Uniting Church minister and human rights advocate, Rev. Dr John Jegasothy, received the Highly Commended Premier’s NSW Human Rights Certificate at the Premiers Harmony dinner on 28 February.
Rev. Dr Jegasothy has spent decades not only serving the community through his ministry but also advocating for the fair treatment of people seeking asylum and internally displaced people around the world.
“You don’t expect an award for Human Rights or for advocacy you do it because Jesus loves those people and God is for justice, God is for the down-trodden the poor, the captives, the prisoners and Jesus himself was a refugee.
“When I get this (award) it is to highlight the need for human rights in Australia and in the world. God has given us all the same rights, black or white, indigenous, migrants—whoever,” Rev. Dr Jegasothy said, one day before the ceremony.
Born in Sri Lanka as a Tamil (a minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka), Rev. Dr Jegasothy and his family has first-hand experience of traumatic and life-threatening violence and discrimination as a targeted minority.
In 1977, violence against the Tamils in Colombo escalated with 300 Tamils killed in the riots. In the last six years that the family lived in Sri Lanka, Rev. Dr Jegasothy was a Methodist Church minister in Trincomalee and then in Chenkalady, also chairing the region’s Human Rights group.
Rev. Dr Jegasothy became a spokesperson for Tamils at community forums often attended by officials and armed forces. This made him a target, where at one point he was forced to live away from his family due to the threats at his minister’s residence.
When his youngest son was almost killed in a cross-fire, for his safety and that of his wife and two young sons, the family fled Sri Lanka and came to Australia in 1986.
He later joined the Uniting Church and became an ordained minister.
“The Uniting Church received us and showed us charity,” said Rev. Dr Jegasothy, of the welcoming community and congregations including Parkes Uniting Church where he was the Minister five years.
“I almost had a breakdown”
Throughout this time, Rev. Dr Jegasothy’s human rights advocacy continued. While highlighting the persecution of Tamils through forums and media, he also began visiting Villawood Detention Centre. He helped case manage refugees as they settled into the community.
He also became involved with Friends of the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS).
Rev. Dr Jegasothy said he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from being internally displaced and his family’s lives being threatened to then continuing to help others who have lived similar experiences.
“I almost had a breakdown,” Rev. Dr Jegasothy said.
Luckily he called STARTTS and spoke to one of the counsellors.
“They taught me survive through all these things,” said Rev. Dr Jegasothy, who also attributed the support he received from friendships and further educations courses to helping through his PTSD.
Today, Rev. Dr Jegasothy ministers the Rose-Bay Vaucluse Uniting Church and the Tamil Congregation in Dulwich Hill, which he established. Rev. Dr Jegasothy has also been involved in numerous committees including an ambassador role for the Refugee Council of Australia and a steering group member of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce.
Through the Sydney Alliance program, ‘Changing the Conversation about Asylum Seekers’, Rev. Dr Jegasothy also helps run and facilitate table talks with congregations and community groups exploring questions and stories around asylums seeker policy.
Rev John Jegasothy, awarded a Highly Commended award in the #HumanRights category. Well deserved recognition! Congratulations! #phd19 @UCA_NSWACT In pic with @GladysB @ArashBordbard93 and Shane Simpson pic.twitter.com/ezDI9ZZCB1
— SSI (@SSI_tweets) February 28, 2019
When asked what Uniting Church congregations can be doing now for refugees and asylum seekers, Rev. Dr Jegasothy said there is already great engagement, with many Uniting Church congregations participating in march’s, charity and table talks.
“We are already in the thick of it,” Rev. Dr Jegasothy said.
“Everyone on the pew should be conscious of what is happening in Australia, to these people, to asylum seekers, refugees, policies, to the indigenous situation happening in Australia- bridging the gap is not really happening.”
Rev. Dr Jegasothy maintains that the church must always be socially conscious, as “the voice of the church is a prophetic voice.”
“Just sitting in the church singing and praying—praying is wonderful you know the least they can do is to pray for these people and pray for those who are working for peace and justice in Australia and in the world. But also put their hands on the plough in some way.”
Rev. Dr Jegasothy looks to the people who are outside the margins, neglected detained or mistreated, dehumanising experience that he says no one deserves.
“My heart goes out to these people and I represent those people when I go out and I also represent all the others who are working for human rights.”
“For me, human rights is something that everyone deserves… basic needs to be respected, to be treated as humans.”
Receiving this latest award, Rev. Dr Jegasothy seems almost uncomfortable with the recognition. He explains that this discomfort comes from knowing so many people who have an overwhelming passion for justice and who work tirelessly with admirable compassion that also deserve recognition.
“So I am humbled by this and I will receive (this award) on behalf of everyone,” Rev. Dr Jegasothy said.