How can we as Christians care for those who are on the margins of society? How can we share the hope of Jesus with those who, from a worldly perspective at least, look like they have the least reason for hope?
In this episode of the CCL podcast, Peter Orr speaks to Ben Gray, minister of All Saints Petersham in Sydney’s Inner West, about how as a church they reach out to the homeless with the hope of the Jesus.
Links referred to:
- Hub of Hope at All Saints Petersham
- Our next event: Embrace AI and lose your soul? How to think about AI as a Christian with Akos Balogh (13 Mar)
- Support the work of the Centre
Runtime: 27:57 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Peter Orr: How can we as Christians care for those who are on the margins of society? How can we share the hope of Jesus with those who, from a worldly perspective at least, look like they have the least reason for hope?
In today’s episode, I’ll be speaking to Ben Gray, minister of All Saints Petersham in Sydney’s Inner West, about how as a church they reach out to the homeless with the hope of the Jesus. I hope you enjoy the episode.
PO: Welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Peter Orr and today I am joined by my friend, Ben Gray, who’s also the minister of All Saints Petersham, where I attend with my family.
PO: Ben, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your family and how you became a Christian.
Ben Gray: Thanks, Pete! Great to be with you here. My family: I’m married to Sara. We’ve been married 22 years. We have five kids—18, 16, 14 and a couple of 11-year-olds.
I became a Christian through the prayers of my parents. They are wonderfully godly ministry-minded Christian parents, who demonstrated the love of Jesus, demonstrated the Christian life and prayed for us throughout our whole lives. At the end of high school, it became pretty crystal clear that either Jesus is everything or he’s nothing, and I’ve got to take that seriously.
I think for me, coming out of the umbrella of my parents’ faith and having to be an adult and take Jesus seriously myself, that was the big turning point.
The Hub of Hope
PO: So as I mentioned, you’re now the Senior Minister at All Saints Petersham. If one of our listeners was to turn up on a Sunday, All Saints is very much like any other church in Sydney. But a couple of times during the week, there are some events that happen. They don’t necessarily happen in every church. Can you tell a little bit about the Hub of Hope ministry that our church runs?
BG: Yeah, the Hub of Hope was started by my predecessor, Antony Barraclough. It came out of the Connect 09 Mission. It was sort of the logical outworking of relationships in our community and partnerships with other Christians in Petersham.
The Inner West has the second-highest concentration of boarding houses in New South Wales. Boarding houses are highly unregulated, highly unstable places to live. So the government considers people in boarding houses to be homeless, because of the insecurity of their living arrangements.
This includes a lot of people with addiction, a lot of people with mental health issues, a lot of people coming out of prison. I had lunch with a guy today who’s just come out of prison and is living in a boarding house, because you can’t get another rental when you’re just out of prison. So it’s people in hard situations and people living there for short periods of time or one of the guys at lunch today has been living in a boarding house close by for 15 years. That’s in the Inner West.
At All Saints, I could throw a rock and hit 20 boarding houses—20 boarding houses with probably 10 people in each of them. A lot of our neighbours in our immediate area are people who have various levels of need and are in various stages of homelessness. Sometimes they come back and forth from the street. They’re our neighbours.
Over the years through All Saints and through connections with other Christians and churches in the area, we started a BBQ, a community garden and a space where people in boarding houses with not much can come, take a load off, enjoy the garden, have a nice meal, and connect with other people—connect with Christian community.
We also try and help connect people to other services. Centrelink comes every Thursday to do reporting, help people find jobs and do their Centrelink stuff. We had two social workers there today from Newtown Neighbourhood Centre who help people find boarding house rooms and advocate for people in boarding houses. It’s a “hub” of hope in the sense that it’s a place where you can find help, as well as food, as well as a lovely community.
Challenges and encouragements
PO: I know from talking to you over the years that it’s a ministry that’s not without its challenges. Can you tell us what some of those challenges are?
BG: Yeah. It’s a funny old place, I tell you. Some of the challenges: it’s a word-of-mouth community. One of the things is you never know what you’re going to get on a Thursday or a Tuesday night. Some weeks we have 30 people for dinner or lunch; some weeks we have six. It can be hard to know what you’re going to get and it’s hard to know who’s going to walk through the door and what kind of state they’re going to be in. It’s unpredictable.
It’s hard to keep resourcing, and it’s hard to know where to meet people and how to help in lots of difficult circumstances. It’s also hard to know how too how to bring the gospel to bear in really complicated, often lifelong stories of difficulty or challenge in different ways. It’s a never-ending kind of ministry: it won’t sustain itself, resource-wise. You’re not growing leaders from it necessarily. So it’s hard to sustain, it’s hard to resource and it’s very unpredictable.
PO: Yet at the same time, I know there are real encouragements as well.
BG: There are. There are always encouragements—as we connect to people, as they experience the love of Jesus through our volunteers and our church community, and as they express their desire to belong and to be part of things, as they express their thankfulness for a place where they feel safe, a place where they feel cared for and provided for, and where they’re able to build relationships with people.
Loneliness, I think, is probably the greatest issue for a lot of our regulars—loneliness mixed with mental illness, addiction and lack of resources. I was talking to a man at lunch today. He is one of our regulars. It took him about five years to trust me enough to say that he’s completely illiterate. He cannot read or write at all. He had a traumatic brain injury as a kid and has struggled his whole life. He’s now 70. I said to him today as we were having lunch, “Hey, I’m going to talk on a podcast about lunch this afternoon. What do you think I should say?” He said, “Well, it’s the best food around, it’s lovely people, and with that, you have the gospel.” I just thought, “That’s a beautiful encouragement from my friend.”
Social justice vs gospel ministry
PO: Just stepping back a little bit, touching on that idea of the gospel, this type of ministry in the past has caused controversy among evangelicals. This type of ministry is sometimes seen as detracting from evangelism. Have you thought through that? I means, it drains resources—it doesn’t drain resources; it takes resources. As you said, it’s not self-sustaining. Why do you do it?
BG: [Laughter] I’ve asked myself that question many times, Pete! [Laughter] Yeah, it is one of those things. It can very easily become the only thing. It’s a never-ending space of need and hurt and difficulty, and it can overwhelm everything. It has the potential to overwhelm everything that we do.
We keep looking at other examples around us and throughout history where well-meaning Christians have started care organisations or care ministries for the poor and, over time, the needs of the poor and the needs that are right in front of you that are tangible—of food, shelter, clothing and safety—can swamp and overwhelm the sharing of Jesus, and the good news of life and hope in him. We often look at those examples. There’s examples close by where churches have given up on the gospel as they care for people in need.
Having said that, it just seems like these are our neighbours: these are the people right in front of our faces. They’re on our doorstep. They’re living next door. In Petersham, we have boarding houses with people who are down and out and homeless right next to $4 million terrace houses. We often say, “Both of those houses are our neighbours, both of those houses need Jesus, and both of those houses have different barriers to meeting Jesus and to coming to a saving faith in him.”
Our big thing with the Hub of Hope is the food and friendship are important; the community is important; connecting people to other services is really important; giving people a safe and welcoming space is really important. But we haven’t been really loving our neighbours as we ought until we’ve also shared with them the good news of Jesus.
I think the difference with the Hub is that we have to take our time with that. One of our student ministers at lunch today said to me, “I just need to listen more.” We need to take our time to listen more—to actually listen to our neighbours—to the desires and aches of their hearts, the needs that they have, the experiences of their lives—and be able to point them, in the midst of that, to the love of Jesus and the forgiveness that he brings. We want to hold out the food, the community and the social connection, as well as holding out the message of salvation that comes through Jesus.
Communicating the gospel
PO: Sometimes you talk about the small “h” hope and the big “H” Hope. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? Also, different ways over the years of how you’ve actually communicated the gospel: I know you’ve tried different things at different times. Do you want to talk about some of those?
BG: Yeah. We often talk not only to our volunteers in our church, but also to our visitors. We want to be upfront about how we want to love them. We talk about the small hopes of food and friendship, and the big hope of forgiveness and eternal life. Food and friendship are so important, but we want to say that the hope that Jesus gives through forgiveness of our sins and the eternal life that he has on offer is even bigger. I will say that regularly.
How do we do it? It’s not flashy, I’ll tell you that. It’s in bits and pieces. The most effective way we’ve found to be able to share Jesus with people is through long-term relationships—not just giving an upfront talk every week or giving them a tract or The Essential Jesus, which we have on offer every week—particularly because people like my friend today at lunch can’t read it, so there’s no point in taking that home. But over the course of years, we build relationship, we listen, we share, and we speak about Jesus and the different ways that he impacts our lives.
How do we do it week by week? We pray before every meal. Sometimes when it’s a bit chaotic and pressured, you can forget to pray, and it’s great when some of our noisy homeless neighbours will yell out, “Hey, you haven’t prayed yet!” [Laughter] I often will say, “Here’s a 30-second summary of my sermon from Sunday.” I connect that and say, “We’d love to see you at church on Sunday.” I share a 30-second summary of Sunday’s sermon or a little story or a verse from the Bible that’s been on my mind, or something that I can present as a short gospel message at the beginning of the meal, and sometimes that leads to deeper and bigger conversations over the meal.
The invite’s always there to come to church. It doesn’t always translate. One of the big challenges that we find is bridging the gap between our meals and that community during the week, and the Sunday services. One way we seek to bridge that gap is having our growth groups take it in turns to cook dinner on a Tuesday night and connect with people. The community of our church is in regular touch with the community of the Hub of Hope. But there’s a lot of barriers for people to make that shift from coming to the meal to coming to a Sunday service.
Sometimes it happens: we had seven regulars from the Hub of Hope who were at our evening service last Sunday. That was really encouraging. One of the challenges is preaching and speaking up front in ways that don’t further isolate them or alienate them in thinking about how we apply the Bible and how we talk about things. How we talk about money up front can be really tricky, so we need to be aware of that.
This has been going for a dozen years now and our congregation is wonderful at welcoming people of all different backgrounds and circumstances—sitting with them, talking with them, offering them a cup of tea, and that sort of thing.
The difficulty of coming to church
PO: Do you want to just talk a little more about the difficulty that someone from the Hub finds in coming to church? I know some people at the Hub would trust in Jesus and would be Christians, and would find the Hub a place of hope and comfort. But they might find regular church more difficult.
BG: Yeah. Two guys come to mind just in the last couple of weeks—one of whom we’ve had a really good relationship with, he’s come to a lot of things and he’s been in church a lot. It’s been wonderful seeing growth in him and things like that. Yet then he gets to a point where he gets suspicious and thinks, “What is it that you really want from me?” In every other context in his life, people have taken advantage him, people haven’t looked after him, or there’s been a turning point where someone leaves or he gets abandoned or whatever. It’s like an accordion: they come close, but then they move back, because they get scared, suspicious or paranoid about what it is that someone’s going to do to them or want from them. That can be a really hard challenge to make the shift to church community.
There’s another guy I’ve been talking to recently who grew up in a Sydney Anglican church. He knows the Bible and we talk. One day, he came and said, “I need a pair of socks and I don’t think I’m Reformed.” [Laughter]I said, “I’ll get you the socks and then we can talk about the latest RC Sproul sermon you’ve been listening to.” This guy sleeps in the park. He’s estranged from his family. He knows the gospel. He’s grown up in church. For whatever reasons, he’s alienated from his family and his community, and finds people very difficult. So eating a meal and talking to one person is a lot easier than being in a group of people that you don’t know.
There’s lots of these barriers that make it hard for people to come to church. There’s a lot of people carrying a lot of guilt and shame, feeling like they don’t belong there, feeling like they’re too different or their issues are too obvious, and so they find it hard to come in. But we see a trickle of people coming in and out, and some for a long period of time, and some just tasting and seeing. But we want to keep having an open door, an open heart and a welcome from Jesus who’s the friend of sinners, as we keep welcoming our neighbours.
PO: As we take a break from our podcast, I want to tell you about our next event coming up on 13 March 2024 at Moore College. Akos Balogh will be speaking with us about artificial intelligence. AI is obviously being widely embraced across our society. You’ve probably heard of Chat GPT and other AI tools. There’s a lot of concern about how it’s impacting education and other fields. Is it going to get out of control? Is it going to ultimately harm humanity? Should we be alarmed about it?
Akos will help us think as Christians about AI. What does the Bible have to say about how we should think about and use this important technology? How should it, or how might it, affect our faith? We hope that you will join us on 13 March and hear from Akos Balogh, writer and researcher, as he speaks about technology, humanity and theology at this event. Hope to see you there!
Now we’ll return to our program.
The impact of drugs and mental health issues
PO: Do you want to say something about how drugs and mental health issues, which you’ve touched on already, play a complex role in this ministry, and some of the challenges you face?
BG: Yeah. It’s really difficult. At lunch today, I was trying to convince one guy that it’s not a good idea to stop taking his bipolar medication.
The mental health and addiction stuff adds to the unpredictability of what we’re doing a little. It can mean that conversations you have with someone one week, they don’t remember the week after. That’s not just because they’re high or whatever, but because their brain has been damaged through drug use. It’s just one of the real heartaches of the Hub—that you can feel like you’re making a lot of progress with someone, and it doesn’t take much for drugs to get a real tight grip on them again. Then they’ll disappear for months at a time, and maybe they’ll come back, but sometimes they don’t. It adds to the unpredictability and it adds to the urgency, in some ways, because sometimes you don’t know whether you’re going to see people again, or when you’re going to see them, or what state they’re going to be in.
It’s funny because it adds urgency, on the one hand, but also patience, on another, because when someone’s dealing with addiction and mental health/mental illness, it means that you have to be patient. You have to know that they’re not going to receive things the same way other people do in terms of how you talk, what you offer and that sort of thing. They’re going to have other challenges that can really cloud their thinking and their judgement. It can really cloud their view of you, and sometimes you can feel like you’re being used, and sometimes they feel like they’re being used. It adds to the unpredictability of it.
It can also provide some of the great encouragements. One of the people at lunch today said to me, “Today is my three-year anniversary of being sober.” We were reflecting on when I first met her five years ago, she was an ice addict and was an absolute mess. She was sharing with me today, “Remember that: I was an absolute mess and here I am, five years later, three years sober, and very happy.” We were just reflecting on that and giving thanks for that together. That’s a great encouragement.
But it’s a very difficult world. We refer people on a lot to addiction centres and programs. We are very fond of the mental health unit at Concord Hospital, and our church is hopefully going to start partnering with the Anglicare chaplain at the mental health unit at Concord. It’s a complicated space, but it’s a space where they’re not immune [Laughter] from the hope of the gospel. In fact, it can be a space where the liberating news of Jesus’ forgiveness and his welcome into his eternal family is the rest that these weary souls need to hear.
A ministry family’s involvement
PO: Just thinking about you and your family: you live on site. Do you want to talk about how that’s been over the years?
BG: Yeah. Like all of it, it’s very unpredictable and up and down [Laughter]. We came home Tuesday night at 10pm to find one of our regulars drunk on our doorstep. That was a bit of a shock for my kids. They’re a lot less shockable than they used to be [Laughter].
We’ve had pretty big boundaries in place about who can answer the door, about who can get food out of the freezer, and about all those sorts of things. We also have tried to talk more about the needs that people have, and what it means to be a Christian and to love people who live in different circumstances to us. Mostly I’ve kept my family away from a lot of that. This year, as they get older and can handle things a bit more, our Tuesday night meal as a family is the Hub for most of this year. My boys in particular have become good at being able to carry a conversation at dinner. The girls will often sit on their own and that’s okay. Our regulars love that too. They love to see the family and talk about the family.
It’s complicated. It’s important to have boundaries. We’re very firm on what we can and can’t do. There have been days when I’ve spent the whole day with someone trying to get them emergency accommodation and that sort of thing. But we don’t hand out cash. We do food and we do help where we can, but we also have firm boundaries around that.
Our regulars found out pretty quickly that I was the one who would go with them and get food for them out of the fridge at the church. Even sometimes when they knock on the door and my wife answers, they’ll say, “Is Ben home?” She says, “No” and they say, “Okay, that’s fine. I’ll come back another time.” Healthy boundaries, lots of conversations, and a healthy biblical perspective. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, and Jesus said he didn’t come for the righteous but to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:29-32). So it makes perfect sense that these are the people that we’re seeking to minister to and share the gospel with.
How to get involved
PO: Final question: any advice to Christians in other settings about how to be involved in this type of ministry or how to think a little bit outside of the box?
BG: Yeah. I’ve been asked this question a bunch of times. People say, “We want to start something similar. What do we do?” The thing I always say is the question that Jesus was asked: [Laughter] it’s ‘Who is my neighbour?’” There’s no sense trying to start a homeless lunch if you don’t have homeless people around you. Think about who your neighbours are. Anglicare has got some great resources to help you dig into the statistics of your suburb and your area to work out how you might be able to help.
The reality is I think in lots of suburbs of Sydney, there’s much more need than sometimes we acknowledge. Having space for community meals is great. Think even about the loneliness epidemic: people are paying good money now to join apps and programs to go have dinner with strangers, because they’re feeling so lonely. Have those simple ways that the front door of the church can be open and welcoming—to let people come and find community and find the love of Jesus. It’s working out what’s in front of you. The mobile community pantry has been a great way that people have done that around Sydney. There’s a thousand different ways.
Think about how you might care for the single mothers in the area in providing help around doing yard work or kids clubs or whatever it is. Think about where the strain is and where the burdens are that the church can help lift as an important expression of the burden-lifting love of Jesus.
You and I were talking earlier about foster caring: it’s something we’ve tried to do over the years. Our Sydney Anglican synod was reminded of that this week: there are thousands of children in our city and state who are in desperate need of safe homes and care from stable families, and there’s a lot of social workers sleeping in hotels alongside little kids who aren’t safe at home. It should be a no-brainer that churches all across our city have multiple families who are seeking to take in children in need within our limits—within our capacity and the resources that we have.
My wife and I do emergency fostering. It’s one of the things that I love—living at a church in a church house, knowing that when the phone call comes at midnight on a Friday and there’s a two-year-old in a police car, and it’s either go to a hotel with a social worker or we can bring them to the church, I just love that they can bring them to the church. It’s just another picture—another way—that we can demonstrate the heart of Jesus.
PO: Ben, thanks very much. Thanks for being with us on the podcast and thanks for all the ministry that you lead at All Saints Petersham.
BG: Thanks Pete! Great to be with you.
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