When I arrived at the National Young Adult Leaders’ Conference (NYALC) I knew one person… vaguely. We’d exchanged one or two tired words on our 5.00am flight from Perth. In total, this was my 2nd Uniting Church event. I didn’t know what to expect and new social situations usually make me feel gross.
I hate ‘icebreakers’, but found myself feeling easier by proxy: there was an atmosphere that really did break the ice. I didn’t want to come with reservations, but I was also excited because of where I’d come from and what I was looking to find. I’m from a different denomination. My mate Richard Telfer, First Third specialist for the Uniting Church in WA, was at a Love Makes a Way action and said I could go in his place. I had to call him and ask what ‘Presbytery’ and ‘Synod’ meant for the application form as they are words we don’t have in my church.
There are other concepts we don’t consider either:
- climate change
- gender equality and diversity
- solidarity over charity
- the roots of inequality
- culture and identity
- First Peoples and Nations
- Aboriginal and Pacific Islander
- colonialism and decolonising
Yes, my church is in Australia, but our demographic shapes the focus elsewhere, to things that matter for wealthy white folk I guess. Most of this just doesn’t exist in the world view of my congregation, not even on the periphery of concerns. I’ve been frustrated, because for me it’s pivotal. For years, I dreamt of an Aussie church where social engagement for the common good was part and parcel of the faith and where Indigenous and migrant perspectives were actually consulted and seen as valuable.
I wondered how I’d make a church like that and who with – I should have guessed there were already people doing it.
I’d been to a postcolonial conference at United Theological College, Charles Sturt University, so I knew some of the Uniting Church was involved in the kind of thinking that is absent in my church. But at NYALC I got to see it in action, see the politics of love, or probably just love, being simply lived out. I felt embraced by a community of embrace.
What did that look like?
It looked like praying together in languages from the top-end down to South Australia, and tongues from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga singing to the God who has always lived in these lands and waters. It looked like listening carefully as a sister whose fifth language is English shares with us Anglos something of life and ministry in the remote outback, which for us is like a different country.
It looked like games and songs and stories and… life from so many different angles, shared with laughter and tears over food, or a cuppa, or another 2.00am karaoke jam. I found myself singing too: me the awkward socialiser who never sings in front of people. It was just the atmosphere, there was permission to be.
I was lucky to speak to so many people who could teach me about grace by showing it to me. Everyone took time to help me understand the ins-andouts of this entirely different thing I had stumbled into. I felt like a bit of an undercover agent, learning that I could and trying to remember all the lessons before I headed back home.
Now I stop to ask myself the main insight I got from it. It’s probably that I wasn’t there as an outsider-imposter after all. I’d blown my cover straight away. My being from a different church was received with such enthusiasm and welcome and questions returned that it became an icebreaker itself: “Hey, I don’t belong here!” But it wasn’t like that. I did belong. We belong together.
Turns out I wouldn’t leave a conference of interesting strangers and return home to the familiar. NYALC, itself, was something like a homecoming. As an LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex) loudmouth in a conservative church, Isaiah 56 has always been special for me. It mentions “eunuchs and foreigners”, who are basically the excluded in Biblical terms, just like “orphans and widows” is Old Testament shorthand for the vulnerable.
At NYALC we came in all our shapes and sizes, gifts and burdens, hopes and stories… to “a house of prayer for all people” (56:7). The passage is about return from exile and isolation.
NYALC, for me, was about coming home to family.