Mutual respect is the lesson
What do you get when you combine a Church with a specialised school for troubled teens? Margaret Jurd College — an unique high school in the suburbs of Newcastle, nestled on the grounds of Shortland Uniting Church. In this second of a three-part series about Margaret Jurd, we introduce you to the special purpose and fascinating history of a vital social service and a local Christian group.
Rev. Myung Hwa Park, the Moderator of the Uniting Church in Australia Synod of NSW and the ACT, visited the College earlier this year. She was struck by the bond between Shortland’s parishioners and Margaret Jurd students. “I felt the school and the church had a strong mutual respect for each other and both valued each other’s presence for their identity and wellbeing,” says The Moderator, who commends the work done at Margaret Jurd College. She suggests Scripture such as John 15:13 or 1 Corinthians 13 are being enacted by the Christians involved with this unusual community service. One of the parishioners involved told The Moderator how she views what is going on, on their church grounds.
” She said that the membership of Shortland Congregation is small and is decreasing and one day, they may not be there anymore. But they are happy because they can see that there is a future with Margaret Jurd College.”
Rev. Ray also is pleased at how Shortland’s members are so well received by students. “The kids just love the oldies,” he chuckles. Rev. Ray and Margaret Hingley point out the Congregation strives to use its Margaret Jurd opportunity to demonstrate Christians are ‘normal people’ and ‘don’t have two heads’.
“You can see the benefit of the students being on a church property. They are showing respect they didn’t have before they came there,” says Margaret. “And they appreciate the opportunity that’s been given to them. Melise does very well at showing them that the Church has given this to them.”
What the College has given to the Shortland church members is a newfound appreciation for the difficulties, stresses and problems that Margaret Jurd’s students have endured or continue to live with. “The ladies have seen the kids go off at times and they don’t bat an eye. They know the type of kids that are there,” reports Ray, without being harsh or insensitive. The young men and women that attend the College are among the most marginalised in our society.
Childhood trauma inclusive of abuse, domestic violence and mental-health diagnosis are sadly common among students. “The trauma that some of them have witnessed, you wouldn’t sleep for a week if you knew the things they have experienced as children,” explains Melise, who has worked in the welfare sector for more than 20 years. “Yet we expect them to come to school every day and respond in the classroom like a kid who has had a cushy existence. And they just can’t. That’s how they’ve ended up here. They’re not all in that category, but many are.”
The supportive education environment of Margaret Jurd includes, per classroom, one teacher, one teacher’s aide and one case worker. Care and concern for students’ holistic growth is central to the College’s purpose. Assistance with behaviour management, or emotional and psychological issues, are steadily provided to all students. Nutritious food is also available to all, including breakfast and lunch. Tellingly, those being helped do notice and frequently respond positively to the different way of doing school.
Ray of light
Students also react favourably to the approach of Rev. Ray, their beloved chaplain. Having grown up in a dysfunctional home, Ray only came to Christian faith in his mid-30s. He was a chaplain in Queensland’s juvenile detention system, but only learned about Shortland’s bond with the College after he got the job.
“God works in funny ways,” offers Ray about how his personal and professional experience with marginalised kids seems such a perfect fit with Margaret Jurd College. Found each week with teams on the sports field or chatting one-on-one with a student in the pews, Rev. Ray’s approach to the teens in his churchyard is all about relationship.
“I don’t go in there to preach at them or try to bring them to Christ,” says Ray. “I go in there to befriend them. I play sport with them. I play handball with them. I’m no spring chicken anymore; I’m 67 in August. I just try to build relationship with them so they feel that I’m there if they need to talk. And they do.”