The Very Rev. John Roundhill is dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Bendigo, which has reopened since it attracted media attention. • Anthony Radford photo

By Robyn Douglass

Protests against a new mosque have thrown an Australian Anglican parish into a media storm, and there are lessons for bricks-and-mortar churches in a digital world. Bendigo is one of Australia’s largest rural cities, home to more than 100,000 people, and now a center of agriculture. The city was established during the gold rush of the 1850s, which attracted people from other nations, including China and Afghanistan. Muslim people have been a presence in the city since then.

In 2014 the local council approved construction of a mosque, big enough for 300 worshipers. Muslims meet in a prayer room at a local university campus.

But there were voices raised in protest. The Bendigo mosque is hardly the only mosque in the region, but it quickly became a lightning rod for people who are anxious about Islam, asylum-seekers, and the changing nature of Australian culture. Right-wing groups descended for angry protests and legal challenges, quickly followed by left-wing counter-protesters.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in Bendigo had been closed for years during a slow renovation, and the church was surrounded by safety fencing. The Very Rev. John Roundhill, dean of St. Paul’s, said the fence was unwelcoming, so the congregation posted friendly signs about the construction.

“We turned the church inside out,” Roundhill told TLC. “In a traditional church, the messages are on the inside. We reflected on what made us distinctive, and we tried to do it with humor.”

Roundhill said people see his clerical collar and immediately assume his stance on climate change. But his background is in science. People assume the church is a white, Anglo-Saxon congregation, when it has people from all over the world, particularly in South-East Asia.

So they put up signs about inclusion, asylum-seekers, climate change, and children in detention. They asked people to pray for Bendigo. And one said: “Stop the mosque.” No, stop the hate. Try loving your neighbour.

The focus was on the cathedral offering “good news in the heart of the city.”

“For six months,” John said, “no one was looking.”

Then the United Patriots Front, leaders in the anti-mosque protests, filmed a video outside the cathedral.

“St Paul’s Cathedral is being used (without permission) in a video to promote an anti Islam protest in Bendigo later this month,” the dean wrote in response. “I am not sure what to think about this person filming outside our church. He thinks our posters are politically far left; I reckon they are Christian.

“We do not endorse his message. We will stick with the Christian gospel. And just to be clear, that means God’s love for everyone, including those of other faiths, welcoming the outsider, and caring for the neglected, including refugees.”

Roundhill’s response went viral to more than 44,000 readers. There were thousands of comments, some supportive, some criticizing the cathedral’s “weak gospel view of the world.”

Roundhill said he found the attention staggering, including a time in both regional and national media.

Locally, the protest simmered along. It’s one thing for a church to be a global hotspot for debate, but what difference can it make at the grassroots, back home in Bendigo?

Civic, commercial, and religious leaders, including Roundhill, agreed to display yellow ribbons to declare they Believe in Bendigo as a place of hospitality. Just before Christmas, they held a picnic in a city park, “expressing what we value, without denigrating others,” Roundhill said.

Both the cathedral and Believe in Bendigo have active Facebook pages. While the cathedral has a website, the dean said most people bypass it for the social media site.

Social media have helped the cathedral identify itself, “clarifying issues and allowing outreach about who we are, and what we stand for,” Roundhill said. “It is a new marketplace, and if we want to have any contact at all with young people we are going to need to be in social media in some way.”

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