Is the Australian Church NDIS-Ready?

Australia is currently in the midst of a reform called the National Disability Insurance Scheme or NDIS. This reflects a widespread national recognition that change is necessary for the way that we care for and support those with disabilities. This scheme rolls out in 2017 in New South Wales.

Under the NDIS, Australia’s funding will now be allocated to and controlled by the individual with a disability rather than by service organizations, which traditionally provided programs that individuals had to fit or miss out. This change will enable eligible people to structure their income and their activities around their goals.

This potentially opens new opportunities for people with disability, as they gain voice and control and are able to decide what matters to them as a person.

In recent years, there has been increasing recognition that “disability” is not a medical diagnosis, but a bio-psycho-social one, as in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Functioning (ICF). This just means that our understanding of what disability often reflects our social environment. Advocates suggest that the word “dis-ability” indicates a limitation on the abilities of a person whom it describes.

With the technology we now have available and use today, many physical limitations can be now overcome – for example, people who wear reading glasses probably don’t see themselves as “disabled” while those of us who use wheelchairs and are unable to get access to the places where we do ordinary life are likely to identify themselves as having a “disability.”

The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or UNCRPD ( has now been signed by approximately one hundred and forty nations, including Australia. The UNCRPD is a commitment from governments to change the way they provide support to citizens with disability. This is of particular importance because many studies link disability to low socioeconomic status or poverty.

The Centre for Disability Studies, an affiliate of The University of Sydney, has been involved in some of the preparatory work for the NDIS.

And one of the interesting findings is that Australia’s NDIS may mark the potential reappearance (or more regular appearance) of many people with lifelong disabilities into Australia’s religious communities.*

In 2015 at the L’Arche 50-year Symposium conference hosted by The Centre for Theology & Ministry at Melbourne University, Dr Vivienne Riches and Dr Tanya Riches presented their research, outlining the self-reported religious affiliation of 246 Australians with disability during a trial assessment. This was the basis for a scholarly article for AlphaCrucis’ AustralAsian Pentecostal Studies (APS).

Of our respondents, 14 (5.7%) replied that they had ‘no religious affiliation’. The majority of others (92.5%) identified themselves as ‘Christian’, with many specified denominational affiliations.

There was another theme in the interviews with people with disability – staff was largely unable (or, occasionally unwilling) to take people with disability to church. Support for religious activities on the weekends within group homes has been patchy at best.

Now under the new funding arrangements, a person with a disability could articulate their goals as involvement in a faith community, and receive adequate support in order to attend church every weekend, visit the venue each week for music rehearsals, or regularly attend youth or discipleship meetings.

In most Australian cities, this finally marks the arrival of a real weekend for many people with moderate to profound disabilities. The weekend is the time when most people do social things. But until now, support staff structured support around their schedules – and most carers worked midweek.

Interestingly, however, within much of the Christian church, the massive impending social changes that are possible with the NDIS have not even raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this highlights a disconnect with the needs of our community, How much do we really love our neighbour with a disability?

Jesus was highly interested in people with disability – especially those who were dis-abled by their society. Jesus did not see disability as a curse (John 9:1-3). He often healed symptoms, of course, but his main contribution was in solving the wider social problems related to the stigmatisation of people.

Paul wrote several times of his physical weakness (e.g. 2 Cor 12:7-10). The great leader Moses had a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10- 16). Elijah was depressed to the point of suicidality in 1 Kings 19. And one of the most beautiful stories of hospitality in the Bible is the way King David treated Mephibosheth, the son of his friend Jonathan, who had a physical impairment (in 2 Sam 9).

Perhaps the church needs to be more open and connected to the needs of the people within it? …. Is your church community ready to wholeheartedly say “Welcome home” to those rolling over to the NDIS in 2017? new-year-2017-diary-9-2

*It’s worth saying that service provision is more difficult in Australia’s remote and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where services are often further away. In many of these communities, however, there are also different conceptions of what “disability” is, and also different views about social responsibilities to kin.

Why Love Makes A Way protested in Malcolm Turnbull’s Office (Or at least, why I did)

In every nation there’s a point where ordinary, everyday people turn from bystanders into activists. It’s naive to think that the citizens of any country, no matter how good it is, would be immune to political involvement.

In fact, that’s democracy. Our Australian democracy is built on the premise that ordinary people should, no in fact must gather and engage in their world – where necessary, look evil in the eye, and refuse it room to remain any longer. Men fought and women lost sons and lovers for that right. Not just to get a sausage sandwich after polling once every four years.

We shouldn’t doubt that people will have to stand up and give voice at times – even if seen at first as unsolicited, unrequested, unwanted opinion. The question is, at what point do you step up and make your voice heard?

The Bible offers a clear mandate for this:

Speak out on behalf of the voiceless,
    and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.
Speak out in order to judge with righteousness
    and to defend the needy and the poor.
– Proverbs 31: 8-10

For many Christians in Australia, it’s been a long road that has led now to the formation of the Love Makes A Way Movement, that builds upon the Christian church’s nonviolent direct action (for more info see this amazing online pdf) throughout history, challenging the powers.

Women I’ve prayed beside worked in detention centers for thirty years. Father Claude has decades of experience in this area. He recounted to me how a Sri Lankan refugee slashed himself in their offices after receiving notice he was to be returned to the place he watched his brother and brother-in-law be murdered.

Yes, that’s right, I sat with Christian leaders in Malcolm Turnbull’s office this Monday, and prayed my heart out for our nation’s leaders to turn, and for our government to seize the day to change Australia’s policy on refugees.

An image from inside MP Turnbull’s Office

You can read SBS’s take on the Love Makes A Way story here. And,  ABC’s Compass segment on Love Makes A Way here to hear a little about Jarrod McKenna and Teresa Lee’s First Home Project, which they share with a number of new Australians.

I first engaged with refugee workers in 2006, when I worship led for an International Teams conference, and met missionaries stationed in Australia who engaged refugees. That’s when I realized my church, Hillsong, held weekly services in Villawood Detention Centre. I started to beeline for these friends while they were drinking coffee in the foyer of church. They introduced me to other friends working offshore. It started with curiosity and asking too many questions, but it ended with a deep empathy for them and the people they were serving.

Their eyes often filled with tears. Some told me of terrible, unthinkable things that were going on. That guards raped in the middle of the night, leaving women incontinent. Trauma that, through constant threat of deportation, turned into a deep fear and eventually, a madness. The complete loss of hope.

This contrasted sharply with stories of families who were being supported out in the community.

At that point, there were reportedly one million displaced people. Now, the UN says there are 20 million people seeking asylum. 

During this time the media honed in on boat entries on Australia’s northern border. The Australian Labour Party decided it would intern those arriving by boat indefinitely, as deterrence. It was an act of arrogance, and of privilege but it was retained as a policy by the Liberal–National Coalition. Slogans were created. And sadly, elections were won with them.

All this time my friends wept, and tried to provide support for refugees. Denominations such as The Savation Army, Catholics and the Uniting Church have been long involved in endless behind-the-scene negotiations with the government. Eventually many denominations made public statements against the policies, including the Anglican Church, and Australian Baptists.

It is hoped that ALL Christians of Australia will join their hearts and minds, putting aside all other differences, to declare that the Australian government has crossed the moral line.

Australia has in indefinite detention about 2044 people, including 92 children on Nauru. And 112 children in Australia. There has been no change to this number for six months.

Many of us in Love Makes A Way are pentecostals. Any time I feel lonely, I remind myself of the day Jaxon wore his college t-shirt to the action. And got arrested in it.

Because once the line is crossed, we must decide what we will do about it.

It’s clear that we are in the wrong. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has spoken against our policies. Rapporteurs criticize the conditions of Australia’s detention centers as breaching the Torture Convention and constituting ‘calibrated cruelty’. There are warnings that incarceration has an irreparable effect on children. This is consistent with reports of Christian workers that have been going on for almost a decade. Enough is enough.

Some churches have decided to put out media calls for the government to release children before Christmas. 

“For some of the children, this will be their third Christmas in detention and we can see no reason why they can’t be released before spending another one in detention”

It’s not only about celebrating Christ together. It’s about the fact that our Senators also believe they should be released. Seven days ago, the Senate managed to pass amendments to a bill that includes significant changes to refugee and asylum seeker debate. It does the following:

a) ends the detainment of children in onshore processing centers.
b)  introduces mandatory reporting of abuse.
c) reverses legislation making it a criminal offence for public servants and contractors, including doctors, to disclose knowledge acquired in detention centres.
d) ensures reasonable access to journalists.

The opportunity is now for the Federal government in the House of Representatives to support the recent Senate amendments that would free all kids and their families from Australian detention centers before Christmas.

This would truly be something to celebrate.

Christian response to the Sydney Siege: #Illridewithyou or #getoffmybus

Today I was able to chat to Dave Schenk & Damien on 92.2 Voice FM in Toowoomba about the recent events during the Sydney Siege, and how we can negotiate the aftermath, particularly on social media.

As always, I hung up, and realized there is much more that could be said on this topic. During the program, the hosts and I agreed that to be Christian is to practice the love shown by Jesus. How did Jesus act? Jesus demonstrated love for His enemies. To put this into words, he dealt with them as humans. We see so many times how Jesus drew any engagement with the ‘other’ down to the level of the individual. And I think we need to continue this model (not an argument that negates civil action, by the way). Jesus didn’t treat ‘Samaritans’ or ‘Romans’ all the same. He reached across boundaries and barriers and had intense, personal engagement. We don’t get away with stereotyping groups using the biblical text.

Our problem is, that many Australian Christians are still locked inside their cosmic conspiracies and stories.

We’ve conflated the word “Australian” and “Christian”, as if this is a win for us all. But does it lead us to more Christian behaviour, and a better Australia? Many Muslims would say no, that Australia = a place of fear.

During the Sydney Siege, for many hours we only saw a flag and hostages’ faces. We were free to speculate. Many questioned “why us?” In possible answer, we thought of recent events with ISIS, and even 9/11. An historical arc of “Islam versus Christianity” reaches far back into our psyche. Many have added a new chapter to this narrative entitled “Islam taking over Australia” – and can point to all the evidence. But this wasn’t a reality that we found once the doors were stormed, and individuals were carried out. We’re left here in the dissonance, with partial facts, and a whole lot of emotion.

Unfortunately, many Christians are motivated by emotion rather than rational thinking. This is both our superpower, and a fatal flaw. Many of my colleagues reject the church, running as far away as possible from groups that use internal logic to sustain theories after all evidence is presented. And because of it, Christians become used to ignoring ‘evidence’ presented by scholars and thinkers, assuming they are atheists and agnostics cruelly attempting to dismantle their very precepts of their faith. This is how we operate now.

Does this incident justify a Christian response against Islam? Should we be free to continue to speculate wildly under the guise of “watchfulness”, and to post hateful content online?

Well, as far as the facts go, it is a pretty isolated incident. This is not a clear continuation of 9/11. It is not a payback for hundreds of years of crusades. It is a self-professed Sheik, a guy with a record of evil actions, and a mixed history of religious activity that had recently found a home in the new Islamic state and Sunni ideology. Although the Christians I spoke with last night continue assertions that he was a part of a larger Islamic plan, this isn’t backed up by the known facts.

However there are some other lessons. We can say that this *is* another evidence of how globalization turns a relatively small act of terrorism into a global event. This *is* definitely a warning sign to our community that people will clothe themselves in whatever ideology suits them best, and at the moment Islam fits the bill. This is also a warning to our health professionals and legal systems to be vigilant in assessing warning signs. There may be some lessons for the police to take away, in addressing ideologically-motivated hostage situations that seem very likely to end in the perpetrator’s death.

But perhaps the best take-away is that we have to be vigilant in making sure that we don’t *create* another crisis with our unchecked emotion. It is entirely possible for *any* faith to radicalize.

My attention was caught by many Christian posts about Islam and its dangers – not unusual on my feed yesterday. I finally objected to a small comment on facebook that read: “for every hour the hostages are inside, let’s bomb another Mosque”. It felt painful to speak up and say that I was distressed at this comment. When I asked that the comment be removed, the author of the status responded that she would not be held hostage on her own facebook page. It turned the attention on me, and people objected to my policing of facebook. They were incensed that I saw bombing Mosques as an act of terrorism in the same way killing people was. They cited human life as primary and Islam as a “lifestyle choice” that should be quenched in Australia.

I sadly say that in this instance, I do not believe these people are practicing Christianity. And should there be a day that their words become reality and they start bombing Mosques, or that one of them takes a gun and holds seventeen people hostage in the Lindt cafe, then I would be very sad that religious leaders didn’t speak more clearly and quickly to denounce these voices in the Christian community.

I know that there are many Christians who are saying #Illridewithyou. I think this is what Jesus would do. And if you don’t like it, I’m not sure you can call yourself a Christ-ian. Happy for you to prove otherwise.