In the early 1990s my partner Steve and I spent a summer in Brisbane’s West End, participating in the life of the local community as part of the Waiters Union community immersion experience. How did two university educated middleclass young public servants from Canberra end up flicking off cockroaches climbing up their legs while showering in a dodgy boarding house in inner city Brisbane? What sort of idiots choose to spend their annual leave serving in a community soup kitchen and visiting men in a maximum security prison rather than sunbathing on a beach a fair bit further north?
We had both been shaped in families of origin and church communities that were focused out rather than in, that linked love and grace to solidarity and service. But in our early twenties we were struggling with what it meant to be people of faith living a privileged life in the developed West and wondering what
taking risks and living hope-fully could mean in our context. What was our call to stand and love with Christ at the edges?
A friend lent us Can You Hear The Heartbeat? and we found in its pages a group that was seriously and practically engaged with the vocation of love at the edges – the Waiters Union. What we glimpsed in that book was a community of friends trying to live out one of the most elegant and gut grabbing expressions of the
Christian dream that we had ever encountered – radical, communitarian, grounded in compassion. We wanted to explore moving beyond supporting the activism of others to becoming activists ourselves, and we wanted to explore that in a community that was living out a radical response to love and grace.
So we got organised and got on a plane to Brisbane. The Waiters Union course itself was a really great mix of a range of inputs from people with expertise and experience in working with vulnerable and disadvantaged communities and us getting involved ourselves. We lived in a community house and mornings were mostly spent in small group discussion and learning while afternoons and evenings were spent in the community, serving in the local soup kitchen, delivering meals on wheels, playing sport in the park with refugee families, and visiting the prison.
Sometimes it felt like being thrown in at the deep end with no lifevest. Like when we had to accommodate ourselves for a week on about $70. For two of us. Steve and I ended up in a dodgy boarding house listening to domestic violence being enacted in the room next to ours most nights. That’s the place we discovered
the delights of sharing a shower with a few cockroaches. I remember thinking “What am I learning here?” It turns out that I learnt, experientially, possibly the most important lesson of my life: that the kind of life I live, full of love and open doors to opportunity, is not enjoyed by an appallingly high proportion of our community.
While the truth of what life is like for people who are left out and missing out was a keystone learning, we learnt heaps of other stuff that summer. Spending time with the Waiters Union gave me a framework and a basic toolkit to build from. Here’s a grab bag of lessons I learnt:
- Poverty and social isolation go hand in hand. Low self esteem, depression, and poor health can follow pretty rapidly.
- It is possible to live with dignity and hope in poverty but this possibility is more likely to be realised if you have a community to support and encourage you.
- Relationship is everything. Apologies matter. The capacity to forgive seems linked to the experience of suffering.
- Transition moments – a birth, a death, a move, a new job, a new school, an illness – provide opportunities to journey with others, building community.
- Local community is critical to social transformation.
- Service and solidarity form part of a two way street. You always, but always, learn from, and are transformed by, any relational encounter.
- Policy developed in airconditioned offices far from the lived reality of people struggling in poverty, with disabilities, with episodic mental illness or other barriers to participation in community will often be at best ineffective and at worst actively unhelpful.
- The institutions that sustain us – church, government have too often been institutions of oppression for the vulnerable in Australia – Aboriginal people, children in care, people with disabilities, gay people. Usually when “doing to” rather than “journeying with.”
- What seems too confronting one day will often be normalized the next. People are endlessly adaptive. So holding onto some bottom lines about what is acceptable (open friendship) and what is not (endemic poverty) in a wealthy nation like ours is important, as is understanding that we can all do something where we are with what we have to make a difference.
- Radical activism must be focused on unjust systems. There have always been resistors of oppression within the system. The resistor narrative is the heart of the story of hope.
- The meta-narrative of the Christian story is a solid and tested one for working toward justice, hope, and the transformation of all of creation. When you unpack scripture you find a workbook for just living.
We came home confirmed in our belief that if faith matters at all, it has to matter beyond the congregational or small group experience.
It must matter in all of life. That means reflecting, engaging, and struggling to work out how to apply faith compassionately and respectfully in all of the relationships and activities that make up your week and month and year. Small call!
We came home with a framework for radical discipleship in the developed West, and a new resolve to work where we were toward transforming unjust systems and structures, while actively participating in community.
My beloved dad died last year, far too young at 68. It was cancer, so we had time to talk. One of the most important things he said to me was that he had no regrets, about who he was or how he had spent himself over the course of his very rich life. How many of us could honestly say that?
I want to live and love with no regrets. I want to do my part to leave the world a better place. I want to be an active part of a people’s movement for social, political, economic and environmental transformation. I want to see the reconciliation of all of creation.
This book celebrates the learnings of people who journeyed a week, a month, a decade, or more with that small network in West End. It’s a celebration of many ordinary everyday people living in and working with communities where not everyone has enough to eat, or a safe place to live, or access to a good education or adequate health care. It’s a celebration of an authentic struggle to live grace and hope and love into the world. It’s a celebration of a successful people’s movement and a life changing community immersion experience.
I hope it is also an encouragement and a resource to help you move from where you are now to where you want to be.
Take a risk, have a go, be the change we so desperately need to see in our world.
You will never regret it.
Lin Hatfield Dodds
National Director Uniting Care Australia
Past President Australian Council of Social Service
Most books begin with acknowledgements.
We’d like to begin with an acknowledgement of all those who have written reflections for this book which celebrate some of the lessons they have learnt from our community.
But every community has a dark side as well as a light side. And we’d also like to begin this book with an acknowledgement of all those people who would have had difficulty in writing anything celebrating their association with the Waiters Union: people who came to the Waiters with high hopes, but left with deep disappointments; people who didn’t experience the Waiters as hospitable or helpful or supportive; people who experienced the Waiters as exclusive, not inclusive, but cliquey – experienced the Waiters as elitist, self-righteous and judgmental of others. We know that community amplifies our experiences. It makes good experiences better and bad experiences worse. So any pain people may have experienced in the context of the network would have certainly been intense. And we want to acknowledge that.
Having said that, we’d still like to share these bright diamonds mined from the dark coal. Stories of our successes, wrested from our failures, are the more valuable for being rare. These reflections highlight the little bit of progress we have made in the midst of our struggle to live with each other and work with one another. These learnings sustain our hope for learning more about how we can move towards a more authentic life together.
The very process of publishing a book about our learnings has been a learning process. It has entailed a difficult and complicated conversation about what the book should be about, how we should go about writing it and whom we should invite to write it.This book is not a history of the Waiters: it does not provide a detailed account of the ups and downs of our journey. The funding from A Vision For Mission given to the Training Team to publish this book was specifically dedicated to reporting on the learnings people have gained from experiencing our training or connect-ing with the network. Some of the contributors may have only been with the Waiters for a short while and their perspective might be considered by some as partial, incomplete and/or overly romantic.
As part of the Training Team, we invited particular visitors, locals, colleagues and friends, who had expressed their appreciation for the role that the network had played in their lives, to write about their experience – hoping we would get 20 different pieces written by 20 different people about their experiences of the Waiters over the last 20 years. We also put out a general invitation through the Waiters Union Newsletter for contributions.
The bits and pieces people have written for this book represent a beautiful multi-coloured, multi-layered mosaic of lessons they have learnt about living life together through their association with the Waiters Union and their participation in our training.
Dave Andrews and Helen Beazley (editors) West End 2010
‘This book celebrates the learnings of people who journeyed a week, a month,
a decade, or more with that small network in West End. It’s a celebration of many
ordinary everyday people living in and working with communities where not
everyone has enough to eat, or a safe place to live, or access to a good education
or adequate health care. It’s a celebration of an authentic struggle to live grace and hope and love into the world. It’s a celebration of a successful people’s movement and a life changing community immersion experience. I hope it is also an encouragement to help you move from where you are now to where you want to be.’
Lin Hatfield Dodds, Director of Uniting Care Australia.
‘Raw, authentic, generous…Unprocessed, untreated, pure, organic even…There’s
no pretence, no effort to put on a mask or try to show a face other than that which is the normal and everyday … A “big” experience, not half-hearted or sparse … The heart of community.’
John Dacey, Community Minister, Mt Druitt.
‘Through the Waiters Union I have been able to experience more of the many
worlds that exist in my street and suburb…The Waiters network has quiet links
to many aspects of my suburb that I hadn’t previously realised were connected ...
This (becomes) quite obvious if you fall down the Waiters Union rabbit hole.’
Emily James, Community Worker, Neighbour and Friend.
‘The Waiters model and method, infused by the practices of love and the hope
of justice, is an important contribution to the life of many people in West End,
mine included. It is also a model that enables many people in other locations to
re-imagine community development in all its breadth and depth and multiplicity.’
Peter Westoby, Lecturerof Community Development, University of Qld.
‘Clearly the current surge of interest in the Waiters Union is because (its) ministry was before its time, but now that time has come. The Waiters Union offers one of the very few effective, replicable, genuine, missional models of (the future) church in Australia.’
Geoff Westlake, Co-Founder and Coordinator of Cheers.
“No body is sure when the Waiters Union began”, says the book, “but it seems to have emerged sometime after 1985”. And thus begins a wild stream of unvarnished life that runs through this collection of stories and testimonies concerning one particular faith-based, Jesus-centred, incarnational community work among the poor and marginalised of Brisbane’s West End.
If you are looking for a manual of step by step how-to’s, rules or instructions on what does or does not constitute a missional community – you’re going to be disappointed. “The 12 Signs of the New Monasticism”, this book is not. On the contrary, instead of defining themselves by creeds, pledges, vows or any membership system that marks some people as insiders, and others as outsiders, the Waiters Union deliberately sets out to be a fluid and inclusive network, that is non hierarchal with no formal leadership.
As John Dacy says on the cover, it’s all “raw, authentic, generous...unprocessed, untreated, pure, organic”. The Waiters Union is made up of whoever considers themselves to be a Waiter, and the Waiters Union itself is defined by what it does. A tree, as Jesus said, is known by its fruit. And this book, by gathering testimonies from those whose lives have been touched and transformed by their involvement, demonstrates that this approach of ‘providing a well rather than building a fence’ can indeed work powerful magic.
Yet for all its apparent lack of institutional structure, the Waiters Union has clear and regular rhythms of prayer, worship, study, fellowship, dialogue and service that give it shape and help hold it all together. They also offer an impressive array internship and training options for those who would like to join them and understand more about both how the Waiters Union ticks, and about the dynamics of the various communities it ministers in and to. Indeed, there are seven training options, ranging from one hour, to one day, to two weeks, ranging all the way up to a full year.
There is no question either of the impact the Waiters have had in their community, as they have reached out with love to refugees, migrants, Indigenous Australians, the disabled and marginalised, the elderly, the imprisoned – and the folks who live next door.
One of the most impressive features of this collection was it’s willingness to be self-critical, and to allow voices of dissent to be heard and recorded. In Learnings, the authors acknowledge failure, and that there have been those who have left the community hurt and disillusioned. Some of the contributors even question the Waiters Union’s (lack of) structure and its apparent lack of leadership – wondering aloud if it’s more a case of it being ‘undeclared’ rather than non-existent. I loved this raw honesty and questioning, the sort of thing that would have been edited out of most self-promotional books of this genre. One of the definitions of a ‘prophetic community’ (including Old Testament Judaism) is its ability to be reflective and self-critical – even savagely so.
In more ways than one then, I would have no hesitation in referring to the Waiters Union as a prophetic, missional community, and a model from which we can learn a lot.
Kristin Jack, Asia Coordinator for Servants