Softening our hearts and hardening our feet

John Berger is the new Executive Officer – Agencies, for the Uniting Church WA. He will be working with Uniting Church WA congregations and agencies to build relationships and share opportunities for connection and growth. He has come to this role from being the CEO of St Bartholomew’s House for six years. He is also currently the Chairperson of the End Homelessness WA  Alliance, and a member at The Billabong Uniting Church. 

John reflects on this role.

The Christian life is a journey of parallels. At times there are great blessings and at times great challenges. My life’s work has very much reflected these parallels. God has taken me into some  unique experiences and job roles over my career.

However, at the core of this has been my resolve to keep God at the centre of it all. I grew up in a working class and Christian family. From an early age, and with encouragement from fellow brother and sisters, I sensed the need to be led by the spirit. I finished High School with straight As in Maths and Science, but found myself being called to work with people.

My family didn’t cope with this – as this was not ‘real’ work. Real work would be doing a trade like my brothers or if I had to go to University – doing something like Engineering.

Despite this, I felt the calling to help others and found myself experiencing a deep peace about this decision. This has led me to a path of working with some of the most vulnerable people within our community in roles such as child protection and foster care, poverty and homelessness and ultimately as a Chief Executive Officer.

Despite all these experiences, one driving focus for me has been the voice of the people with lived experiences and my capacity to form relationships and journey together. I take heart from another fellow Christian writer who reflects on the journey of Jacki Pullinger who spoke about “softening your heart but hardening your feet”.

And yet the trouble is, it’s so easy to have a hard heart (compassion fatigue) and soft feet (taking the easy way out.) As Christians, we are challenged to love the poor and seek justice. But, how do  you love the poor? What is your reference point and what does that actually mean? And how do we harden our feet to respond to the injustice that we perpetuate in our society to allow poverty and homelessness to continue?

Why are we not outraged in a country as rich as Australia – why do we allow people to live on the margins and live without a home?

As Jackie Pullinger stated: “My message is always the same; it’s how to get us sure enough of God’s love, so we can go out and share it with the lost. Having tasted his love all I wanted to do was share it until I died.”

So how does this influence me?

Firstly, I find myself listening deeply to the stories and lives of the people I work with. I respond to them as people (not clients), each with a unique story and show compassion (soft heart) to them. Secondly, I challenge our world view and see that I am part of the problem – that I tolerate allowing people to suffer and remain in their circumstance such as homelessness. This is a tough call as I  have to stand up and advocate for change. This has led to making many changes in the way I work and more recently has guided me to be part of a social movement to end homelessness in  WA.

This journey has given me many great blessings while continuing to face many challenges. At the heart of it is my reminder to keep a soft heart, but hardening my feet to seek justice for those who often do not have a ‘voice’ in our community.

Rally for refugees at home

On Palm Sunday this week (5 April) people across the country will urgently raise their voices so that refugees and asylum seekers will not be forgotten in our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

A great justice tradition in Australia is that on Palm Sunday every year thousands of people take to the streets to call for a more compassionate response to refugees.

This Sunday, instead of gathering for rallies and marches in major cities, people are finding new and creative ways to raise their voices together.

Many of the organised Palm Sunday rallies are going ahead as online events and advocacy will take place across social media.

In the last week, refugee advocates have appealed to the Federal Government to ensure protections against COVID-19 extend to refugees and asylum seekers, and in particular that people in crowded detention centres are moved to places where physical distancing can be observed.

President of the Uniting Church Dr Deidre Palmer has written to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison to seek his assurance that the 1.5 million people living in Australia on temporary or bridging visas will have access to healthcare and income support.

In particular, Deidre stressed the importance of ensuring asylum seekers in the community have access to Medicare so they can and will seek help if they think they might have the virus.

“The situation for people living in Australia on temporary or bridging visas during this health crisis is urgent, and a direct response to their plight by the Australian Government will be an important measure to complement the strong measures already taken,” Dr Palmer wrote.

These concerns were echoed in a letter from the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce and National Council of Churches in Australia, noting that many of this cohort are already dependent on charities for necessities.

The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) called an extraordinary meeting with organisations across the country to bring together their concerns. Their most urgent priorities were:

  1. Move people urgently out of crowded immigration detention facilities
  2. Ensure a financial safety net and Medicare access for all in Australia
  3. Prevent people losing legal status and access to support
  4. Move refugees and people seeking asylum from PNG and Nauru.

RCOA Chief Executive Officer Paul Power noted, “With the international movement of people grinding to a halt, we need to take care of everyone now in Australia, knowing that the health of all of us is directly connected to how we treat the most vulnerable.”

How you can still participate in Palm Sunday for Refugees

This article was originally published on the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly website.

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