I want to tell the story of a group called Love Makes a Way in Australia. The beginning of this story is not a nice one. The story begins because currently Australia’s policies on immigration related to asylum seekers, people who are seeking refuge in Australia from situations of persecution, oppression, and violence.
Our policies in regards to asylum seekers in Australia are incredibly cruel and inhumane. Rather than helping them settle in the community, and giving them a place of safety, we take them to detention centers. Detention centers is basically a nice way of saying concentration camps.
These detention camps are located offshore in two places called Nauru and Manus Island, which are not Australian territories. The only way for detainees to get off of these islands, at this point, is for them to go back to where they came from. For people seeking asylum, this is obviously is a dangerous proposition.
The conditions in these camps are incredibly inhumane. One church group referred to the conditions as “state-sanctioned child abuse.” The UN Commission on Torture compared it to torture. One well-known Australian has referred to our detention centers as “factories of mental illness.”
The camps are designed to remove any hope that people might have for a better life, so that they’ll go home and won’t be our problem anymore. There’s also been evidence of sexual abuse in the detention centers, where workers and staff have sexually abused what we call “detainees,” including women and children.
It’s a heart-breaking situation, one that is a complete violation of people’s human rights and, even more than that, their dignity as people created in the image of God.
In response to these issues, people in Australia have undertaken a diverse range of activities. Some have volunteered for refugee organizations, to serve refugees who might already be in our community. Others have sought to advocate at a political level through conventional means like letter-writing, meeting with the members of Parliament, signing petitions, etc.
But when these formal channels haven’t worked, the times have called for a more radical response. And that’s where our group “Love Makes a Way” came from. Love Makes a Way was a response by some Christians who said, “We can’t be silent any more on this issue. We’ve been speaking out, but now we have to take it a step further.”
So on March 21, 2014, I entered the office of Scott Morrison, our immigration minister, with eight other Christians. We went into the office and said to the people there: “We want to see the 1,038 children who are in our detention centers released immediately. We’re going to remain in the office and pray, until we get that response.”
The Christians in our group included a couple of Anabaptists, a Catholic, some United Church people, and some people from Hillsong. We prayed together, and eventually the police were called. Five of the group were arrested and removed, but our request was not fulfilled.
What happened then was pretty amazing.
From this small witness, we saw a huge amount of support from the church in Australia. The church often can’t agree on a lot, but Christians from all over Australia showed that they had reached a breaking point on this issue and agreed that acts of civil disobedience needed to be part of the picture.
Not long after that, folks in Western Australia held a second action in Perth. Then we held a public vigil, outside the office of that same immigration minister. One-hundred twenty-five people showed up. At the vigil, people kept asking us, “How do we stay in touch with what you are doing?” And we said to ourselves, “What are we doing?”
We had no idea that what we had done would become something that others would want to engage in. So we started hosting some trainings in non-violent direct action.
And more and more Christians in Australia began to enter government offices to request that children be released from our detention centers. They said, “Children shouldn’t be in detention. We’re going to stay here and pray until we get that.” Obviously they continued to be arrested.
In June of 2015, 40 Christians held a sit-in in our Parliament house. We sang a rendition of the well-known spiritual “Were You There?” It was a really beautiful time. We were all forcibly removed, as we expected. But we had huge amounts of community support, both from Christians and from people outside the church in Australia.
It’s been really wonderful to be part of this movement of Christians, especially in a place like Australia where civil disobedience or non-violent direct action has not been part of the DNA of the church in any meaningful way.
Christians are taking on this role of witnessing publicly—even paying the cost of being arrested—in order to witness to compassion for refugees and to a better world where we welcome the stranger and the alien into our country. Since this movement began, over 200 Christians have risked arrest in acts of civil disobedience in offices or public spaces, and over 150 of those have been formally arrested.
It’s been wonderful to see how this has united the church. Christians from all different groups are getting together–not just talking, not just hanging out–but getting arrested together.
These have been some of the most profound liturgical acts I’ve ever been a part of, where we sit in offices and pray together, all brothers and sisters in Christ from different traditions, seeking justice for some of the most marginalized people in the world.