Faith in public policy
Pray, march, lobby, see change, pray and repeat. That’s the Uniting Church since its 1977 formation, never shying away from social and environmental issues, engaging with governments and public policy as a way of witnessing the Christian faith and standing with the marginalised.
One of the ways the Uniting Church engages the community, and does it well, is by challenging society to find a more compassionate way a more life-giving way, one that is underpinned in theology.
The Uniting Church Assembly General Secretary, Colleen Geyer, wrote in For a World Reconciled that justice is “a deep sense of the Church being about God’s work, an example of the incarnation of God in our work.”
From advocating for Indigenous Land Rights to calling for end of uranium mining, the social action in the 70s to now is grounded in the sentiments outlined by the 1977 UCA ‘Statement to the Nation’.
These sentiments were reiterated in the Bicentennial Statement (1988), were the first UCA Assembly pledged to:
Challenge acquisitiveness and greed…struggle against all systems and attitudes which set person against person, group against group…identify and challenge all social and political structures…which perpetuate and compound poverty and destruction of creation.
Insights looked into what lobbying for policy reform looks like today for the Church and its agencies.
Prophetic ministry in advocacy
At every level of the Uniting Church there are committees and groups that have a focus on social issues and how the church can effectively engage in that space. In particular the Synod of NSW and the ACT established the Social Justice Forum (SJF) in 2009, to continue the social justice advocacy and the prophetic ministry within the Synod.
SJF enables congregations and the community to identify and campaign for issues affecting the community. The main areas of advocacy for SJF are people seeking asylum, affordable housing, drug law reform, and environmental advocacy through Uniting Earth ministry team.
SJF Advocacy Officer, Alex Hogan, explains that they also work with social justice committees within presbyteries and congregations.
“We try and support, resource and promote these groups and their activities as much as possible,” Ms Hogan said.
One of those activities is advocating for a more compassionate response to people seeking asylum, which Ms Hogan said is a continuing concern for the church and the community.
From this SJF launched the Give Hope Asylum Seekers campaign in 2013. The Give Hope campaign is concerned with how Australia is treating people seeking asylum both settling into local communities and in offshore detention, as well as the global persecution of people seeking asylum.
“So far Uniting Church members have been involved in 8 different meetings with MPs and Senators to discuss this issue. There are a number of meetings still being planned,” Ms Hogan said.
“In order for there to be policy change on this issue, local people from the community need to be knocking on their MPs door to talk about this.” .
Along with providing training and education for congregations in social justice advocacy, Ms Hogan shares that campaigning for these main issues in the lead up to 2019 state elections has already begun.
“[We’re doing this] particularly through community forums across Sydney where elected representatives will be invited to speak to their policies on this issue and answer questions.”
“We also work to support the Moderator to speak in the public sphere about particular issues – such as his involvement as key faith speaker at the 2018 Palm Sunday Rally.”
One of the successes for Give Hope campaign is with the partnership with Sydney Alliance, have worked to achieve concession transport rates and free TAFE for people seeking asylum.
“Our work to change Federal policy for people seeking asylum is a much more challenging task but we hope to see some positive change in policy at the next Federal election,” said Ms Hogan.
Campaigning for the common good
One of the significant lobbying successes within the Synod in conjunction with the Church’s agency Uniting is the establishment of the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) in 2001.
A global pioneering move by Uniting and the Church, the MSIC is located in the heart of Kings Cross, Sydney and was the first centre of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Since then, Canada has followed suit and now has 27 injecting room centres across the country.
Uniting Head of Advocacy Campaigns, Dominic Streeter, said the Sydney centre has saved lives and reversed a number of overdoses.
“In 17 years of operation our MSIC in Sydney has reversed nearly 8,000 overdoses, made over 13,000 referrals into treatment, reduced ambulance call out rates in Kings Cross by 80% and reduced publicly discarded needle equipment by half.
“So it’s difficult to understand why Australia, having ‘proven concept’ has taken so long to build on that foundation,” said Mr Streeter.
Just this year, Melbourne opened its own medically supervised injecting room and has already seen similar progress with reversed overdoses.
These centres are able to reach the most marginalised in society that Mr Streeter identifies are often the people that can be affected by drug dependency.
“Treatment works and arresting people who are ill, as well as feeding stigma and being a waste of money, is a barrier to treatment.
“Last year 200,000 Australians weren’t able to access the Alcohol or Drug Treatment they needed and that is not a situation we would accept for any other health condition,” said Mr Streeter.
In 2016 the Synod passed a resolution that called on governments to invest in drug harm reduction strategies and the decriminalisation of the use and possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.
“Good drug policy keeps people safe—both people who use drugs and people who don’t,” said Mr Streeter.
“The benefits extend to the community—by taking drug use off the streets, local residents will be less likely to encounter discarded drug paraphernalia and more likely to get an ambulance quickly for medical emergencies.”
Mr Streeter explained that the Uniting advocacy team had met with a number of stakeholders including police commissioners and senators who all shared that the moral authority of the Uniting Church supporting this campaign, is “extremely compelling.”
“The Uniting Church is the only church in the world to publicly campaign on this issue and in the coming weeks there will be lots of opportunities to get involved, sign up and show your support through events in churches through New South Wales.
“Problematic drug use affects the most marginalised in our society, so this is a social justice issue at the heart of the Church’s mission.”
The call for drug law reform continues with Uniting and the Church organising Long Walk for Treatment where 50 walkers will walk from Dubbo to NSW Parliament to deliver an open letter to the health minister.
The open letter, penned by the Moderator, Rev. Simon Hansford, will call on the government to fund harm reduction treatments and systematic drug policy change. On October 19 church leaders and community will begin the 15 day walk to parliament.
Pray, march, lobby, see change, pray and repeat.