Sarah Price pulls up a pew with Graham Long of Sydney’s Wayside Chapel By Sarah Price.

Christmas at the Wayside Chapel

They arrive with walking frames, in costume, on tired feet, in old bombs, in luxury cars. Young and old, black and white, the long-time married and freshly divorced; drug addicts, sex workers, office workers, the abused, the educated, the poor and the wealthy. The Wayside Chapel doesn’t discriminate. At Christmas, hers is an invitation to all of Sydney.

Numbers are not known beforehand, but meals are prepared for 600 guests. The Wayside is heavily reliant on donations. Every year, Pacific West Foods donates 100 kilograms of king prawns. Fat, classy prawns, big enough to make some of her guests say: “I wonder what the poor people are doing today?”

On a regular day, visitors congregate around the lower courtyard, striped storage bags slumped by their feet. A young man expertly plays the violin, and the tune to “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo” drifts through the ground floor like a balm. Limping to the front desk, another man needs to use the phone. A middle-aged woman with bone-thin arms wraps herself in a wool blanket, sarong-style. Outside, it’s 38 degrees. Someone else wants a shower and a new shirt. Smiling, a pale-skinned woman asks for paper: “A4 please.” Seated outside the front door, an older man hunches over his tobacco and rolls his cigarette slowly, methodically. Under a towering magnolia tree, a bearded man sleeps in the shade, curled in a protective arc, muttering and fidgeting, perhaps remembering, or longing to forget.

The building stands in a narrow, unassuming street on the edge of Sydney’s Kings Cross. Her front façade juxtaposes the old and the new, heritage brick layered with brilliant, light-filled glass. One floor is dedicated to Aboriginal Services, another to Youth. On the roof, participants in the long-term mental health program grow 50 types of organic fruits, herbs and vegetables. There are rainwater tanks and solar panels. Honey from the beehive is sold to local businesses. Just down the road at Billy Kwong’s, the chef uses it to marinate the pork.

Graham Long, the man whose job it is to keep all this afloat, has an office on the third floor. From here, he can hear the clashing of untuned guitars from the youth rooms below. Working hard to create a community “with no us and them”, Long acts as both pastor and chief executive. When he first started, the buildings were condemned, crippled by debt, the staff just two people. Now there are 80. The debt is settled. More than 300 people walk through the front door every week. “People who live on the street are invisible most of the time, except when they’re a problem. We say: you’re a person to be met, not a problem to be fixed.”

Long speaks with feeling and clarity, and listens with intent. He is soft and rounded, has a bushy beard and joyous chuckle, would make the perfect Santa Claus.

Right now, Long and his team are busier than usual. Plans for the Christmas party need to be finalised. More people are homeless during summer. “Christmas is a crazy time of the year. Feelings and emotions are heightened. Every year there’s at least one person who turns up to the party drunk because they feel entitled to, because it’s their worst day.
“But by and large the generosity factor in people is higher the less they have. They give testimony to a kind of generosity that’s almost unknown in normal society. And there’s more willingness for a party.”

Long starts preparing for the party in August. Road closures had to be organised, food ordered, volunteers briefed. This year, positions to volunteer on Christmas Day filled in 60 seconds. “We get told off several times every year because people have to miss out. I say, ‘Just come and bring a smile, that’s worth more than serving food.’”
The menu is set: prawn cocktails, ham and turkey, chicken skewers, salads, soft drinks and muffins, individual Christmas puddings and ice-cream. But the street party is not about feeding the poor, “it’s about community coming together”.

Early on Christmas Day, Hughes Street in Potts Point will be closed to traffic to make way for people. Rows of tables will be laid out in red, the soft ceiling tops of marquees decorated with balloons and bunting. A stage and jumping castle will be erected, a photo booth installed, giving people who have nothing a memento, a photo with a friend on Christmas Day.

After the morning service, the stage is set for music. There will be a pianist, and the choir, made up of anyone and everyone, will sing traditional carols. Santa and his elves will make an appearance with presents for the children, and there’ll be vouchers for the most needy guests. Returning for his 20th year, a DJ will be there in his plastic Elvis wig, “playing old songs that get them up grooving”.

Some people show up late; others come early and stay all day. “It’s a messy kind of deal,” Long says, “the highest and the lowest coming together. That’s just how life is.”

There is no invitation needed. This is a Christmas party for all-comers, where the community will gather to talk and sing and eat as much as they want. “It’s just beautiful. By 2pm you see all the world in a conga line, and they are sober, dancing in the street.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Lunch by the Wayside". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.