Parishes Help Neighbors

By Robyn Douglass

While Australia has been cruising without a recession for more than two decades, the collapse in the mining boom has put unemployment back in the news. And as in Western democracies around the world, the news is not good. Jobs for people with low skills, or no qualifications, are hard to find.

The Anglican Church in Australia has a federation of 30 welfare agencies under the umbrella of Anglicare Australia. Anglicare agencies work in diverse fields, from child care to aged care and much in between. Last month, Anglicare Australia released its annual State of the Family report on Australian society, focusing on the most relevant challenge of the day. This year, the spotlight is on employment and the need for unskilled jobs.

The winning slogan in Australia’s national election this year was “jobs and growth,” but Anglicare writes that “slogans such as this perpetuate a myth that employment is a simple equation: one person plus one job equals long-term employment. But for people looking for their first job, for those who need support to re-enter the workforce, and for people whose positions have been made redundant due to industry disruption, it often seems the right jobs just aren’t there.”

Enter Anglicare. Rather than taking a “work first” approach to unemployment, Anglicare takes a “life first” approach, acknowledging the barriers unemployed people face in finding employment, and building their skills and confidence. That can be a slow task, as the report explains.

Around the country, Anglicare agencies work with those most vulnerable, including young people, former prisoners, and new migrants. Much of Anglicare’s work is as a stand-alone agency, but there are some strong partnerships with local churches.

The welfare and service activities can make the church look like a very different place.

The Rev. William Deng is the parish priest of Adelaide’s oldest parish, 175-year-old St Mary’s. The church hosts a thriving community center run by Anglicare, which includes a second-hand shop, men’s workshop, drop-in center, and cooked lunches.

The parish is just down the road from a former car factory that closed in 2008. But Fr. Deng says it’s a hub for people from far and wide. “We reach out to homeless people, people who can’t put food on their table,” he said.

Perhaps his favorite part is the community garden, where people grow vegetables from all over the world. It’s a veritable global garden, and the produce is cooked in the kitchen for lunches. He says the community center and the parish support each other throughout the week.

On the other side of town, in the seaside suburb of Semaphore, the Rev. Ken Bechaz is the parish priest of St. Bede’s. The parish hosts a drop-in center run by Anglicare. It provides a nourishing hot breakfast twice a week to nearby residents, some of whom live in local boarding houses, while others sleep rough on the beach. Marginalized by mental illness, brain injury, or addiction, they find a welcome and people who care.

“It’s an important part of what we do as the church, but also as part of the wider community,” Bechaz said. “It’s our Christian mission, but it’s also us being human beings in our area.”

Volunteers at St. Bede’s are parishioners and community members, and they look after the breakfast club. If regulars do not turn up, someone cares enough to ask after them.

It’s not a wealthy parish, and like many Anglican churches in Australia it is struggling to maintain membership and keep the buildings open.

Bechaz said when parishes are struggling, “people start to get panicked about how we are going to stay open. The mission stuff gets jettisoned.”

But the service to their community keeps things in perspective. It’s about connection.

“It’s greeting people as people — not as charity cases, but treating people as equals,” he said. “It’s not just about charity, it’s about hospitality.”


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