed in the early years of the twentieth century.

From the 1960s the social composition of the western suburbs of Adelaide changed with the arrival of European migrants and later in the 70s from South East Asia. In the lead up to church union in 1977 a number of neighbourhood churches in Adelaide’s western suburbs were closed. With a declining membership, it was assumed that the Ottoway property would be sold as the four remaining members of the congregation agreed to merge with another nearby neighbourhood UC congregation. It was apparent that there were no other community meeting places north of a major road.

Growing up in the Port Adelaide region I was aware of the churchs history and its significance for local families and the potential it represented to be a community hub, a place for different groups to meet and work together. As growing working class suburbs in the Port Adelaide region, Ottoway, Rosewater and Pennington were originally the home of young working class families with strong social bonds.

In a campaign to retain the property for community use I approached a number of people to form a committee. While ministers are expected to focus on pastoral and worship responsibilities a few members of the UC Port Adelaide parish began to catch the vision. The first committee aimed to represent the community as a whole and members included the local state MP Murray Delaine, local government councillor Rex Searle, Josephite Sister Marie Victory, Child and Family Nurse Mary Foley and representatives of the Parish. Contact was also made with members of a new Buddhist temple and the nearby Pennington Primary School.

Uniting Church members and residents from other traditions continue to support this agency and remain involved nearly 30 years later. The centre in effect continues its earlier role as a meeting place, a visible community presence in a region with few other facilities. Up to 700 people a week continue to take part in the various cultural, recreational, educational and family support programmes. (http://www.junctioncommunity.org.au/)

3. Braybrook Melbourne

In 1999 a Jesuit report, Unequal in Life, was released and received widespread publicity in the Melbourne media. The report ranked NSW and Victorian post codes by a range of social disadvantage indices (Vinson 1999). The press coverage focused on the poorest suburbs and towns in Victoria and NSW and several Melbourne suburbs were listed as the most disadvantaged communities in Victoria.

Neighbouring suburbs of the Uniting Church Sunshine Parish Mission were included in the top 10% including Braybrook which was identified as the most disadvantaged community in the State. At this time the six members of the Braybrook congregation were planning to merge with the Sunshine congregation and three members became involved in a series of local meetings that led to the formation of the Braybrook and Maidstone Social Action Group in 2001. Â

Again a wide range of interested government and community groups became engaged and worked on plans to address the challenges facing the community. Today a neighbourhood house continues to serve this multi ethic and diverse community and provides opportunities for people to meet, support each other and develop self-directed family support programmes. (http://bmnh.org.au/).

Summary

Each of these community development projects continues to draw support from residents, local and State governments and in some cases local churches.

Specific actions, events and community building programmes are informed by the awareness of social trends and changing context. While academic debate and research clarifies issues, highlights trends and tracks social change, those affected by change bring their experience, become involved and take action. Identifiable hands on projects invite residents to engage with others and neighbours join together in response to local quality of life challenges.

While social development and community building processes require conceptual models and visionary perspectives, practices and programmes demonstrate the art of the possible. Local community building initiatives involve listening to community voices, being aware and ready to act when opportunities emerge. Community development guidelines and how to lists are now available and assist those who are leaders and committee members.

Current community development models include, Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) with its emphasis on local collaboration and cooperation (https://bankofideas.com.au). The Sydney Alliance has an emphasis on public campaigns with specific objectives. The Sydney Alliance brings together diverse community organisations, unions and religious organisations to advance the common good and achieve a fair, just and sustainable city.  We do this by providing opportunities for people to have a say in decisions that affect them, their families and everyone working and living in Sydney (http://www.sydneyalliance.org.au/).

Community development projects are opportunities for congregations to use their resources and partner with others on Mainstreet and in the public square. By being involved, Sunday congregations connect to their weekday host community and pathways connect social groups in the neighbourhood. Renewed community life also brings residents from different backgrounds together and strangers meet on common ground. Church members have much to contribute to these networks through collaboration and by meeting others from diverse cultural and religious traditions. Local public ministry through community engagement becomes the face of the congregation to the wider community.

Commitment to community development is one expression of being led by the Spirit to work with God in the world. For the point of engagement is the inter relationship between the Gospel, (what God is up to in the world) and the culture of the West (Roxburgh 2015:33).

Local Public Theology

Steps taken to build bridges and pathways between congregations and host communities vary greatly. Many assumptions are based on the expectation that people will join the Sunday worshiping community and grow the church. Some programs emphasise mission as diakonia and others are based on a commitment to social justice. As an example, the vison statement of Pilgrim Uniting Church Adelaide expresses a prophetic stance, We are called by God to be a prophetic witness in the city of Adelaide so that new life and vitality will be generated in our city and in its people.”

Mission as community engagement with host communities begins with an appreciation of the local context and Schreiter suggests that, the description of the environment is not something extrinsic to the theological process, but is deeply part of it (Schreiter 98:26). Action steps then lead to naming the praxis a cycle of action and reflection that becomes a descriptive theology (Browning 83:31). In creating a contextual theology congregations are then being brought to the truth about our situation and ourselves and through this we are open to hear the gospel anew” (Roxburgh 1997:59).

Local public theology as story or core narrative describes the congregations commitment and relationship with its host community. Narrative is also informed by drawing on the meaning and interpretation of its sacred texts and traditions. Becoming a learning community in this way reshapes identity and illuminates strategies for the future (Schreiter 98:38).

Local public theology practices express underlying convictions and missional assumptions. As a deductive process assumptions cannot be imposed but emerge from the process of reflection on engagement, dialogue with surrounding culture, a genuine give and take where the world is permitted to speak for itself (Hall 91:79). Hall suggests that in creating a social vision congregations will discover their socio-historical habitat not only as a field to be investigated but partners in discernment and therefore a contributor to the theological task itself (91:80).

The urban setting involves working with people who have a multiple belongings, a hybridized context in a rapidly changing society that has changed a once stable habitat. Ministry in the context of radical pluralism and social diversity reflects the gospel practice of welcome, hospitality and discovers that local communities of nations are a gift. Ministry in the Australian urban setting involves forging links with neighbours in the wider community, being adaptive and embracing the challenges that arrive from the complex social mix.

A general or universal theology describes the profound ways in which the people of God have been formed and led in history. For congregations the specifics of social and generational change are generative. The time and place, the historical, social and cultural context is “the situation given by God” (Brownson 98:78).

The experience of congregations becomes good news for all as it stems from an ongoing dialectic, an evolving conversation about the encounter between cultural context, church and gospel. Objectivity, research, theological reflection and theoretical debate are appropriate for generalized flows or threads of conversations across the whole church. Day to day encounters and community engagement however informs and grounds this process. Local theology places high priority on the facts of the situation and on experience and Gospel meaning and interpretation emerges from actions taken in specific contexts (Schreiter 98:25).

The action-reflection cycle also has the potential to create a vision for the future, hope born of good news, a hermeneutic that calls members to imagine new possibilities. The way ahead cannot be imposed from above, by popular formulas or paste on solutions. Rather mission is generated from below, in praxis, a discernment process which is systemic, comprehensive and signifies new beginnings.

Mission studies are creative by taking account of the day to day experience of congregations, their street presence and their openness to others. Ministry and mission as engagement and reflection generates recurring vocational questions, could I, should I? (Morisy.2004:199). Congregations in urban settings discern their vocation by finding new identity in the context of multiple, hybrid and competing identities. By following Christ into community, congregations are on the road and not confined to a sanctuary. Here they discover again and again that they are called to share with God who is already at work in the world. Wayside theology is Pentecostal, a celebration of social diversity and mission as incarnate, grounded in reality when members find a home, welcome the stranger and take practical steps to bridge social differences and enhance living through local community development projects.

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