If you’re involved in social advocacy if not internationally then in Sydney, you would have heard of Uniting Church minister Rev. Bill Crews and/or his initiative, The Exodus Foundation. In Sydney, Bill has spearheaded the Ashfield Uniting Church to become not just a place of worship but a safe haven for under-privileged people living on the outskirts of society. At one side of the church’s property there is the Loaves and Fishes restaurant that distributes free meals. Then at the back of the property is the Exodus Foundation’s medical centre that, among other services, provides free dental work for the homeless.
It doesn’t stop there. Through the Exodus Foundation and the Bill Crews Charitable Trust, there are now Literacy Centres that deliver Multi Literacy Programs including academic support for disadvantaged students in Gladstone and Darwin, with another to open in Ashfield. Internationally over the years Bill has been involved in supporting a number of initiatives in Thailand, Hong Kong, Burma, Cambodia and Europe for children at risk of exploitation.
At 74 years old, his commitment to social advocacy has only seemed to have grown over the years mirroring the reach achieved by the Exodus Foundation and local ministry. On this Monday morning Ashfield Uniting is already bustling with life, with a long line of people forming outside the restaurant. When I finally meet Bill in his office, there is a sense of calm. So much so that it doesn’t take long for him, through sips of coffee, to launch into his life and faith story with such openness and trust.
He mentions his lonely childhood and slowly how his journey to Jesus took him by surprise. In the 1970s, after witnessing the large amounts of homeless people on the streets—particularly children—Bill felt drawn to social advocacy and later to God.
“It was the kids and the people that moved me,” says Bill who started doing voluntary work at the Kings Cross Wayside Chapel, coffee shop. It was here that he found his calling.
“I was walking up the stairs to the coffee shop…and it was like time stood still,” says Bill.
“It must have been an instant but it felt like timeless, and it was like a voice but it wasn’t, it was a knowing. And it said you have got to leave your job, you got to come and work here (Wayside).
“You got to always work with the poorest of the poor, always.
“It said you will become well known because of that but don’t worry. And it also said the cost of that will be that your personal life won’t be that happy.”
So Bill quit his job at AWA and went from a research engineer’s salary to earning just $11 dollars a week. He laughs when he says that people were quite concerned for him but he said he knew it’s what he had to do. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and Bill worked a lot with rejected homeless people and those dealing with drug problems at the Wayside Chapel Kings Cross crisis centre.
“I just saw every issue that you could imagine and I just felt like I was home.”
After 13 years in Kings Cross, he decided it was time to move on and explore his personal faith. By 1986 Bill had completed theological college and was ordained as a Uniting Church minister of the word.
Taking up ministry in Ashfield, Bill was again shocked to see so many homeless teens—many of whom began “crashing” in the pews of the church and in the church hall for the night. With the initial funding from two gracious people, the congregation was able to open the Loaves and Fishes restaurant, to at least provide hot meals for the homeless. Bill says the restaurant has been open continuously since 1986 and is now open seven days a week, with food vans servicing more suburbs.
“Today at the very least we’ll do 800 meals a day,” says Bill thanks to donations and dedicated volunteers.
This morning, Bill leads the way to the kitchen which is in full swing with breakfast being served. Today the kitchen team is from a business sponsor. As we continue the tour, we’re stopped multiple times by friends, people who thankful for the services available or people who work either in the kitchen or the office. The way Bill interacts with each is with same respect as the next and vice-versa. He seems to take on each individuals problems as he tries to see how he or his team can help but just as the ‘vision’ had predicted it has not been without its personal toll.
A few years ago, while in the Calais Jungle refugee camp in France (it was later demolished), Bill stumbled on a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Since Bill had organised NA meetings for people recovering from drug addiction in Sydney he decided to sit in. Here 20 men and women Middle Eastern, Iranians, and Africans—not only refugees but fighting drug addiction—sat in a circle and told their stories in all different languages. When it was his turn to speak, Bill says it was emotional talking of his two failed marriages, how his kids have suffered because of it and his own hardships in his childhood. Once he was done, the group got up and said welcome.
“It was like coming in from the cold,” says Bill.
“All my life I had set up groups for lonely people and I would set them up and get them working. But I would walk away more lonely than they were. I realised you had to come in from the cold, and be in there with them. And it changed my life.
“I feel now like that I am on a new trajectory. That at the very time that most people’s lives are closing down mine has opened right up.”
To prove this point further Bill relayed a conversation he had with the Dalai Lama (like, the actual Dalai Lama). The two, Bill tells me, are actually good friends as Bill gets up to show a gift the Dalai Lama presented him on his last trip to see him. It was in these talks with the Dalai Lama that Bill says he discovered something about faith.
“When you look someone in the eye…you just vanish and then you suddenly come back. And that’s what Jesus meant when he said to find yourself you need to lose yourself.
“Jesus is deeply subversive. When we vanish, it’s a timeless now and the kingdom is now.”
“It’s made me in awe of him as a human being, then I just trust his relationship. I think faith (for me) has suddenly become trust and you don’t have to promote it, you just have to do it.
“It’s not words. All words do is encourage smugness. It’s instead living it, doing it and I think what Jesus challenges me to do is be authentic every moment which is really hard. ”
That authenticity is what he tries to convey in the work and mission here at Ashfield Uniting and through the Exodus Foundation.
“This isn’t a place where we do good to the poor. This is a place where we be and they be and maybe the group of us together can get somewhere,” says Bill.
As our conversation comes to an end and as people come to talk to Bill, hug or shake his hand you begin to see what he means about appreciating connections with individuals and really listening. No matter their walk in life there is a great level of respect and that’s something to be admired.
Find out how you can volunteer or help the ministry and mission Ashfield Uniting and Exodus Foundation at exodusfoundation.org.au