For the past two weeks, I’ve had the tremendous privilege of travelling throughout southeastern Australia conspiring with colleagues to re-imagine ministry with children. During the first week, I was at Stanwell Tops, just south of Sydney, for Leaders to Go, the premier national event for children’s ministry leaders from Australia and New Zealand. Last week I travelled throughout Melbourne and the surrounding area offering workshops at Baptist, Uniting, and Anglican churches. Now that my “official” duties have come to an end, I’m enjoying a few days to travel in Melbourne and Sydney before heading home to Halifax, the antipodes of the area of Australia that I’ve been exploring.
One of my roles at Leaders to Go was to serve as a participant observer and offer some reflections to close the conference. Here is the short presentation I shared.
During my first day in Australia, I shared an authentic barbecue meal with the family who hosted me for my first few days here. At one point in our conversation over sausages of both kangaroo and beef varieties, I made a comment about chipmunks collecting nuts and was met with looks of uncertainty. With no chipmunks on the continent, this family didn’t know that they collect nuts and seeds for winter, stuffing them into their cheeks to transport back to their burrows. And that’s what I have done during my time at Leaders to Go. I’ve had conversations, listened to stories, and heard people share their passions, collecting seeds of wisdom to store away for later. And so now I’d like to share a few of those seeds with you.
And I’m going to do so using a framework that my wife learned through her year-long CPE residency: three strengths and a wondering. If you’re wondering what a wondering means in this context, it’s a gentle way of saying there’s something you need to work on—a weakness, to be blunt.
When I first walked in the door at Leaders to Go, I saw some of you gluing small coloured bits of paper onto a black backdrop. And I had no idea what you were doing. Later, I saw that you had built a mosaic, a large real-time metaphor for our conversations this week. The next day, I was privileged to hear some of you share TED-style talks about church-school partnerships, intergenerational relationships, and testimonies about how Jesus surprised you with a call to follow him. Yesterday I had a cuppa with 20 or so of you and was excited to learn about how your are identifying, reframing, and addressing the challenges you are facing in your ministry context—but for every struggle I have heard you share this week, I have seen many more ideas and practices you have developed to respond to them. The first strength I see is your tremendous creativity.
And then there was last night, where we had a Kiwi vs. Aussie trivia and Minute to Win It competition. Rarely have I witnessed such exuberance and joy among a group of people as I did yesterday evening. It was the culmination of three days of dad jokes, bad puns, and good-hearted jabs back and forth between Aussies and Kiwis. But today has been something different. This morning has been the culmination of serious conversations about our churches and our children that we have shared over the past few days. We have laughed together and we have cried together. We have celebrated one another’s victories and mourned one another’s sorrows. The second strength I see is that you know when to be serious and when to laugh—and when to do both at the same time.
Until I landed in Sydney on Sunday morning, the only person at Leaders to Go that I had met before was Chris Barnett. He had made the trek to Faith Forward last year and we got to one know another over deep-fried food at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Nashville. So on Wednesday when I didn’t know who to turn to with something that had been throwing me off about this group, I went to Chris and said, “I have spent two days listening to the leaders here this week and every time I think I’ve figured out what theological assumptions or social views guide them, someone says something that throws me off. I can’t get put my finger on the shared pulse of this room.” In that loving and gentle way that comes naturally to Chris, he affirmed that this is indeed a diverse group of leaders. You see, in North America, we Christians tend to talk about finding like-minded people—which really means we sometime find it difficult to be with people who believe things and act in ways that challenge my beliefs and my way of life. But somehow the Holy Spirit has united you across lines of difference in a way that I have never before seen. The third strength I see is your solidarity.
And this brings me to my wondering.
Yesterday I pulled leaches off my feet with Aussies, played Minute to Win It on Team New Zealand, and was asked to share stories from my ministerial context back home in Canada. And all the while you have accentuated my difference in a way that allowed me to feel valued and appreciated not in spite of it, but because of that difference. And when Terry played my national anthem and I stood to sing it last night, you stood arm-in-arm with me. The music and words of that song—and all that they stand for—are woven into the fabric of my life. And although they mean more to me than to you, you stood in solidarity with me.
What does this mean, to stand in solidarity? When I lived in Virginia, some of my closest friends were African American students who lived and studied alongside me. One day, I was talking with one friend about what I can do to stand in solidarity with them. She responded with words I will never forget: “Dave,” she said. “It’s easy to be in solidarity with us when everything is going pretty well. Anyone can do it. But what really matters is what you do when things fall apart and get downright dangerous. Will you still be in solidarity when it means your values and your life are put at risk in the process?
We human beings are good at dividing ourselves, at placing borders between one another in order to protect ourselves from difference. Yet somehow you have managed to step across geographical, denominational, and theological borders and stand arm-in-arm together.
But as much as we may reach out across borders, the borders are still there. And they are real. And they matter to us. So my question to you is this: Will you still be stand solidarity with one another when it means your values and your life are put at risk in the process? Will you still work as a united front when those things you hold dearest to you are compromised—your beliefs, your values, your ways of orienting yourself to the the world?
For that one moment last night, you stood arm-in-arm with me as I belted out my national anthem. But as you did, you held onto you own national identities, recognizing that in the same way that you value Australia and New Zealand more than you can say, I too feel that way about my homeland. For a moment, you were all Canadian even though there is no way for me to explain to you all that it means.
Standing in solidarity does not mean that we agree with one another about those things we hold dear. It does not mean that we subscribe to the same theological views or share similar ideas about the issues that matter to our lives and the lives of our children. It means that we love one another as Christ has loved us, as one who entered the mess of our lives and our communities and our theological beliefs and called us to walk arm-in-arm. As we leave this space, may we be leaders that go, leaders who walk back to our countries, communities, and congregations always seeking to be in true solidarity with those of us gathered here today, whether it’s easy to do so or not.
For there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, Kiwi nor Aussie, liberal nor conservative, novice nor expert, charismatic nor liturgical, Baptist nor Anglican nor Uniting nor Pentecostal, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.