On the 5th of August a few of the church members, under the guidance of Peter Chapman (great leader, brilliant guy) did a Discernment Walk around the city.
What’s a discernment Walk? You shout into the ether. Be patient and I will explain.
Starting in the church building Peter (great leader, brilliant guy) led us through a Bible study on seeing and hearing our surroundings. Peter (see above for description) has 17 years of ministry experience on the streets of Melbourne and explained to us that we were going out into the city on a ‘pilgrimage’ with God’s question to Jeremiah burning in our ears, “What do you see?” There were no rules, nowhere we should or shouldn’t do – just go out and be God’s people in the city and try and answer that question – “What do you see?”
So we had a prayer and divested ourselves of the accoutrements of modern society. We left behind wallets, keys, phones etc on the communion table and left the church. That act in itself was very strange. It felt very strange to go out with nothing.
This is the account of my little pilgrimage – the others have very different stories, but this is mine.
Let me start by being honest, I really didn’t want to do this walk. It was cold, I had loads of work to do on my computer, I was tired and really didn’t feel like spending two hours wandering the streets. However, I had decided to do it and, in my usual way, give it 100%. During Peter’s talk I had sort of planned my route. I had decided not to go out of the general range of the church, only walk the street we are on and the lanes around. I was going to head up the street to the gardens and wander around, take notice of what was around us.
So off I went. For those of you who know Melbourne I was walking up LaTrobe Street towards Flagstaff gardens. As I started I was aware of everything, the traffic, the people, the shops, so busy during the week, all closed and dark. The first thing I noticed was that it was much quieter than during the work week. Fewer people, not as many cars, less noise. Instead of walking straight to the gardens I decided to turn right in Wills Street. Some of the church members used to live here so I know the road but it was not the usual way I would walk.
Down here there was a shoe in the middle of the street and a broken shopping trolley. Was it signs of a good time last night? Was it a fight? Was it someone being thrown out of their accommodation? Was it a couple in a rush to get home? Or was it just a shoe and a broken shopping trolley. I did notice that the laces on the shoe were still tied. Strange, I thought.
I walked past apartment buildings (so many people living so close to the church, what are we doing for them?) into A’beckett Street.
The Royal Historical Society of Victoria meets here (I had no idea) and there is an orchestral rehearsal hall too! Never knew they were here, I mused.
Up on the corner is the Radisson Hotel and across William’s Street is Flagstaff gardens. I wandered this way. Crossing the road I saw a guy parking his car and unloading some strange gear, a bike and a large bag with, what looked liked, polo sticks – curious, I pondered.
By the time I got across the busy road the man was walking ahead of me and so I thought I would follow him and see what he was doing, wondering what I would see. It wasn’t long before he met his mates and it was plain that they were off to play polo on bikes, on a netball court, on Sunday. Good luck, I silently wished them.
Flagstaff gardens was quiet, only a few people wandering here and there. Families, couples, kids kicking balls. One person grabbed my attention. “What do I see?” I asked myself. A young woman sitting, alone, on a park bench gazing out into space. She looked sad and was giving off that ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody’ feeling. I tried to think what would have put her in such a mood to sit in a chilly park, alone. Maybe a relationship gone bad, maybe someone she loved was very sick, had she lost her job? I don’t know but I whispered a little prayer for her as I passed.
Not much further down, among the laughter and happy sounds, I saw another sad sight. A lighter and a foil bag – glue or solvent sniffers had been here. Addicts on our doorway. We do nothing for them, I remembered.
As I meandered slowly through the park I listened to the voices I could hear. Different accents, different languages. The clipped sound of a South African, the way the German accent destroys the ‘w’ sound, the sing-song cadence of Chinese, the short sounds of Japanese. In about an hour and a half I heard 8 different languages and many more accents – it was fascinating. French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, I’m pretty sure it was Bengali, Arabic and Welsh (yes someone spoke to me in Welsh, I was wearing a Welsh rugby top). I heard English being spoken in accents as diverse as Indian, South African, eastern European (Polish I think but I’m not sure) and Irish. Within a block of the Church the world was there; what can we offer them?
It wasn’t only people I saw, in the middle of the afternoon, in cold sunlight I saw possums. Just sitting in a tree being fed by a lady was a greedy possum and in a little hole there was another one peeking out. In all this urban sprawl nature finds a way. God does work mysteriously, I thought.
I walked some more. I went past St. James’ Old Cathedral, I wanted to go in but it was all shut up, I passed some ‘art’ called “City living”.
I don’t live like that but then I’m not a tortured, starving artist am I? Back through the park (the woman was still on the bench and the bike polo guys hadn’t finished setting up their court yet) I headed back down A’Beckett street and walked headlong into the strangest encounter of my day, maybe even my year.
Walking past the Radisson there was a smartly dressed young woman standing there. She smiled at me so I smiled back and then she spoke and nearly floored me. “Are you looking for me?” “No,” I replied, “I wasn’t looking for anyone.” “Shame,” she said, “I was looking for you, do you want some?”
I actually said “Some what?” Yes, I am that naive, I’m a little country boy walking in the big city. And then it dawned on me, I was being solicited, by a call girl, a woman of the night, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Flustered I tried to speak normally. “Oh, no thanks, I’m just heading back to church.” She laughed, “Church, that’s a new one on me.”
So I explained what I was doing and who I was. There was no one around so I wasn’t stopping business for her. In our little chat I discovered she called herself Alison, she was a medical student from Sydney paying her way through University, her aim was to be a doctor. I was a little stunned at why she was in this particular line of work but as she said she has no overheads, the work is easy, sometimes pleasurable and pays very well. I had to ask, $400 for any part of an hour. “Beats working in a bar,” she explained. She was obviously bright, very pretty and totally aware of what she was doing. She wasn’t feeding a habit of any sort, just feeding herself. We said goodbye and I walked away feeling disgusted for the state of the country when our future doctors get themselves through college by prostitution. Unbelievably sad, I thought.
My thoughts were all over the place, I was walking, not looking, not seeing. I got to Queen’s Street and desperately wanted a drink and a sit down to gather my scattered wits. I noticed a new cafe and whiffed the enticing smell of roast coffee beans and then I remembered I had no money, Peter had asked us to leave our wallets at church. So I walked more, back on to LaTrobe Street and down towards Elizabeth Street. On the corner is the old Argus Building. It has some steps outside so I decided to people watch from there.
I discovered a lot of things. Coffee is big business in Melbourne. I would say that out of every ten people that passed (and it is a busy corner) two people had a take away coffee cup in their hands. But that was nothing compared to the 60% (six in ten) of people under about 40 that had either an iPhone or those ubiquitous white ear buds. I see why Apple is a multi billion dollar company. About 60% of young(ish) people had an Apple product. If that trend is continued throughout the Western world, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be, the majority of the young population has an idevice. They are able to communicate with the world from wherever they are – we need to make better use of the Internet, I decided.
Watching the world go past is great. I was talked to by people, I was surrounded, hugged and high fived by a load of children. True one was my Godson but I still felt really special. I had a conversation with another discerner who happened to amble past, I was smiled at, frowned upon, asked if I was ok but largely ignored. It was very interesting. One thing that caught my attention, well two things, were two people. Scruffy, unclean this couple walked past laughing and smiling. They looked like they had nothing between them but they seemed happy. As they walked past I caught a snatch of the conversation, “…..this is home, the way in is round here.” Like that machine that has just landed on Mars, my feeling was Curiosity. I decided to follow them. Why? Well because I wanted to know where home was. I was sitting outside a derelict building. There are no houses anywhere near where I was. The young man seemed sure though, “…this is home.”
They were about 20 metres ahead of me when they turned into the lane that runs between the Argus building and the Dept. of Veteran Affairs building. Casually I followed, years of training kicking in, eyes everywhere, aware of everything. And they weren’t there. Vanished they had (as Yoda would say). Looking around there was no where they could be, no hiding place, no doorways or other lanes. Maybe they were aliens who had teleported to their ship, but then I remembered I was in Melbourne and not L.A. so that couldn’t be the reason. There was only one place they could have gone, through a small, mesh covered window but it was covered with wire. To paraphrase the great (and totally fictional) Sherlock Holmes, when you eliminate every other possibility what is left must be the answer. On closer inspection, the mesh on the window could be lifted and a person could squeeze through into the abandoned Argus Building. So on our block we have a community of squatters. What do they need? I wondered as I walked back to the main street.
Slowly I made my way back to the church. I was not the first back and as the stragglers made their way back I made hot tea. I don’t usually drink tea but after my afternoon of discernment in the cold of Melbourne I needed it. Over tea Peter led a de-brief when we all shared our experiences.
This blog has helped me to clarify the afternoon in my mind. What did I learn? Lots!
Our church is too insular – I didn’t walk more than 10 minutes from the doors and I found whole worlds I didn’t know were there. We have families, lonely souls, addicts, working girls, squatters and people from around the world all on our doorstep and we offer them about as little as is possible – they don’t feel the need of our worship services but they do need the love of Christ we have. How we give it to them is a whole different issue – at least we are aware that they are there now!
As a local church we need a global presence – if what I saw is anywhere near correct about 60% of the young people around us get their information, not from looking around them but, by surfing the net. Being relevant locally means being accessible globally, at least that’s what I think.
We are not useless – the Church has a huge place in society. As the Church, though, we must fill that place and not expect people to fill our place. The people will not come to Christ until Christ goes to them – and that is OUR role. By whatever means possible and necessary we must take Christ to them – that is the biggest lesson I have learnt from the discernment walk.
For someone who didn’t want to do it I certainly got a lot out of it. Thanks Peter. I was re-reminded again of one of my life tenants – Everyone counts or no one counts! They all count in God’s eyes, they should in ours.
Now to put those lessons into action!