Bankstown District Uniting Church welcomes newcomers
I had not met Gaby Kobrossi before he picks me up outside Bankstown train station. As I get in his car and shake hands with the minister at Bankstown District Uniting Church, he is still in the middle of a hands-free phone call. I don’t speak Arabic so I have no real idea what he is talking about with the lady on the other end. Taking a few minutes to find a park outside a café around the corner from his church home, Gaby spends our drive in conversation. With the lady on speaker phone.
Before you or I can accuse Gaby of being rude, the warm and inviting Lebanese gentleman tells me the lady on the phone was asking for his help with some housing and immigration issues. Gaby points across the street to a block of flats in the middle of Bankstown. The lady and her family live in the building.
Like most of its residents, her family secured accommodation there, at reduced rent, thanks to the connections of Gaby and his Congregation. And, like most of the building’s residents, her family are newcomers to Australia through the increased intake of refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq.
“And when they arrive here, we really care about them,” says Gaby about the way his Congregation has welcomed people coming to Australia as part of the Federal Government’s pledge in late 2015 to resettle 12,000 from the war-torn Middle East.
A simple example of this “real care” is Gaby stressing they be called “newcomers”, not refugees or asylum seekers. “It’s putting people under a label… yes, maybe they’re refugees when they’re in the camps outside their country, but the moment they arrive in Australia, they are a permanent resident. They have all the rights like you and me.”
Finding places for newcomers to live is only the start of the way the Bankstown Congregation really cares. From small acts such as taking newcomers shopping, to donations of furniture, organising job interviews and providing English lessons, the Bankstown District Uniting Church community gives generously. But Gaby is insistent that recognition must be shared, because care for newcomers in the Bankstown area is coming from “the whole body of the church”. Gaby thanks his Congregation, Georges River Presbytery, the Synod, UnitingJustice and UnitingWorld for coming together to love their new neighbours.
In between steady texts and phone calls about newcomers, Gaby tells me how inspired he was a few years ago by the campaign led by UCA leaders for the 12,000 extra visas. This campaign of “welcome” spurred on Gaby, who had moved to Australia in 2007 following 20 years of working with the Bible Society in Lebanon.
“The President of the Uniting Church Stuart McMillan and the General Secretary Andrew Williams announced that we welcome refugees – newcomers – and as a person from overseas, I felt it is important for me to be involved.”
“The Uniting Church was a pioneer by raising up the flag: ‘We want these people to come. We welcome them.’
“As a Lebanese, and my wife is Syrian, I was able to feel for these people.”
Gaby’s Congregation and church council also felt for the newcomers, especially those arriving in their area. “We can’t sit down and do nothing” is the attitude they had and continue to have. While Gaby is a picture of effortless assistance for others, he happily adds that his “wonderful team” fuels what he is able to achieve. “They are doing the work; I can’t do the work by myself,” says Gaby. “Maybe my role was more to open the eyes of others, to see the need.
“God called us to look after these people, through different fields of ministry. We need to be effective in our ministry. [Jesus] is the one who said ‘You are the salt of the earth. You are the light for the world.’ These two verses from Christ; it’s very important to read them and understand their meaning. So, how can we be the light for the world and salt of the earth, if people can’t taste our salt and see the light?”
“The main thing is: how can we help these people to have a better life?”
One of the ways has been the Bus Trip ministry, which began last year and is a key example of how Gaby’s Congregation tries to be salt and light. Every month, they take a bus-load of newcomers on a day trip outside of the Bankstown area, to experience parts of Sydney or New South Wales they might not have seen.
The Bus Trip ministry has already visited Kiama and Balmoral beach, connecting with local Uniting churches as an additional bonus for those aboard. The next trip will be to to Bondi, Little Bay, and La Perouse, with the partnership of Miranda Uniting. Like the other trips, the Bondi journey is, basically, cost neutral. Apart from petrol, everything else is donated or volunteered and, as Gaby points out about the natural world around us, “God gave that to us for free.”
Gaby is adamant that money not be a deterrent to anyone wanting to help newcomers. “We are trying to move the money aside, the material things aside, and just focus on that love that Christ left with us.” On the other hand, he also sees issues with when we only look to part with money – and not what is even more precious to most of us.
“It’s easy sometimes to give a donation,” says Gaby. “But you give a donation and, maybe tomorrow, you forget it. But when you give your time, that’s quality. That’s Jesus. That’s the love of God — to spend your time with people.”
“Newcomers don’t need money. They need language, a job and friendship. You don’t need to be rich to do that. The only thing I want to encourage is let Christ’s love reflect through you, by crossing over to these people. Search for them. Build bridges with them. That is Christianity.”
“Jesus was going from village to village, preaching and healing people. He had no money and no place to lay his head on. He didn’t ask anyone for money.”
Gaby reckons we can share more of Christ, with more people, when we give time to those in our community. As we go back to Gaby’s no-frills office so he can help a Syrian man print out paperwork for his drivers license, I wonder what Gaby hopes for newcomers when they encounter the good news of Jesus through Bankstown District Uniting?
“Our message is that the light of Christ and the love of Christ should be shared with people. Let the people see the glory and love of Jesus Christ.”
“It’s up to them,” explains Gaby simply, about whether newcomers desire to become Christian or not. “But these things you are investing in them; that you are leaving that little seed, the seed of love, and that will grow. Wherever they go, they will remember that these people were there for them.”
“And we are not here to do that because it is compulsory. No. Because of our faith, we have to reflect in this way.”
While driving me back to the train station, Gaby makes an offhanded remark about how he called on family networks to help about 10 newcomers find work on construction sites. He shares this casually and without pride, fitting in well with something important he told me earlier: “We are not 100 per cent perfect. We are not covering everyone, but we are doing our best.”
Gaby and the Bankstown Uniting community are doing as much as they can, within reasonable limits of what they might be able to achieve. He encourages other Congregation to do the same, so they can avoid being of no use to those around them. ” “If you try to do everything, you’ll do nothing.”