Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Dunedin Night Shelter Newsletter article

Stepping down now. (I hope)
This article appeared in our Dunedin Night Shelter newsletter which came out today.
Dave Brown pauses during roof maintenance at the Night Shelter this past week.

A MIX-UP with staff rosters a couple of years ago became a graphic example of why the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust is needed and the difference it makes, says retiring Trust chairman and founding member Dave Brown. Fourteen years after the Trust was established, and after six years as its chairman, Mr Brown has stepped down from what has been a demanding and vital role in our city. In 2003, Mr Brown and several others gathered to discuss the need for emergency accommodation. At the time, Mr Brown was the minister at an inner-city church that ran a drop-in centre where many of the city’s more vulnerable people gathered on Friday evenings. A public meeting was organized and 50 people turned up to hear from social workers and others about the need in Dunedin. The Trust was born from that gathering. Mr Brown says two of the key challenges have been convincing people of the need and helping people understand that need. “When we first started collecting on the streets people would say ‘Why do we need a night shelter in Dunedin?’ or ‘They deserve to be homeless’,” Mr Brown recalls. “We have spent many hours talking to groups, convincing people of the need. I have found people are unaware of the changes in society that lead to many people living uncertain and fragile existences. We are often protected by our privilege.” He says the Trust has been very successful in telling its story and helping people understand the need. “Things like the sleep-outs and the publicity surrounding the fundraising to purchase the Shelter helped build a groundswell of awareness and support in Dunedin.” A mix-up a couple of years ago, which meant no Trust staff members turned up to open the Shelter one evening, reinforced for Mr Brown the enormous value of the work of the Trust. “I had a phone call at home, so my wife and I came in an hour or more late to open the shelter,” he says. “An ambulance arrived at the shelter the same time we did. It was a freezing cold winter night and one elderly client had fainted while waiting. “There were six people waiting, the youngest an 18-year-old woman, the oldest a 70-plus-year-old man. “I opened up the shelter, turned on the heater and boiled the jug for a cup of tea for all. The elderly man came right, and others started to warm up. A caring staff member, hearing of the problem came in and began getting meals ready. “As I reflected on the fact that here were six people who for various reasons were out in the cold on a winter’s night in Dunedin, I felt pleased to be able to open the door for them to warm hospitality, food and a bed. “I felt proud to be part of the group who made it all happen.” Mr Brown, who has retired from the Church but still works part-time as a workplace chaplain, is now stepping down from his work with the Trust. But he says there are certainly still needs to be met. “People are moving south hoping to get affordable accommodation in Dunedin. So, while Dunedin does not have the massive homelessness issues other cities have, the problem seems to be drifting south. Our numbers of homeless and vulnerable people are increasing.” (To read the full interview with Dave Brown, detailing how the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust got started, how it developed, what it has achieved, why he is stepping down and what still needs to be done, go to the Trust’s facebook page https://www.facebook.com/DunedinNightShelter/ )

Monday, November 20, 2017

Going against the best of the human spirit.

I have been befriending a duck that visits our paddock. In the last few days she has been parading around with nine new children. My wife calls them my new "grandchildren." Unfortunately I suspect most will not survive. Our neighbour has three hungry cats!
Well done Australia!
Our neighbours in Australia have had a hard time trying to decide whether to allow same-sex marriage to happen there. They had a non-binding costly referendum or plebiscite which is to guide the parliamentarians in their decision over the next week or two. The result was a "Yes" with 61% in favour. So there are celebrations happening among the gay and lesbian community "across the ditch". It surprised me that the vote was not a lot more in favour, though there was a lot of nasty sounding opposition. (Often by "Christian" people.) We in NZ had a sense of superiority over our neighbours because we made the decision in a much more civilised way before them. I was pleased that they made the right decision. In my opinion it is a human right, whatever your sexual orientation to have the freedom to express that love in a marriage relationship. Well done Australia.
But I as a marriage celebrant can't marry them.
I retired from Church ministry in what used to be called the Associated Churches of Christ, (Now Christian Churches New Zealand) at the end of 2013. These days I attend and have some leadership in the local Presbyterian Church. I also work as a workplace chaplain for a brewery, for Dunedin's Fire fighters and also as a chaplain in St John Ambulance. Sometimes I am asked to take weddings, so as a minister, I am still a licensed celebrant through my "parent" denomination. The celebrant's list for next year is going through a renewal process, so I emailed the hierarchy of the denomination to make sure I could still be on the list. They were happy to renew my celebrant status, but drew my attention to a remit passed at the notional conference in 2014. The remit stated that if a CCNZ minister led a same sex marriage then the next year he/she would be deleted off the celebrants' list.  There were a few pages of Biblical background reasoning attached. My celebration of the Australian "yes" vote was short lived, when I realised I was a minister in a denomination which took the opposite point of view. While I was still in ministry I had argued against such a move on theological grounds and also saying that because we are congregationally governed, the national body could not make such an edict.  Because I have a conventional wedding booked for February I will continue for next year to be a celebrant on their list. I am probably unlikely to be asked to do a wedding for a same-sex couple anyway, but the principle matters to me. So I will be reviewing my options for the years following that.
It will be a sad change for me.
I grew up in an Associated Churches of Christ family. I was the fourth generation to be involved in the Church, so my grandmother and parents were proud and involved members. But beyond a family link I chose to continue in the denomination because of the founding principles. Alexander and Thomas Campbell were Presbyterian ministers in the USA in the early 1800's who were distressed about the disunity of the Church, and formed a movement within their denomination to bring about unity. (The Christian Association of Washington) Alexander was an intellectual man who had, for his day, a very modern and progressive understanding of the scriptures. They promoted slogans like "No creed but Christ" and "In essentials - unity. In non-essentials - liberty.  In all things - love."  They promoted a congregational form of Church government and lay-leadership.  Eventually they were deemed too "modern" and thrown out of the Presbyterian Church and joined the Baptists. Because of their emphasis on the priority of the New Testament, they weren't able to stay with them, so became a movement on their own. I liked the Jesus-focused spirit of this movement. When I grew up in the late 50's and 60's we encountered a number of intelligent, fine and impressive men who exhibited in their lives and conversation the same sort of broad Christian spirit and thinking. It seemed like they were, in their generation, following the spirit of the Campbells, which I thought was in tune with the spirit of Jesus. So I was happy to continue to be involved and express my faith through this denomination, even though there was a more conservative element within it. All that to say that if, in time, I decide to resign from being listed as a minister of that movement, it will be a sad move for me. Quite an extensive section of my library is made up of books on the history and thought of this movement. 
The Church often fights against the Spirit.
Not so long after the death of Jesus when Jesus' Way was spreading to the gentiles, a big part of the Jewish Church resented this inclusion and argued against the new inclusiveness the apostle Paul and others were practicing. Paul argues that such an attitude is not in tune with the way of Christ, we are "all one in Christ Jesus our Lord" he wrote. When William Wilberforce and others were wanting to ban the slave trade, or later free the slaves, many times churchmen argued against it, quoting scripture. But the spirit of compassion and solidarity within people won out and slave trade and slavery were outlawed. (Although unfortunately in the world today there seems to be a growing concern over human trafficking.) Again racism was an accepted part of society and people inside and outside the Church, listening to the spirit within, challenged it. In South Africa, America and in other places there were Church people who argued against this spirit, saying racism was divinely ordained. But racism is seen now as an evil, though I suspect it will never be fully stamped out. Again and again when the best spirit in men see a new freedom, a better way forward, often the Church is seen to be using religion to fight against the best "spirit within". In the cause of women's rights and place in society the same thing happened. The best inner spirit in people led people to just know that the status quo was not right, and people inside and outside the Church pushed for change. This battle is not complete, but once again large sections of the Church, quoting scripture resented the change toward a more healthy, equal and whole society.  I believe the same is the case over same-sex marriage. People listening to "the good within" are calling for the freedom for same-sex marriage. It seems to be like a creative "right" people should have and celebrate. But the Church in general is dragging the chain. "The Eternal Spirit" who is love, "the cosmic creativity present everywhere and in everything, gently urging all toward the good" is stirring in our hearts, for a better way forward. But my denomination (and others) is found to be out of tune with the Spirit's directions. I believe "Good will live on, love on and conquer all" and such Churches will be seen to be largely irrelevant cults. They will do the cause of Jesus real harm and I am sad and embarrassed. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"Old age", anger and sadness.

I am convenor for a community group tasked with using the historic Iona Church in Port Chalmers for the community. This photo shows the first concert we hosted.
A duck I have been getting friendly with and feeding. She came in the house and into the lounge! I informed her she was an outside pet.
Another concert in Iona of NZ folk songs. I wish I was musical! 
Our new children- young point of lay hens settling in to our place.
Anger and sadness.
I have not posted for a while - what can I say, I have been busy. I am prompted to post today because of a very sad event in one of my chaplaincies. I am a workplace support chaplain for about 9 hours a week. I am a chaplain for St John Ambulance in a voluntary capacity. I am chaplain for the local fire fighters, and I am chaplain for a brewery. The task of a chaplain is to visit the sites and touch base with people. If there are those who have an issue they wish to sound off about or to have some help with, you listen in a caring way and sometimes help, or sometimes refer for further counseling. Most often I spend time with people and they talk about their life, and ask about mine. It really is sharing the journey of life with people. It is a real privilege to be involved with folks. 
A couple of months ago I had a phone call from a man who was going through marriage problems, that were the result of mistakes he had made. I met him and spent over an hour listening to him, and I tried to give some advice about directions ahead and assured him of my support. He was seeing a counsellor who suggested that he should not be seeing me as well. That was OK and is a usual stance for counsellors, but I said that along the way I could still be a supportive presence no matter what happened in the marriage. I texted him a few times and chatted briefly whenever I saw him. Things were not going well. I had phone calls and conversations from his work mates who were concerned about him and one afternoon I spent quite some time trying to find out where he was. There were a number of people offering support and his boss was also being helpful. I saw him two weeks ago and had quite a long conversation. He was not happy, the marriage it seemed was all over and he was aggrieved.  He said words to the effect of "I've stuffed it up!" He had said he had at times had "silly thoughts" which I took to mean suicide.  I told him that if he wanted or needed to chat or if he had the "silly thoughts" to phone me and I would come to wherever he was immediately. I was aware that people were in touch with him every day so felt he would be safe. I assured him that even though life is bad now, he will get through it and put together a new life in the future. I gave him a examples of people who had been there and done that. 
Last Wednesday around lunch time I had a phone call from his "team leader" to tell me he had taken his own life and had done so in such a way that his estranged wife would be the person to discover him.
Since then I have been visiting the workplace, listening to confused, grieving, angry coworkers, and of course attended his funeral with them. I myself have been angry. Of course you go through "Was there something else I could have done?" I wondered if I had pushed myself forward and had stuck with him as his counsellor, would I have been more able to help than the counsellor he had? I have felt really sad for his wife and three children and been angry at him for opting out. I have been supported, of course by my wife, but also two of the man's co workers have phoned me to see if I was OK. Also a man from my St John chaplaincy contacted me to ask the same question.  
At the crowded funeral I stood at the back among his fellow workers and went through a raft of emotions. Mostly my anger increased.  I noticed how in such circumstances we minimise death. We say things like "he is on a journey", "he chose a path" "He will be up there still with us in life" and "till we meet again" etc.  "No!" I wanted to scream, "The gutless silly bastard is DEAD! Gone! Of no use to anybody! He threw away his life! He opted out of his responsibilities!" I know that sounds bad, un PC and lacks compassion, but that was the way I, and others felt, and the funeral was such that there was no "pastoral care" in the leading of it. 
The sad thing is that in New Zealand too many young people and men are taking their life. I think there is what Viktor Frankl called, an "existential vacuum" for so many people in today's fast changing society. People suffer a lack of meaning, so they struggle when the going gets tough. 
Today I spent virtually all day working hard physically in the vegetable garden, and that has been a healing release for me.  
"Old Age"
I am pleased that I have worked hard today, stressing my back with digging, and it has functioned painlessly. Two weeks ago I could not have done the work I did today. My back had gone "out" and I was in pain carrying even small loads. At one stage during this period, when it seemed slightly better, I dug the garden. I knew I needed to get it done. It was a tough painful job, trying to dig in such a way as not to strain my back. I was digging away hurting with every shovel full, and I suddenly remembered that I had a smaller shovel. "Maybe that would be easier?" I said to myself. I grabbed my smaller bladed shovel and sure enough the less weight on each shovel full made the task easier. I paused and chuckled to myself.  Years ago I recall visiting a retired man who had moved to a smaller house. Being a keen gardener, he was showing me his new vege garden, which was a small patch of ground. He showed me his new small bladed shovel and told me how pleased he was with it. It made his digging so much easier he had said. I smiled and said that was good, but under my breath arrogantly I was thinking, "What a wimp! He has such a small garden and he needs that!?" He is long dead now and I am older, not quite as old as he was then, but here I am gladly using a small bladed shovel. "Jack, I take those arrogant thoughts back. You were right, I now understand." With age sometimes wisdom comes. I did go back to my bigger shovel today, once I was confident my back could handle it.