Andrew Dawkins was in for a shock after accepting a new position as Director of HopeStreet Urban Compassion. After 21 years as a pastor of suburban Baptist churches he found himself in another world, and they do church differently there. Andrew’s new world was the seedy underside of Woolloomooloo, Sydney. It’s a strange world where multi-millionaires share the neighborhood with life’s other extremes.
HopeStreet works alongside the homeless of Sydney’s inner city and the most marginalised people in our city, through programs and churches aimed at empowering people toward the fullness of life for which we were all created. They do this through the provision of practical services such as a homeless shelter, gambling counselling services, Womens Space program for street sex workers, cafes and op-shops, community workers assisting people on the street and an employment program where they run a commercial cleaning business.
The biggest issue confronting Andrew’s transition into this urban missional landscape has been dealing with preconceived notions of what constitutes church. ‘Church’ at Hope Street Mission takes on an entirely new dimension to how things are done in comfortable suburbia.
According to Hopestreet: We are a unique, grass roots organisation running programs that meet people where they’re at. For most people we meet, HopeStreet is ‘the end of the road’, there is no-where else to go. We work with people through our programs based in Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst and Glebe. At HopeStreet, we believe in working alongside people, valuing them and sharing their journey. We believe in moving people to greater independence and self-determination rather than making them more dependent. HopeStreet works alongside some of the most marginalised people in our city, through programs aimed at empowering them toward the fullness of life for which we were all created.
I spoke to Andrew via the marvels of modern web technology in a Skype call which I have recorded, to allow Andrew to expand on his experiences.
Hope Street Stories
Ruth probably grew up in much the same way as the other girls in her community. She was a good girl – helping out at home in the way her parents and her community expected. She was a plain looking girl, not particularly attractive, but her dad managed to arrange a partner for her so that she could be married soon after she turned twelve, like all of her friends.
Her wedding day was the happiest day of her life. And she looked forward to taking her place in society with her husband and of course to all the children which would come along in time (because without a husband and children a woman wasn’t much in those days) … But some time after that things went wrong – she started bleeding – not just once a month but all the time. It wasn’t long before her husband divorced her. If he had known about this he would never have married her. Her bleeding meant she was unclean so her husband wouldn’t touch her. No husband and no children meant no education, no employment, unclean. Her society saw her as a disgrace. Not just her husband but nobody wanted to touch her. In a small town news spreads fast, so pretty soon she felt the isolation of people avoiding her in the street. Because she was unclean – anyone who touched Ruth would also become unclean and they would have to be isolated for a week and go through a cleansing ceremony to get back to normal (Lev 15:19-33). It had all the stigma and shame of having AIDS. This went on for twelve years.
Then she heard about a man whom she thought was different. If she could only get in touch with him, maybe things would change. So when the chance came, she covered herself up so no one knew who she was, pushed her way through the crowd, snuck up behind that very different man – and for a moment she grabbed the edge of Jesus’ clothes.
And Jesus notices. And He is not happy to let her just disappear into the crowd. He persists in looking for the one that touched him until she comes forward and tells her whole story. A story of pain and years of rejection. Of doctors who ripped her off and a society that closed her out. It is important to Jesus that not just her body is healed. He wants everyone to know that she is well, so that she is now socially acceptable again. And he want everyone to recognise that her desperate act is an act of faith. Her relationship with God is healed. And Jesus presents her as an example of faith to the religious people who are watching.
A cup of coffee and a biscuit and some good company is a good recipe for conviviality. It is not hard to attract people to morning tea. Morning tea after church is no exception. At church in Woolloomooloo many people turn up to morning tea that haven’t been to the service. Often it is a first step toward the sometimes scary idea of church. On a particular morning a number of years ago, one of the people that turned up to church was sex worker named Barbara.
Her background was much the norm for women working the street alone – a broken childhood, running away, homelessness and a cycle of drug use and sex work that kept her trapped. She dropped in on the right morning tea because just down the road is a drop-in centre called the “Women’s Space”. Run by BICM, it is set up specifically for women working as street based sex workers. It is a refuge holding out a light saying that there is welcome and there is the possibility of freedom and change. She came there and made friends and started to trust people – just a little – for the first time in a long time. She moved into some semi-supported accommodation, which BICM runs. It is a house where people can stay and get regular support as they build up their ability to live independently. She also began working in our cleaning service – a way of giving long term unemployed people a chance at a job.
While she was staying with us, she created great frustration when twice in a row she slipped back and blotted out her struggle with drugs again. Some people said she had gone too far – she couldn’t stay in the house any longer. She’s done the wrong thing! But we decided we should hang in there with her. We started to see that if she has needed drugs to get through the day for the last 15 years, then it is pretty likely that the process of recovery might include some slip backs. We recognised that our call was to walk slowly with her toward recovery.
Whilst she was staying with us, she was introduced to Jesus and began to see him as a friend. Becoming a Christian meant a whole new life for her, a new group of friends and the taking away of her old support network and familiar lifestyle. She said “it is like learning to walk again.” Talking to God like a friend. Learning to trust people.
She became a regular at church- not just morning tea. She would tell us loudly what her favorite songs were and the preacher could be sure of some interaction during the sermon. Once, the preacher was retelling the parable of the banquet where people are invited in from the streets and lanes of the town. He spoke about the streets and lanes as the places where outcasts like lepers and tanners and prostitutes lived. When he later mentioned who was being invited in to the banquet, he began “lepers and tanners “, and she quickly chimed in with “and prostitutes”.
She talked about finding out about herself, discovering what it means to have emotions, and feelings and relationships with others. Things she hadn’t experienced for so long because they have been blotted out with drugs. She doesn’t live in the city any more and she doesn’t come to church any more. She has a terminal illness. But she has a fish tank… framed by a window… framed with lovely lace curtains. And as she sits and watches the fish and looks out the window and admires her curtains, she talks with God and he provides just what she needs.
A chance morning tea, a drop-in for sex workers, supported accommodation, accessible employment, welcoming friends, acceptance and an invitation to know Him. These are some of the things that God provided for Barbara. Not frilly presents or lollies or lots of talk and promises – but what she needed to make a move toward wholeness – the wholeness that God intends for all of us.