Grey is the Colour of Hope: Remembering Irina Ratushinskaya

I was driving home a few days ago from a difficult meeting.

The people weren’t difficult but the issues were.

As I arrived in my drive way I began reflecting on the struggles and the frustrations that we had faced in our meeting. My wife’s car was not in the drive way, she had not yet returned from her meeting. So I decided to switch on the radio and unwind a little. I was so glad I did. I caught the last few minutes of an interview with a remarkable Russian Christian poet, essayist, and human rights advocate, Irina Ratushinskaya

Irina studied physics at university and was approached by the KGB in the early 1980’s to befriend foreigners and gather information that might be useful to the Soviet communist state.

The KGB told her that this would probably involve having sex with whoever she was being assigned to. She refused on the grounds of her Christian ethics. It seems the KGB noted her dissent. Irina’s gifting and passion was not in physics but in poetry. She wrote beautiful poems about life and faith in the oppressive totalitarian state. Inevitably Irina was arrested and in March 1983 and after six months of interrogation, she was sent westward to a remote prison camp in Mordovia where she was housed in a camp within a camp for female political prisoners. Irina published the story of her experiences in the prison camp in her book Grey is the Colour of Hope.

In this concentration camp she quickly assimilated into a tightly knit band of a dozen women prisoners. United as one, they resisted their captor’s efforts to punish them physically or break them psychologically.  For her resistance, Ratushinskaya served several stints in solitary confinement.

She kept going through her faith and her poetry. Daily she wrote poems on bars of soap using the burned ends of matchsticks because they would not give her any paper or pen. She memorised hundreds of her poems and somehow managed to smuggle the out of prison. They were published in several languages, prompting many writers from Europe and North America to campaign for her release.

On the day before the Reykjavik summit in the summer of 1986 she was released on the orders of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, as a gesture of good will towards the west. Her life in camp was full of grey, but her hope was never extinguished. At the close of the radio interview the journalist told the listening audience that the interview was taped several years ago and was played because Irina had died last week in Moscow.

She faced daily hardship, cruelty and isolation yet somehow survived and resisted with resilience and faith.

Her story reminded me that Irina is one of millions around the world who have suffered dreadfully because of their faith and their non-conformity. Her moving story powerfully reminded me that my grey times are in comparison petty and minor. In my down moments may the stories of courage and faithfulness inspire me to find hope.

Steve Francis
Moderator

New Frontiers: Of Strategic Directions, Community Missions and Training of Ministry Agents

It has been a busy few weeks for me. I have been:

  • Working through the Synod Strategic Plan with the Strategic Advisory Group,
  • At the President’s Conference on the Honouring of First People in Darwin,
  • At the General Secretary’s meeting and Assembly Standing Committee in Sydney, and
  • Participating in discussions and planning around the UCA commitment to the Commonwealth Redress Scheme.

The Strategic Advisory Group, with a broad spread of representatives from the Synod, Presbytery, Schools and Caring Agencies met in Shoalwater for a weekend in mid-June. Significant progress was made in defining goals and objectives for the next five years. In broad terms, the plan recognises the struggle the Church currently faces in an increasingly secular world, admits that current structures and approaches are no longer helpful and focusses on building a new platform based on our Strategic Directions, our potential for Community Mission and need for new skills in leadership.

The latest data from the Census and National Church Life Survey has not been encouraging but we are a people of hope who serve the living God and we believe implicitly that we are called to build the church in its many facets of community, denomination and commitment to justice and peace.

Strategic Directions

The Strategic Directions for the Synod and Presbytery were established in 2015, as follows:

  1. Developing a Culture of Open Communication
  2. Promoting a Culture of Faith Formation and Faith Sharing
  3. Developing and/or Promoting Relevant Education, Training and Leadership Development Resources, Programs and Projects
  4. Increasing the Church’s Capacity for Community Engagement

It is really important to recognise that these are not separate directions but four energies which move us in the same direction so that we are:

  • Uniting in God’s Mission to the World
  • Growing Communities of Christ-Followers
  • Present in Worship, Witness and Service

Community Mission

While numbers in membership has declined throughout the Christian church, we do have a strong property base established by past generations who had a commitment to presence on virtually every street corner. This is one of our strengths but how do we use it to reach the community when numbers have declined to critical levels.

The Strategic Advisory Group have endorsed a Centres for Mission approach which establishes one place as a resourcing centre for several nearby congregations. It is like a Parish model on steroids. The concept is not new, in fact it was the basis of a plan prepared 20 years ago but never fully put into effect. While we might regret the loss of the past 20 years, I believe that now is the Kairos (God’s timing) for this plan.

The approach will require a strategic review of each and all of our congregations and church sites throughout the State, as well as the development of new sites in the areas which have mushroomed in the past decade.

Funding will be sourced through a new Foundation Trust which will be presented for approval at the Synod meeting in September. The existing Foundation will then be settled. While we still await the consent of the Resources Commission and Investment Fund for release of funds, it is anticipated that the corpus of this Fund will provide a sufficient investment return to establish at least one new Centre for Mission each year as well as providing funding for training of ministry agents and future leaders.

Training of Ministry Agents

I use the term to include lay leaders rather than simply the ordained ministry.

Our capacity to provide adequate ministry oversight in the current climate is severely limited. Not only are many of our ministry leaders at or beyond retirement age, but we have not produced student graduates from Theological Hall in anything like the numbers we need. Further, it is really difficult to attract younger talent from the eastern States, or even from overseas. We need a training program which will produce adequately skilled ministry leaders for today’s world in the shortest time possible. For this reason we have employed Rev Dr John Squires to work on this program in order initially to upskill current ministers and lay leaders and to provide for a continuing succession of ministry agents who will be able to lead the Church into the future.

In my devotions recently, I read a comment made by President John F Kennedy. He said, “We stand today on a new frontier … but the new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises – it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”

This is where we also stand today – we have before us, not a set of lovely promises, but some strong challenges.

It is my prayer that what the Strategic Advisory Group have developed will provide sufficient means for us each to take on the challenges which lie before us.

Rev David de Kock
General Secretary

Homelessness: The issue of the filthy rich and relationally poor

I am getting sick of television.

There is such shallowness to so much viewing; whether is programs about cooking, rebuilding houses or artificial, highly scripted and formulaic reality shows. It’s generally banal entertainment. 

Then like a breath of fresh air comes last week’s SBS’s three part series “Filthy rich and homeless”. I found it challenging, confronting, informative and inspiring. The basic plot was taking five wealthy people from highly privileged backgrounds and taking away their phones, bank cards and money and making them homeless for ten days. As I watched each night, my admiration grew for each them. It takes a lot of guts to live on the streets or in homeless shelters when the only deprivation in life you have experienced is a cold latte or the battery on your mobile has run out. One of the five had never even made a coffee for themselves, another had never used a washing machine or made their own bed, such was their position of privilege. To be put out on the streets, penniless, lonely and homeless on ten wet and cold winter’s nights in Melbourne was more than a culture shock; it was a life changing experience. The purpose of the experiment was to show the realities that tens of thousands of homeless people face every day around Australia.

It started me thinking about how I approach the homeless on the streets of Perth. I must confess I struggle, really struggle. According to Homelessness Australia, there are 9,595 people are experiencing homelessness in Western Australia

Part of me wants to just look the other way, shades of the priest on the road to Jericho in the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan; the priest avoided the bashed up man lying on the roadside, his head and heart space were somewhere else. Part of me thinks maybe the homeless are lazy and demotivated and so giving money doesn’t help.

I am reminded that on the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa told her workers never to give beggars money. But this is not Calcutta, it’s Perth or in the case of the SBS series, Melbourne.  A few dollars would help buy food or a bed for a night. Part of me feels ashamed that somehow I have never really taken on board a love for homeless people despite trying to live by the Jesus mantra of loving your neighbour as yourself.

There are so many ways to help, but where do we start? One practical way you can help the homeless is by assisting organisations that provide key services for homeless people. UnitingCare West for example is holding their 2017 Winter Appeal to raise $150, 000 to open Tranby Centre on the weekends for services to homeless people, as most centres for the homeless close on Saturdays. 

This mini-series pushed me to re-examine my prejudices and hidden fears. I am mindful that Christians believe that it is possible to see Christ in the face of the poor. Instead I have tended to see someone on the streets as someone to be disengaged from.

Maybe I am part Christian, part Pharisee. The SBS series helped me see that the problem of homelessness requires a multiplicity of responses. There is the response of the individual, with kindness, compassion and practical care. There are the wider responses of local Councils, State and Federal governments. There is a great need for more funds for homeless housing, safe shelters and financial support.  

We spend billions on sporting stadiums but too little on those who are on the margins, the homeless.

There is the deeper need to respond to domestic violence and family breakdown that often leads to someone leaving a dysfunctional family and ending up on the street. We need preventative strategies as well as emergency care. There are drug addiction issues and mental health concerns that our society is struggling to deal with.

In summary the challenge of homelessness is massive. As a wealthy nation we need to do much better. I am so grateful that the SBS series has opened up the conversation and pushed many of us to confront what we would prefer to ignore. Some times when I am facing a moral challenge I ask myself, what would Jesus do? I think I know the answer and it deeply challenges me.

 

May the love of Christ disturb us all.

Steve Francis
Moderator