UnitingCare executive reflects on success at giving people a better life

UnitingCare executive reflects on success at giving people a better life

During his last Synod meeting presentation as Executive Director of UnitingCare NSW.ACT, the Rev. Harry Herbert took the opportunity to reflect on the growth of the former Uniting Church Board for Social Responsibility into the high-profiled social justice organisation that UnitingCare is today.

Mr Herbert will retire from his role at the end of next year, after 27 years of building on “service delivery, social justice advocacy and research capacity”, following the example of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, an Anglican organisation he got to know during his work in the Synod of Victoria in the ’70s and ’80s.

Mr Herbert said, “I had the vision that if I could find the right place in the Uniting Church I could replicate that sort of organisation … Already, the building blocks were in place, because of what had already been established by my predecessors.

“Although I think that our research facilities are still open to improvement, generally I think we have gone very close to my original vision.”

He said, “I would hope that my predecessors, be they Bill Hobbin, Dick Udy or Gordon Trickett from the Methodist tradition, or Doug Cole and Stuart Kerry from the Presbyterian tradition, would look at UnitingCare and what it does today and recognise development of the same thing that they were struggling to achieve.”

He said, “We have to remember that the context keeps changing: UnitingCare in 2011 is not the same as the Board back then. The Uniting Church in 2011 is not the same. In 1995 the church didn’t think like you think.

“The society in which we live has changed, issues are different and the way in which the church is perceived and understood by the society has changed. What worked in 1986 won’t necessarily work in 2011 and the way in which UnitingCare goes about its work has to adapt to suit the times.”

Mr Herbert looked back on incidents, such as when a moderator in the early ’90s came to his office, closed the door and declared that Mr Herbert was to make no further public statements, and when another moderator wrote to a congregation “to vent his disgust about me”.

“What has to be appreciated is that the rise of Uniting Justice and UnitingCare Australia have shrunk the scope of public issues the executive director of a Synod-based board can deal with.

“Nevertheless, it hasn’t disappeared altogether. The debate last year in the New South Wales Parliament on the Same Sex Adoption Bill saw my letter quoted 19 times by parliamentarians because we have credit in that area.”

Mr Herbert said, “It is important to realise that social justice work is not all about issuing press releases or making public comment. Actions can be much more powerful than words.”

He said people were sick of hearing words from churches but were still open to admiring good things that were done.

“Three examples spring to mind.

“Our decision in the early ’90s to scrape up the money to keep one Tenancy Advice Service afloat after the government cut off the funds for all the services — it forced the government to re-fund them. So there you are: that was action.

“In 1999 when we agreed to manage the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, we said much more than any bunch of press releases would ever say about what we believe about social justice and the care for vulnerable people.

“Our decision to open up one of our properties in Leichhardt as a temporary place of refuge for people with disabilities, people who were kicked out of their private boarding house, again, led to very positive outcomes.

“If there is one thing I’ve achieved in 26 years it is giving some people a better life.”

Mr Herbert also mentioned submissions to government on important issues such as bail for juvenile offenders and child protection “and we’re still struggling away for better protections for people with a gambling problem”.

Referring to UnitingCare’s annual report, Mr Herbert emphasised UnitingCare’s strategic direction “Relating within the church”.

“Notice that I say ‘within the church’ — UnitingCare is as much part of the church as any other; we are working on behalf of the church. Like the ‘seven men of good standing’ in Acts chapter 6, we are appointed to the task of looking after the practical needs of widows, that is the task we  have in the church today.”

He continued, “We are moving into a different future. The highly regulated environment in which we have built up our aged care work is going to change. The government focuses on giving consumers, older people, more choices and opportunities.

“We welcome those changes. Of course older people should have their own choices. UnitingCare is not fearful to face a much more competitive environment but we have to gear up to compete with private operators who have different priorities than ours — and that is why we have to stay committed to serving the needs of vulnerable and low-income people and show them we have a social justice agenda.

“Our commitment will be our challenge, but unless we do that we cannot continue to be a ministry of the Uniting Church. I’m certain we can achieve it.”

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