Living at odds and taking up the cross

Neville WatsonRev Neville Watson tried to convince me recently that he hasn’t made a difference in this world, despite having just minutes earlier told me about his time with a peace camp in Iraq  during the war in 2003.

He doesn’t convince me for a second.

The man has spent his life comforting and standing up for others — and putting his own life at risk to do so. He may not have made a difference in the politics of the war, but you can  be sure he made a difference in the lives of the people affected by it.

At aged 73, Neville went to Iraq to be a friend. As his granddaughter wrote, aged 11 at the time, “he is going to sit in Bagdad and comfort the Iraqi people while the Americans bomb  them.”

In the three weeks leading up to the war, his wife, Marg, and others held a silent vigil outside the American Embassy in Perth. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

Born with a silver spoon, Neville chose not to enter into the temptation of high society, but rather be a man of peace and justice.

“I’ve got no desire to be in high society,” he said. “I’ve seen enough of high society to say it’s not worth all the trouble.”

His parents played a huge role in this, his father a significant West Australian politician who stood up for what he believed in and his mother who taught him how to love.

“I really had the best of both worlds: a father skilled in the ways of the world and able to use it for pecuniary benefit, and a mother who recognised that without love it wasn’t worth  the effort.”

The face of the enemy. A young Iraqi boy traumatised and injured during the war.

The face of the enemy. A young Iraqi boy traumatised and injured during the war.

Neville originally wanted to be a lawyer. Before becoming fully qualified, however, he announced to his family he wanted to become a Methodist minister. It was Sir Ron Wilson who encouraged him to complete his articles and be admitted as a barrister and solicitor, advice for which he has always been grateful.

“Being qualified as a lawyer is pretty handy,” Neville said.

After some time in parish ministry, Neville eventually asked for leave without charge so that he could set up a Lay Training Centre at Faversham House, York. The centre was  designed to train lay people for ministry and be a place where people with different views could come together to discuss social issues. During this time, his qualifications as a lawyer  meant he could regularly defend Aboriginal people in court before the Aboriginal Legal Service had formed. It also meant he could defend fellow protesters after arrests, further down the track.

Neville himself says he can’t remember how many times he has been arrested, but it’s a record of which he’s proud. Over and over, he has put himself on the line to stand-up for what  is right — whether it be over Indigenous land rights or for peace in the Middle East. He believes it is part of the Christian faith to be uncomfortable with injustices in mainstream  society.

“To understand Jesus fully, you have to recognise that he was at odds with the society in which he lived,” he said. “That’s exactly what he was talking about when he said ‘take up  your cross.’”

So, where does someone like Neville find the strength to be a light for others?

Everyday Neville wakes at 3.00am to spend three hours reading, praying and contemplating. Contemplation, says Neville, is not thinking about the situation but letting it impact on you. It’s about awareness. It’s feeling the situation, letting it speak to you and seeing it for  what it really is. This is the inward journey — the outward journey then becomes acting on what you have discovered. By using this call and response method Neville has been involved in all kinds of things, from working with Aboriginal people to prison ministry.

Neville’s Prayer Station in Iraq during the time  of the war. The candle was a gift from his congregation, Wembley Downs Uniting Church,  who told him to “go and  be our light in Baghdad”.

Neville’s Prayer Station in Iraq during the time of the war. The candle was a gift from his congregation, Wembley Downs Uniting Church, who told him to “go and be our light in Baghdad”.

“Once you see things as they really are, the outward journey is almost a necessity otherwise you aren’t being faithful. For your own integrity you have to do it.”

As part of helping others find themselves in this process, Neville is spending time this August on a trip with Rev Cathie Lambert and Karen Sloan in Israel. While there, he hopes they  will experience the Scriptures in a whole new way.

“It really does set you up as far as being aware of what it was like over there,” he said. “Jesus becomes alive for you in a way that goes beyond the Scriptures.”

“The principle that I reckon is so important, as far as outward journey is concerned, is that where you stand determines what you see. If you want to see what the Aboriginal situation  is, then you go out and you live with it. If you want to see what the situation in the prisons are, then you go into the prisons on prison ministry. If you want to see what  happens in war, then you go to where the bombs are dropping.”

“Ministry has to go beyond the congregation,”he said. “Otherwise it isn’t relating to the world at all.”

Heather Dowling

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