Four presbyteries are involved. Over 50 congregations have had contact.
The Sydney Alliance — a coalition of faith groups, unions and community organisations working together for the benefit of civil society — enjoys a growing commitment from the Uniting Church in New South Wales and the ACT.
Around 120 Uniting Church people have undergone training with the Alliance and 50 more are scheduled into the September session. The Moderator wants at least 1,000 people from the Synod to turn up to the founding assembly of the Sydney Alliance in 2011.
But what’s in it for us?
Insights talks to a variety of Uniting Church people to find out why they’ve become involved and where it has led them so far.
Synod goals and the Sydney Alliance
- To develop a vibrant faith in Christ and God’s mission by exploring, modelling, encouraging, enabling and resourcing discipleship.
The Sydney Alliance training provides resources for discipleship and the opportunity to model discipleship as Uniting Church members interact with members of other Alliance organisations.
- To explore and respond to the searching for spiritual experience that is a profound impulse in the lives of many people in the Australian community.
The Sydney Alliance provides opportunity to respond to the searches for spiritual experience that become apparent as relationship with others is built.
- To engage with credibility in actions of reconciliation, justice and peace for Christ’s sake.
This Alliance is a means of achieving reconciliation, justice and peace as we work together to achieve these things in our society.
- To take initiatives and to work with presbyteries, new and existing congregations and faith communities in the hope of transforming communities.
The Alliance is about transforming our society for the common good.
- To strengthen the integrity of the Uniting Church’s ministry.
I believe awareness of the Uniting Church’s ministry and integrity has already been enhanced as our members relate their stories to others.
- To ensure sustainable funding and resources to enable mission.
One of the Alliance’s goals is to strengthen its member organisations.
For a just society
The Moderator Niall Reid
I have been involved in the Alliance since its inception.
I’ve been through two-day and six-day training, served on its interim board, the organising committee, the Leaders Council, on Alliance Assembly planning teams and on a number of committees in promotion of the Alliance to groups and individuals.
I have met many people I would never have met, shared my faith with individuals and groups often, and I have been challenged to reflect on what my faith has to say to the wider community and what God is saying to me through the wider community.
What does the Uniting Church stand to gain from involvement?
This fits with our vision to transform communities and has the potential to make a difference in areas we would have little impact otherwise, hopefully improving quality of life in areas of health services, transport, environmental issues and education.
It also provides an opportunity to be in dialogue with organisations that have little knowledge or respect for the church and other faith traditions.
What does the Uniting Church have to contribute to the Alliance?
I believe it brings a strong commitment to social justice and the desire to work for a just society without a significant agenda of its own. It also brings a theological perspective and a strong sense of personal and community responsibility and values.
Without the Uniting Church I believe the Sydney Alliance would be struggling. We are bringing a level of commitment and leadership that few others are able to bring.
At the last Alliance Assembly our members represented almost one quarter of those attending.
My impression is that many of those Uniting Church people who become involved have been energised by the experience, feel that they are working in a way that reflects the Uniting Church ethos, and are excited by the connections being made and the possibilities of being involved in something significant in transforming our society.
I believe that every person is made in the image of God and I see God present in the lives and actions of people who may not recognise it themselves.
Where we are seeking justice, God is present. Where we are building relationships we see a reflection of God who desires relationship with his creation — desire for true relationship is born out of love — where love is God is.
The Executive Director, John Oldmeadow
At a transport depot in south-side Chicago, surrounded by boarded up houses and retail outlets, John Oldmeadow felt far outside his comfort zone.
His was the only pale face on the block where he was collecting signatures with a fellow community organiser.
Three emergency vehicles had recently screamed passed. Now two unmarked police cars pulled over a van of youths and started to pull their vehicle apart.
It was a striking example of a community in crisis.
As Executive Director of the Synod’s Board of Education and an active member of the Sydney Alliance, Mr Oldmeadow used his study leave in September 2009 to gather firsthand experience of similar, established community organising groups, their methods and their effect on society.
What he saw in Chicago (the home of community organising) and London was both confronting and inspiring.
In Chicago Mr Oldmeadow worked with Action Now, attending meetings and demonstrations and observing how community organising works to effect change.
South Chicago was hit particularly hard by sub-prime mortgages and bank foreclosure on housing loans was the primary issue for Action Now during Mr Oldmeadow’s visit.
Many people in the area had been forced to abandon homes they could not afford and entire blocks of ill-secured, vacated buildings had become havens for gangs, fires and illegal activity.
Action Now worked to educate the community about their right to contest foreclosure and attempt to renegotiate loans with banks.
“Pressure from community groups got Obama to pass legislation that forced banks to work through a standardised procedure before kicking people out,” said Mr Oldmeadow.
“I went along to one of these demonstrations on the streets. We put on the shirts, we chanted, we got reporters there, we cleaned up a lot of rubbish.”
He returned to Australia with a renewed commitment to working with the Sydney Alliance in three ways: co-organising SA reflection groups, investigating interest in a schools alliance and further encouraging conversations with congregations.
He said the work of Uniting Church boards like UnitingCare and the Board of Education will inevitably relate to issues emerging from SA listening campaigns as aged care and education are constant areas of community concern.
“The Uniting Church is a major player in SA because our culture fits so well,” said Mr Oldmeadow.
“We can learn a huge amount from SA. In the Uniting Church we are really good at discussion, consultation, listening. The unions are really good at action.”
In reflection groups, members aim to take time to learn from the previous actions of others. One recent meeting featured Jack Mundey, who led the Builders’ Labourers Federation’s famous “green bans” during the ’70s.
In London, Mr Oldmeadow was inspired by the way the London Citizens group had engaged schools.
Alongside congregations, he said, schools are present in almost every community and are valuable because they have land, resources, people and issues they want to address.
“For parents, the single most important community focus while their kids are at school is schools,” he said.
Safety, education as an upwardly mobile pathway and ensuring school grounds are a respectful place are all issues that play on the minds of parents with school-aged children.
The Board of Education has also produced a study guide to accompany Michael Gecan’s book Effective Organising for Congregational Renewal — a resource that helps clergy and lay leaders learn the tools of community organising for use in congregations and denominations.
“The Uniting Church’s social justice agenda seeks to engage the community and the Sydney Alliance provides us with a perfect opportunity to join with community groups, other denominations and faith groups, and unions,” said Mr Oldmeadow.
“It is a vehicle for us like no other.”
What are our goals?
The congregation members, Miriam Pepper and Yashmin Arthur
Better care for the environment, public transport and education are three areas in which Uniting Church members hope to effect change after putting their hands up to join the Sydney Alliance.
At the moment, Sydney Alliance is in the process of listening, gathering ideas, identifying issues, and offering training and leadership development.
Members of the Sydney Alliance face the challenge of piecing together the most pressing issues that will later form the foundation of a community agenda.
A number of potential issues have been identified from the initial listening campaigns and meetings.
Concerns like inadequate transportation, the rising cost of living, the rise of religious and racial tension, better work-life balance, better education and building a more sustainable city are on the table
During the Alliance’s two-day Alliance Building Institute program, six-day advanced leadership courses and listening campaigns, participants learn about relational organising or building strong relationships with other organisations based on common values.
“I met somebody from my local area at the training session, living a few blocks away, who also happens to work for a public services union. I had a great conversation with her and subsequently met up with her afterwards to continue it,” said South Sydney Uniting Church member Miriam Pepper.
As a member of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, the Project Green Church Coordinator and Uniting Earthweb member, Dr Pepper makes sure to express her concerns on the environment, ecology and climate change at the Sydney Alliance.
“What motivates me is I think that the suicidal path that we’re on doesn’t have to be the way and it is up to us to re-engage in our local communities,” she said.
It was imperative that people reconnected with local communities, said Dr Pepper, particularly with those who might feel disengaged from the political process.
Using the recent federal election as an example, Dr Pepper said she understood the cynicism and disenchantment.
“You see fairly superficial criticism, nit-picking at different parties, without the ability to really engage in a broader social conversation about ‘What, as a society, are our goals?’
“When you look at the climate policies that the major parties have put on the table, it’s just enough to make you cry.”
Alliance members are concerned about many issues facing the city of Sydney.
With her background in disability services and education, Yashmin Arthur from Kaos Church brings another voice in the collective movement.
“One of my things … is about the access to quality education. To know that every child has the same opportunity,” said Mrs Arthur.
Also, having experienced better transportation systems while living abroad, she is often baffled by Sydney’s lack of public transport.
“I’m very supportive of trying to lessen our impact on the environment but living out in the suburbs there isn’t an option. You just can’t take public transport — it’s too expensive, it doesn’t run regularly,” she said.
There is no doubt that there will be a multitude of other issues as more and more people, from different contexts and spaces, join the discourse on what makes for a just and fair city.
“There were a lot of community organisations present at the Listening Campaign,” said Mrs Arthur.
“It was really inspiring to be hearing such a diverse group of people gathering towards a commonality. We all want good community.”
The Minister, Andrew Johnson
My role as both the chaplain at the University of New South Wales and as minister at Maroubra Junction means I’m working with a lot of university students and young graduates.
The community that I am serving is a natural connection point for the Sydney Alliance.
The primary thing that we’re on about both in chaplaincy and at Maroubra junction is growing people as disciples of Jesus. Now a lot of the time that involves Bible study and building community internally: developing our skills within the church.
Equally important are our experiences of engaging with the community — with communities different to ourselves.
The Sydney Alliance provides a way of connecting with people who come from a different tradition or community but connect over common issues or passions.
I’ve attended a number of training days, which are essentially about connection with people from other areas.
After the initial training I connected in with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. I began to work with them on the International Day of Mourning — a day they stop work around the globe to remember workers who have died on worksites.
Normally, that is something they do internally but I got invited down to one of the projects at Botany Docks, just near where I live, and spent time with some of the guys and assured them that we’re standing with them and we want better work safety.
They’re now keen to work with students who come and soak up what a worksite might be like for those people studying engineering. The students are really passionate about some of the anti-slavery movements happening at the moment and that turns out to work well with worksites because they are fighting for not only a safer worksite but also fairer conditions for workers.
These are links which they wouldn’t normally make but they are starting to connect with people from different walks of life.
You realise a lot of these people have grown up within a church and for them to connect with the church again when the church has something to say on an issue close to them — these little sparks of faith and justice for people happening everywhere are really important.
A number of young people I work with initially baulked at the idea of the Sydney Alliance because it sounds like being involved in more work or more committee meetings.
But the way it really works for them is when their participation actually builds on the discipleship formation and the study they are already doing. So when they start to see that this actually gives experience to the thinking they’ve already got, or gives flesh to what they want to do, it becomes a very positive experience.
It isn’t for everyone but for a number of people at certain points in their journey it has been really valuable.
From a minister’s point of view, to talk with the guys down at the worksites at Port Botany is a completely new experience for me as opposed to being a pastoral carer within the church, one that not only grows me but also opens up new areas of ministry and mission.
I don’t know how important it is that the Uniting Church be involved, but I think the Sydney Alliance is an incredible opportunity for us. Our main game always remains growing communities of faithfulness. The Sydney Alliance offers us a way to not only reflect on that but also to think of new ways of doing it.
The Uniting Church brings great skills and tradition in terms of reflection. We’re not always great at enacting our ideas but we’re really good at building relationships based on the communities we come from.
And that’s the core of a lot of the Sydney Alliance. We’re meeting with people who are activists in a lot of areas and they’re meeting with us. It is something that resources us to do church better.
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