A group of multi-denominational Christians are undergoing training in nonviolent direct action as they pray for changes to asylum-seeker policy. By Samantha Trenoweth.

Love Makes a Way members sit down and speak up

Police remove Christians from a prayer sit-in for asylum seekers at Malcolm Turnbull’s office last year.
Credit: JEFF TAN

In this story

Matt Anslow looks a little like Jesus. A historically inaccurate European Jesus, that is. Impossibly shiny waves of treacle-tone hair tumble across his shoulders. His jeans are rolled at the ankle. His beard is a little bit Creedence Clearwater Revival. He wears no shoes. Anslow calls himself a “mongrel Christian”: a generous shot of Anabaptist rebel stirred in with Uniting Church good deeds and Pentecostal enthusiasm. In his day jobs, he works at a Christian NGO, in a community garden and on his PhD in theology.

Anslow is pacing the floor of a Christian fellowship centre in Parramatta where roughly 35 of the faithful have gathered for a daylong introduction to nonviolent direct action. Since Christians began occupying government ministers’ offices in 2014, and since churches more recently offered sanctuary to people seeking asylum, increasing numbers of believers from a range of denominations have felt called to the barricades. Workshops such as this one ensure that, both theologically and in terms of occupational health, they’re thoroughly prepared.

The lights dim, the ceiling fan whirs and Anslow’s co-convener, Justin Whelan, flicks on a film about the civil rights movement in 1960s America. The film looks at techniques used by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Reverend James Lawson, who led a series of rolling civil disobedience actions that began the desegregation of Nashville.

King wrote from prison in Birmingham, Alabama, that, “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension … so to dramatise an issue that it can no longer be ignored.” 

Whelan and Anslow have taken these words on board. They are founding members of Love Makes a Way, the group that made headlines when members occupied then immigration minister Scott Morrison’s office. They sat in the reception area offering prayers of lamentation, and prayers for Morrison, and they refused to leave voluntarily unless the minister reconsidered his approach to people seeking asylum – particularly the detention of children. Morrison, of course, did not budge. Police were called and five of the demonstrators were charged with trespass. 

Love Makes a Way was conceived in a Paddington pub. Whelan invited a posse of friends to meet for a few beers and discuss possible Christian responses to the issue of asylum seekers. At the time, the government had 1138 children locked up in detention centres, which Professor Patrick McGorry had described as “factories of mental illness”. An Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Barati, had just been killed on Manus Island. Whelan felt strongly it was no longer possible for the government to claim any kind of moral high ground and that there might be strategic gains to be made by adding to the debate the voices of ordinary churchgoing Christians.

Justin Whelan had been born and raised a Christian and an activist. His parents, Tom and Ellen, were involved with the anti-nuclear and peace movements of the 1970s and ’80s. They had helped to seed the fledgling Australian fair trade industry and, as part of a group called Action for World Development, engaged with Aboriginal and Pacific Islander justice issues. One of Whelan’s earliest memories is of sitting on his father’s shoulders to tie a peace ribbon to the fence at the Richmond RAAF base on the outskirts of Sydney. 

“So this is the family business,” he quips. “I didn’t rebel. I literally grew up with the Gene Sharp books The Politics of Nonviolent Action on the bookshelf at home.” 

In the early 2000s, he came across a group called Pace e Bene, which had been founded by Franciscans and which gave Sharp’s ideas a Christian context. It was as a facilitator there that Whelan met Anslow and Josh Dowton, the two mates who joined him in Paddington for that first round of beers.

A little more than two years later, with 31 actions and 174 arrests, 78 of those being of clergy and nuns, Whelan and Anslow are training a new cohort. The sanctuary movement has upped the ante. Many of the Christians gathered here don’t want simply to dramatise or draw attention to injustice – they want to physically get in its way. 

Deborah is a major in the Salvation Army. She grew up in Northern Ireland, not far from Belfast, but her family fled the violence there when she was 12 and immigrated to Australia. “Having witnessed turmoil and war, and then having to leave my home for a strange land,” she says, gave her a sense of empathy with those seeking asylum. She believes that Christian scripture teaches “that we are to love God and one another, and that we are to welcome and care for the stranger in our midst”. She does not feel Australian border protection policy reflects this. 

Gavin’s parents were also migrants, moving to Melbourne from Hong Kong before he was born. He thinks of himself as a non-denominational Christian and says that, “the beauty of this movement is that people from all denominations are working together to demonstrate their faith and pray for a change in policy”. 

There are Baptist, Uniting Church, Methodist and Anglican Christians here. There is a youth engagement officer from the Catholic Church. There’s a Mennonite, a “Near Death Experience Christian” and a couple of Quakers.

Callista is co-convener of the Quakers NSW peace and justice committee and lives in the Quaker meeting house in inner-city Surry Hills, which is one of about 115 Australian churches, two mosques and two orders of nuns that have, so far, offered sanctuary to people seeking asylum. When the offer was made, Callista wanted to ensure she was prepared for whatever might follow. She enrolled in the training day immediately. 

It doesn’t disappoint. Anslow and Whelan have been doing this for a while now. They’ve developed a pretty good schtick. First, they address the gnarly issue of Romans 13, in which Paul directs Christians to “submit to the governing authorities”. Anslow believes this is all about context and that Paul was counselling against violent, rather than nonviolent, opposition.

There follows a lot of interaction with the trainees. Their motivations are identified, their fears allayed. “This is not a competition to see who’s the most hardcore,” Anslow reassures them. “There are plenty of roles that don’t involve being arrested.”

A wide-eyed, curly haired boy from an evangelical group at the University of Sydney confesses that he baked biscuits to take to his first demonstration because he was concerned about the potential for violence. He says that nothing defuses aggression like baked goods, but he’s come along to the training to pick up some more conventional nonviolence resistance tools. Whelan admits that they too have resorted to baked goods: Reverend Mary Hurst’s brownies were the secret weapon at the Malcolm Turnbull sit-in.

In a show of hands, perhaps two-thirds of those assembled are prepared to be arrested for the cause, so the role-plays begin. One group runs through a typical scenario that might unfold in a government office sit-in. Another explores the most effective ways in which a small group could blockade a building, road or place of worship. It would be safe to say that, three years ago, none of these men and women could have foreseen themselves spending an afternoon trying to think up ever more elaborate and creative measures to outwit government authorities. 

1 . Joining forces

A fortnight later, Love Makes a Way supporters join with other groups at GetUp! and the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce’s national training day. The aim is to provide basic information about nonviolent direct action to ordinary members of the community who might feel moved – as the citizens of Brisbane did at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital – to put their bodies on the line to prevent the return of asylum seekers to offshore detention. 

In North Sydney, more than 100 people gather in the gardens of Mary MacKillop Place, watched over by the Sisters of St Joseph and their forthright saint. The crowd is overwhelmingly retirees and twentysomething idealists. Inevitably, there are jokes about Zimmer-frame blockades and the monkey-wrenching nuns in The Sound of Music.

The point, however – the point that GetUp! and Love Makes a Way and the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce would like to make – is that these are not your average leftie rabble-rousers. Many of them haven’t been to a demonstration before – they have certainly never blockaded anything. Others previously took to the streets during the Vietnam moratorium movement. 

An elderly man asks whether he should carry his heart medication with him to a potential sanctuary blockade, just in case he’s arrested. A fresh-faced girl in Laura Ashley print shorts, and a grey-haired woman in a floor-length rainbow skirt role-play an arrest scenario. 

Whelan says he’s “gratified to see interest in nonviolent direct action spreading so swiftly through the wider community”. He was heartened by the spontaneous action in Brisbane and he believes persistence is the key.

“We’re going to keep coming back,” he explains, “turning up in politicians’ offices, supporting the broader sanctuary movement, highlighting the injustice. It’s a bit like the biblical parable of the widow and the unjust judge. The widow kept returning, again and again, until justice was done.”

Unsurprisingly then, just a week later, the #LetThemStay movement was back – not blockading anything yet, but gathering for Palm Sunday marches all around Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "Sit down, speak up".

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Samantha Trenoweth is a writer and editor. Her most recent book was Bewitched and Bedevilled: Women Write the Gillard Years.