Uniting for the common good!

Uniting for the common good!

Sometimes I feel quite powerless before the world around me. There is a strong sense of being relatively helpless to change anything or even make a difference.

The world is big and I am small. There are so many powerful interests: media personalities, political machines, corporations, advertising gurus, banks, chains of large stores, celebrities.

There are so many more people and organisations that are bigger, more powerful and significant than I am.

Our little congregation of 200 or so people pales before mega-churches and corporate interests of the world around.

As I listen to the news, there is so much I can’t do or change. I try not to get emotionally involved because it is too hard to deal with.

The feeling of being helpless before the pain and struggle of people’s lives or the injustices that abound is too difficult and I feel like giving up, avoiding or ignoring it.

I feel angry at the state of things but that anger often has nowhere to go because it feels like there is nothing I can do!

I recall and celebrate the stories of faith that encourage the “little ones” to fight the big ones; David and Goliath, for example.

I am left, though, with the feeling of “Does this really happen?” Too many “little ones” get chewed up or ignored by the powers of the world.

We love films like The Castle because we would love it to be true, to happen. We would love the “Little Ones” to get up just once and beat the powerful, wealthy interests that seem to control everything.

I find the political and societal debates in the media depressing. Vested interests with money and power always have the voice and make the arguments, despite their subtle and not so subtle spin on the truth.

The “debate” around mining tax, for example, is never balanced because they have the money and power and we have nothing. Their voice is big and other voices too hard to hear. It is the same with the environment and refugees.

What I hear and see on the TV or in the newspaper is often a distortion of what is true. I hear a minority view or personal opinion expressed as “fact” or “truth”.

I feel helpless to make a difference!

The gospel stories and message of Jesus, Paul, the prophets and so on that I preach and teach is powerful and fills me with hope and conviction but the words seem too small against the powers and culture all around me.

They fade before the brilliance of media spin, corporate greed and political ineptitude or populist policies. The words and worship are good for the church but how do we transform the world? How do we make a difference when we are met with indifference and powerlessness?

I do many things and try to make a difference in many small ways but the big picture seems to prevail untainted. I feel the struggle of so many young people who have lost their way and don’t know how to get out of the downward spiral. I feel the struggle of those who live with mental illness or physical/intellectual disability.

I can’t imagine how it is for those who come from foreign lands where war is a constant reality.

I remember a friend at theological college speaking about his children who used to run and hide under their beds when a truck backfired on Pennant Hills Road near their home. It was too much like their native homeland with gun fire and fear.

So what do we do? How do we regain a sense of empowerment to make a difference and help change the world? Where does the gospel of Jesus lead us? Is it just words? Is it only for those who will come into our churches? Are we to remain in isolation from the world?

Sydney Alliance

On Thursday September 15 some of our congregation gathered with over 2,800 people at the Sydney Town Hall for the Founding Assembly of the Sydney Alliance.

This alliance is a broad coalition of organisations from across the life of greater Sydney — religious, community organisations and trade unions. They represent people of various faiths and spiritualities, people of ethnic, cultural, welfare, health and service organisations and union and worker groups.

Our congregation voted to become a founding member of the Sydney Alliance and, as such, I found myself on the stage having to introduce our congregation in a brief 12-second “speech” along with 44 other organisations, large and small.

We were escorted up onto the stage and sat before 6.30 in preparation for a 7 pm start.

As I watched, the broad diversity of Sydney gathered before me. People adorned in cultural dress or the colours of their organisations. Three hundred and fifty Uniting Church people from across the city and beyond were part of this gathering.

There were people of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu faith and of no faith. There were people representing those who are elderly, young, struggling families, people of other cultures struggling to make their way and workers, rich and poor across this city.

In a moment of revelation I realised that this is the city and this is where Jesus is — amid this gathering of diverse humanity representing the common hopes, fear and yearnings.

Despite feeling the powerlessness of life in this modern age, there was a sense of “us”.

The Sydney Alliance is not really an organisation but an alliance of organisations and people coming together to work together for common good! I loved the Uniting Church T-shirt with its slogan “Uniting for the common good”.

As I reflect on my own participation in training and gatherings of the Sydney Alliance I recognise the gift of being able to meet people who are so very different in so many ways and to share their stories.

At heart my realisation was that we are all human beings, vulnerable and uniquely created by God. We all have similar hopes and fears and we all share this city. Modern society has separated us, categorised us and pitted us against one another. We treat one another based on stereotypes that aren’t real or true. We act out of ignorance and fear and we remain separated, all struggling to find our way and make a difference.

The gift of the Sydney Alliance, which many churches and religious groups have recognised, is that we can come together, listen to one another, share our stories and work together for the common good of our city.

Together we can make a difference!

If we unite around our common hopes and dreams, we can make a difference — together! This is a great gift to all of us and one that fits Jesus’ vision of God’s reign of justice, peace and hope. It gives me the feeling of empowerment.

For me, the Sydney Alliance is an opportunity to come together with other people, human beings with different experiences, stories, hopes, dreams, fears and concerns. I have discovered that many of these people share the same issues as I do. We are equally affected by cultural pressures and life in this city. We feel equally insignificant before the big world and equally powerless. We are all doing our own thing in churches, religious or community organisations or unions. We are struggling for many of the same things but doing it in isolation — so many resources aimed at the same thing but not working together.

Beyond stereotypes

I have discovered that the all-too-common stereotypes get in the way. The stereotypical unionist, for example, is as false as the stereotypical “Christian” or “Muslim” or “environmentalist”. It is easy to place labels on people who are different and then categorise everyone incorrectly and keep them at arm’s length.

At heart, these are people, human beings who breathe the same air, share the same water, have the same blood pulsing through their veins — the people that our faith says are created in God’s image and are graciously loved by God.

Unionists, community organisers, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, health workers and Christians are mothers, fathers, children, grandparents and friends. They all share the pain of caring for the elderly in under-resourced nursing homes or trying to find adequate child care at affordable rates.

They all struggle with commuting across this city by public transport or car. They all experience various levels of social exclusion based on ethnic, religious or cultural differences or because of poverty or age or physical, emotional or intellectual disability.

They all strive to access appropriate care for health and well-being. They all struggle with the modern political processes of glib answers or polished spin. They all feel the weight of power from particular media personalities whose opinionated rhetoric distorts truth and reality.

They all feel powerless before the giants of the corporate world who control how things are done and impress their particular views on swooning politicians who fear backlash if they don’t comply. They — we — feel these things together but have allowed our differences to shape our responses and attitudes.

If we look more carefully and listen personally, we discover people — just like us. They won’t necessarily share our religious faith or belief — as we may not share theirs. We won’t agree on everything but, in listening, we will learn to understand and respect; we won’t need to feel we have to respond by building walls between us and differentiating ourselves from each other.

I have discovered that, in this diverse cultural mix, there is a great respect for me as a Christian. Others want to hear about how my faith informs my life and understanding of the world. They want to understand what our Bible, our Christian writings and inspirational lives have to say into the realities of modern life.

I discover I actually have much in common with people whom I previously recognised as very different. The stereotypes promoted in various ways don’t hold up.

I have begun to learn from trade unionists who are well-grounded in action. They see need and injustice and quickly organise action. I haven’t always understood this but realise that the church has much to learn from how they organise people and act with passion and energy. We too often retreat behind prayer and worship — important but perhaps God wants us to act as well.

I have learned from community organisations who network so well and listen intently to people’s stories. They bring together resources to offer practical support and help and change situations. They lobby politicians and organisations to bring about change and they want the church to join them.

In all of these interactions I discover many other people of faith and no faith, who simply want justice and peace in this city and the world beyond. They want a community where people live together in mutual respect and hope. They want to work to transform communities of need and struggle.

They want to work together to help young people who are lost in the downward spirals of alcohol, drugs, confusion and hopelessness. They want to work together to value and support our elderly and provide loving and compassionate care and respect. They want to work together to help young families struggling to hold things together and feeling life stretch them and strain relationships and hope. They want to work together for a society that is communal, inclusive and compassionate and where everyone has opportunity and hope.

These are the things that inspire me from Jesus’ teaching and life. Suddenly I discover that my Christian texts and faith have a place within this. We have deep traditions of spirituality, peace, justice and compassionate care and we are being invited to bring who and what we are to this alliance of Sydney’s diverse population to build a civil, just and hopeful society.

Faith in the world

I discover that in being part of this rich gathering with its cultural, ethnic, religious and social diversity, my faith finds its place in the world. Suddenly I don’t feel as powerless because it isn’t we or our small congregation, but us. We can work together to achieve much more and when over three million people across this city decide to do something together we will be listened to. No-one will be able to ignore us and change will come.

That is what Jesus did. It is what Gandhi did and Martin Luther King Jr and so many others. Peaceful, non-violent community organisations, built around common human hopes and mutual respect, have brought great change and transformation throughout history.

As part of this Sydney Alliance, our congregation can add to the transformation of this city by working with other organisations. In connecting with other organisations we will bring our own uniqueness, our gifts and skills to bear upon the issues confronting our community and city. Together we can do much more!

We will also learn new tools and strategies to fulfil our own mission goals. We will learn the skills of listening deeply to other people, of sharing their stories, hearing their hopes, joys, fears and concerns. We will learn how to connect, plan and put our dreams into action with passion, organisation and enthusiasm.

We will learn strategies to make real the dreams of hope, peace, justice and sense of community that we receive from Jesus! We will discover new ways of following Jesus into the world with compassion, justice, peace, hope and joy.

Geoff Stevenson

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