NYALC: Coming home

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

or even:

  • 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.

Alex Holmes-Brown

One thought on “NYALC: Coming home

  1. Alex, an interesting read. Be good to know what is your home denomination to put into some sort of context. Interestingly you speak of your home congregation as not focused on the issues expressed at the leaders conference which you see as paramount. One thing which came to mind as I read your comment are you sure your own denomination is not likewise looking at similar issues at the Synod, Assembly, whatever is the equivalent in your denomination. The fact is, if you visited the average Uniting Church congregation most likely they also would not be over active in these sorts of issues and would probably reflect your home congregation, it is more likely to be discussed at a leaders conference. However, in saying that, it is really good to hear of a youth conference which is relevant and motivational for the participants.

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