Love Makes a Way: what drives these Christians to risk arrest?

(SBS) Source: SBS

What started as four friends in a pub one year ago has grown to a nationwide action involving more than 10,000 people galvanised by social media.

The date is Tuesday, May 19.

For most, it’s just another ordinary working day in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

But for the small group gathering in an Edgecliff park, it’s a day which could land them in the back of a police van.

They are part of Love Makes a Way, the multi-faith movement holding peaceful protests in the offices of politicians across the country.

Their target today is Malcolm Turnbull, Communications Minister and Member for Wentworth, and they want answers on why children remain in immigration detention.

It’s a diverse group, in both age and background - between the nine protesters there are five denominations and a 44 year age gap.

For some, it is their first time protesting. Others have been involved from the very start and have already been arrested for multiple actions calling for the release of asylum seeker children.

Two girls in their twenties make a last minute amenities dash, while an elderly couple stand watch over bags.

Mary Hurst, 63, and her 61-year-old husband Mark travelled two hours to take part in the day’s action. Mary, a grandmother and Reverend of the Avalon Baptist Church, made brownies for Malcolm Turnbull’s staff.

She tells SBS she doesn’t want a confrontation with staff, instead just to say “don’t do this”.

“We have to speak to a higher power, God, to speak for those who don’t have a voice themselves,” she says.

“I’m an educated Anglo woman, so I have a voice that a lot of other people might not have.”

The group introduces themselves, sharing concerns and bowing their heads in prayer before making the short walk to Mr Turnbull’s office.

While the nerves remain, it’s a different atmosphere to the first protests more than one year ago. Instead of a rag tag team, the small group now has a designated police liaison and someone in control of media commentary.

Justin Wheelan, a 39-year-old from the Uniting Church and one of the movement’s founders, tells SBS that the now nationwide crusade was dreamed up over a few pints in a Sydney pub.

He says their first sit in was little more than eight people and a hashtag, #LoveMakesAWay.

“It was, I guess, a play on the government’s ‘No Way’ slogan that became infamous in the context of those national newspaper ads,” he says.

“But we didn’t originally plan that this would be a national campaign. We didn’t have a social media strategy or a national organisation, anything like that. Those things evolved over time.”

Since those initial drinks at the Paddington Arms, more than 160 people have been engaged in civil disobedience.

An estimated 138 have been arrested across the 24 protests, with around half ending up in court. Despite pleading guilty to charges such as trespass, none have had convictions recorded.

Justin puts their clean record put down to their peaceful tactics, citing the influence of Martin Luther King.

“One of the things that we have learnt from him is the importance of reaching out to people who are not yet convinced of the rightness of our cause or our view on the issue,” he says.

“We need to present ourselves and communicate in ways that touch them, rather than appealing to those who already agree with us.”

The group’s aversion to violence is clear as they enter Mr Turnbull’s office, politely introducing themselves as they sit and spread out children’s drawings from within detention centres.

The container of brownies is opened and, before long, the singing begins.

Even without the hymns, religion is an obviously central element of the group’s movement.

Matt Anslow, a Uniting Church member in his 20s, says the different ethnic and denominational backgrounds of the protesters are the most beautiful things about the movement.

“These people, on Sundays they go to church with people called Beryl,” he says.

“They serve egg casserole. And yet here they are because the policies have gotten so bad.”

Though primarily Christian, the movement has seen the involvement of a Jewish rabbi in Adelaide while refugees joined in one march in Perth.

Matt says that despite the church’s guidelines of respect and love, he sees no conflict in the notion of law abiding Christians taking part in protests which have disrupted the working days of hundreds of political staffers across the country.

He says there’s a long tradition of civil disobedience in the church, but it hasn’t been widely explored in Australia.

“Most Australians, even Australian Christians, don’t know about it – but it is there,” he says.

“Everybody knows Martin Luther King Jnr, lots of Christians know of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and everybody’s heard of Jesus. All of these people have been involved in acts of civil disobedience.

“I don’t think there’s a tension between what Jesus teaches about loving our enemies and what Jesus demonstrates about speaking truth to power and standing against injustice.”

Championing social justice is a role historically filled by religion, according to the University of Sydney’s Kurt Iveson.

The Associate Professor tells SBS that throughout past decades, both in Australia and abroad, the church has taken a lead in bringing questions of morality into the public and political spheres.

“If we look at areas of activism around for example Aboriginal rights, churches have frequently played a role in those sorts of issues in the past,” he says.

“Because churches often find themselves playing a role in care in society and in providing social services, then they do often work with some of the most marginalised people in our communities.”

While the impact of Love Makes a Way is yet to be seen, Associate Professor Iveson says other movements have had success.

“There are so many of the rights that we enjoy in our society today that actually are the result of pressures of non-violent and civil disobedience protests,” he says.

“Throughout history, this is one of the tools that citizens have to make chance in our society and it’s worked on countless occasions before.”

There’s a fair measure of variety in the responses from politicians targeted.

At least one has pretended they weren’t there, while others have met with activists in what they’ve described as a less than meaningful way.

As for Mr Turnbull, he was spending the day interstate.

While it’s not the headline protesters want to see, the Coalition has made some headway on the numbers of children held in immigration detention within Australia.

Since coming to power, the government says it has managed to whittle down the numbers of detained asylum seeker children from 1342 to 122.

These figures represent a 91 per cent reduction, however no numbers were provided for those in immigration detention beyond Australia’s borders. Protesters dispute government figures, saying there's more than 220 children in mainland and offshore detention.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government had no objection to protesters as long as they remained peaceful, but the view didn’t seem to be shared by the lone building manager trying to shift the latest participants.

He asks them again to leave, explaining that his wife and two-year-old daughter are waiting for him at home. His request, already repeated many times, is again ignored.

So after almost eight hours, the police are called.

The group is forcibly removed, but escape conviction from the local police once escorted out into the drizzle of the Edgecliff evening.

The relief is clear – younger girls hug, while Mary and her husband break out into song once again.

And while they received no answer from Mr Turnbull - and little attention from the media – Justin seems undeterred.

“What we have seen is a rising up of Christian leaders in a way we’ve never seen before in this country and I think it has played a role – and I don’t want to overstate that role – but it’s kind of helped fill a gap in a movement that was really feeling lost,” he says.

“We won’t stop until Love Makes a Way, that idea that asylum seekers are real people and we have the opportunity to show compassion.”

Source SBS

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