​A recent forum urged the church to speak up
for asylum seekers.
 

​The church must speak out fearlessly in order to protect asylum seekers’ rights.

That was the message that emerged from "Hospitality to Asylum Seekers and Church-State Relations", a forum co-hosted by Whitley and Catherine Booth Colleges at Whitley College on 16 September.

The Salvation Army has the contracts to provide welfare services to detained asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. Major Dr Geoff Webb, principal of the Army’s Catherine Booth College and recently returned from Manus Island, spoke of the difficulty the Army faces when it witnesses injustices, but cannot speak out due to the confidentiality clauses in its contracts.

“In Luke 7, we note the story of Jesus in the home of Simon when the unnamed woman of the city comes and anoints Jesus. Jesus, although being in the house of the Pharisee and technically receiving from him, is not afraid to challenge him about his lack of love,” Dr Webb said. “In like manner, is it possible that faith-based organisations need to stop gagging themselves – even when in receipt of government funding – and not be afraid to challenge in the public arena?”

Dr Webb listed numerous injustices he had witnessed first-hand that he could neither “confirm nor deny”. It was clear, however, that he and his organisation were frustrated and ready to take off their collective gags. He added that there was confusion both within and outside the church about what was the appropriate relationship between church and state. As a result, he said, the church’s potentially prophetic voice for asylum seekers was often internally and externally censored. “Section 116 of our Constitution prevents Government from establishing, prohibiting or favouring any particular religion or religious denomination. It does not prevent churches from speaking into public debate, including within the political arena.”

Forum speakers noted that the Bible’s consistent injunction to ‘welcome the stranger’ made hospitality towards asylum seekers a church imperative that could not be ignored. Tri Nguyen, pastor of Brunswick Baptist Church, arrived by boat from Vietnam in 1982. He spoke of his father becoming a Christian as a result of the hospitality that members of Moonee Valley Baptist Church showed him, and Nguyen himself has never forgotten his ‘grandmothers’.

“I came to Australia without my mother,” Nguyen said, adding that it took a decade for his mother to be settled here. “But I had five ‘grandmothers’ in the church and they loved me for 20 years. They modeled to me what love was.”

When it comes to those still seeking asylum, Jessie Taylor, barrister and documentary filmmaker (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea), said the church’s hospitality should be “rebellious welcome.”

“Yes, we need to ‘stop the boats’ and save lives, but what I think [the policy] really means is go away and die somewhere else. We are attempting to stop asylum seeking altogether.”

Taylor added that politicians of all stripes had confessed to her that harsh policies against asylum seekers would only change as a result of public outcry. She said the church had to take the lead.

“Make loud noises to Government,” she said, adding that church groups should also advocate to those in the church and broader society affected by misinformation about asylum seekers. “It is not illegal to seek asylum.”

Mark Brett, professor of Old Testament at Whitley College, said the numbers of asylum seekers would continue to grow. “The Australian Government’s considered response… is to reduce the number of humanitarian visas,” Brett said, adding that it was the church’s task to embody God’s hospitality. “It is the mentality of scarcity that drives the number of humanitarian visas down, and represents the arrival of asylum seekers in boats as a matter for the military. An ethos of abundance, on the other hand, would have us sponsoring asylum seekers in the community as they begin their journey of healing.”