Fighting for what’s right
A woman you’d recognise from many Uniting Church campaigns, even if you had not met her in person, Elenie Poulos smiles apologetically as she walks briskly to shake my hand. She’s running late for our coffee and chat about what she has been doing for the past 16 years, as the National Director of UnitingJustice. Given Elenie is in the final week of her significant role, it’s hardly surprising that she might be struggling to fit everything in. Despite such time constraints, she’s keen to share with Insights about being at the fore of something ingrained within the Uniting Church of Australia.
“The work of social justice is in our DNA,” summarises Elenie. “In 1977, when we announced our birth to the nation as the UCA, we made a statement to the country — it was called Statement to the Nation — and it made promises about what we do. That we would stand up against injustice; we would stand with people who are marginalised; we would stand up for human rights; we would combat racism. We would do all of that.”
Doing all of that is what Elenie has been doing for many years, on a full-time basis. Only her second ministry placement since graduation — her first was chaplain at Sydney’s MLC School — Elenie’s justice job has specifically helped the UCA live out its DNA. With a small team and modest resources, Elenie’s day-to-day workload varied from writing media releases to advising on submissions for government enquiries. She attended NGO meetings, worked closely with Synod members and read and responded to legislation. Yes, her passion for seeing justice done went so far as lobbying for UCA beliefs in the realm of our nation’s governance.
One of the hardest parts of her job was not being able to fight for every issue raised with her. “It was pretty common to get emails and phone calls from people saying, ‘Hey, there’s this terrible thing happening. Can the Church get involved in this and speak up about it?’” As a figurehead for social justice issues which the UCA lobbied for, Elenie (and her small team) had to make brutal calls about what they could realistically and reasonably pursue. “That was hard to deal with because you want to do things — and the need is so great — and the Church does make a difference in the world, and we should be in as many places as we can.”
By now, you shouldn’t have the wrong impression. But if you do, let’s make it totally clear: Justice work in the Uniting Church has not been the sole domain of Elenie Poulos. She tells me that, many times. One of the best things she has witnessed with UnitingJustice is the rise and rise of UCA members taking a stand for what they believe in.
“Over the last few years in particular, I’ve seen growth in the activism of church members,” enthuses Elenie, who is next going on to Sydney’s Macquarie University, to complete her PhD on politics, religion and human rights advocacy. “More church members being willing to put themselves on the line; to get arrested at environment protests or to do sit-ins at parliamentary offices; to protest certain policies. What
I’ve noticed is Uniting Church people are very in tune with what is going on. They’ve been concerned for a long time about policies, like refugees and asylum seekers.”
While any person can advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, the environment, gender groups or other social justice causes, Elenie believes “you can’t worship God without doing justice. You can’t actually have one without the other.” In a dignified yet exuberant way, Elenie reminds me the Bible is full of examples about what she’s just pointed out.
“The prophet Isaiah is one of the strongest places where that tradition springs from. Isaiah berated the Israelites for their empty worship. He said to them that their worship was empty and meaningless because they were doing all the right things by their worship but there are people starving — and they are fighting among themselves. They’re not trying to build a justice society.”
“[Christians] believe we have something unique to contribute – it’s in the story. Our narrative for justice is unique. We can stand with other human rights groups and say we will support human rights, but where does that come from in us? It comes from understanding that every person is a child of God and loved by God and deserving of dignity. Therefore, in the public space and in our public policy, we look to policies, ideas and discourses that speak to that for us; that we can uphold.”
Elenie adds that “the gospel call of Jesus” is pretty clear in its inclusion of justice. But as a follower of Jesus, can we run the risk of focusing too much upon social justice?
While the teachings, parables and healings of Jesus convey justice, they also reveal many other things. I ask Elenie whether emphasis upon social justice can cause other elements of Christian truth and life to be diminished, such as repentance, evangelism or maturing the faith of believers.
“No because, for me, all of those things are together,” Elenie answers. “I think those distinctions are theologically artificial. The most fulsome theology brings all of those things together and you can’t separate them.
“Once you separate those bits, your faith becomes diminished in some way because all of those things are important all together.
“Repentance is an essential part of justice and justice can’t be done without understanding the importance of repentance in forgiveness and grace.
“The work of justice is inherently evangelical. When we go out in the world and we stand with people who are forgotten, ignored and are suffering, that is an evangelical activity. That’s the Church saying, ‘This is who we are. This is who Jesus calls us to be. This is what faith is about.’ And people come to us as a result of that.”
Keen to represent
Elenie was raised to be, as she puts it, “mindful of the situation of other people.” That approach blossomed as she got older, growing into a developed passion. But while many of her brothers and sisters in Christ also are passionate about social justice, Elenie has taken it to another level. She has steadily realised her skills and interests mean she is suited to being a Christian in the public arena. A Christian leader who works at “the intersection between the church and the world.”
“I’ve grown as a Christian enormously,” reveals Elenie about the benefits to her own faith, by being UnitingJustice National Director. “I have learned about what it means to be a Christian in the world. How hard that can be but how rewarding it can be.”
Elenie had found the role to be hard but rewarding, since she started it. She remembers that at many of the meetings she has attended, people would share their anger, sorrow or frustrations about “the church” with Elenie. A lot of the criticism was directed at Christian organisations in general, and Elenie said she would acknowledge where Christians had failed and try to demonstrate the opposite.
“It’s just the long hard work of building up trust and making sure that the work that we do is quality work,” says Elenie about how Christians can make a dent in political or social processes. “Respect grows from that; it doesn’t come from saying ‘oh, you have to respect me because I’m from the church.’”
As much as Elenie encountered lots of pushback and suspicion about her Christian advocacy, there was also recognition in the community of positive campaigning by the UCA. As a national spokesperson, Elenie wanted the UCA’s social justice work to always be a legitimate representation of grassroots support.
“Our national, official advocacy is only as authentic as the action that people see happening on the ground. For example, with refugees we can say that we want this kind of policy. Often politicians will say, ‘Yeah, but you’re just the leaders. The people in the pews think differently.’ But that’s not the case here because they know that Uniting Church people are speaking out.”
“They’re phoning their local parliamentarian; they’re writing letters. They’re in marches and doing sit-ins. So when the President or a Moderator or one of the church leaders says that ‘this is what we stand for,’ it can’t be written off.
“We should be proud that, in Australia, the Uniting Church has a really good reputation for being a church that stands up for other people who are doing it tough.”
Elenie and I have got to the bottom of our cups of coffee and we’ve covered a lot of ground. As Elenie shares about working to stand up for many social justice causes, I struggle to find the right words for a burning question. But here goes: what are some of UnitingJustice’s biggest, well, successes?
“That’s a hard question when the big areas of work are refugees and asylum seekers and things like that. You have wins that are context dependent. One of the great things that the Uniting Church was able to do was to have chaplains in immigration detention centres for a long time. We made great strides in being able to support people in those situations.”
When that program was going strong, UCA had the most chaplains in detention centres across Australia, per Christian denomination. “Being able to make life better for people in detention centres, we were able to do that for a long time.”
That chaplaincy program ended due to security protocols being changed. I imagine that such changes and setbacks must have happened a lot during her tenure. How did she handle that? “It’s really hard and after 15 years, I’m tired,” Elenie chuckles sincerely. “It’s frustrating because you can be working on an issue for a long time and you see some small gains. Then, you have a change in government and things go backwards.
“Sometimes it’s one step forwards and three steps back. You can feel like you are bashing your head against a brick wall but the bottom line is just to keep out there. That’s our call; that’s what we have to do.”
“The Church’s mandate is to be a prophetic voice. That prophetic call; we don’t get assessed by the changes which have come as a result of [what we do].
“It’s not success, it’s faithfulness.
“Our faithfulness is judged by our continual willingness to stand up against all odds and just keep saying this is wrong, this is unjust.”
Where to from here
Elenie has been a great sport, giving up so much of her time in the final stages of her UnitingJustice residency. The change in era marked by Elenie’s departure also aligns with her role, and other National Director positions, being restructured by Assembly from July this year.
I ask how she feels that the UCA — with its social justice “DNA” — will not have a National Director for its specialised justice unit? Elenie is disappointed but doesn’t say much about the decision. Instead, she would rather remind us that she is not a lone voice. Activism for social justice remains the call for all UCA members.
“UnitingJustice is, in part, a reflection of the work people do — the day-to-day stuff that church people do,” describes Elenie. So, she is convinced the work she has devoted many years to will continue; “It will just happen differently. I was just one person and there are many justice staff in the church.”
“No one person is the voice of the church on these issues. That’s not how faith works. It’s the community of the faithful that has the responsibility to be the prophets and the justice workers and be in solidarity with everyone else.”