Adventures in Cameroon

The French-speaking Cameroonian government decided to ban all vehicle movement in the English speaking parts of Cameroon. Fleeing from Limbe we encountered numerous roadblocks where the military stood somewhat menacingly with machine guns at the ready. At each stop, our skillful negotiators talked our way through till we reached the border of the French-speaking part of Cameroon. We successfully passed the border and moved onto Douala and eventually Kribi, where we are now staying for a few days before returning me to the airport in Douala.

The tensions between the French government and those that speak English date back to the end of World War II when the world was essentially divided up between the victorious allies. Why a nation-state was divided between two powers is a mystery to me. However, it highlights a continual colonial insensitivity. An insensitivity that threatens to tear apart an essentially peaceful people. Apart from government officials, there is very little animosity between French and English speaking people. We are now in the French region and my faltering attempts to communicate have been met with compassion and understanding. My hosts speak French so that helps, however I sense no real issue with the fact that they obviously come from the English-speaking side of the country.

Meanwhile, the discrimination from the French government continues. Schools have been shut down in Limbe and other English speaking cities and on weekends like the one we have just been through trade and commercial activity is severely affected by restriction of movement. It was quite alarming to see the efforts the government was going to in order to ensure that there was no uprising of the people on the anniversary of independence (1stOctober). In addition to the roadblocks, as we were leaving Limbe a military vehicle approached from the opposite direction, men at the ready and one soldier manning the heavy artillery gun mounted on the vehicle.



Yet despite the inequalities and intimidation, the quality of life does not appear to be incredibly different and the people on both sides of the divide are keen to get on with running businesses, engaging in community activities and generally just living life. My hosts suggest that the only way forward is for the UN to acknowledge the need for a two-state federation, essentially that each part of the country would be governed autonomously. And so there would be French-speaking Cameroon and English-speaking Cameroon as it was before independence. They believe the way to achieve this is similar to the uprising in the Arab Spring, yet even in this it appears lives will be lost. The fact that lives will be lost carries with it an inherent injustice as the discrimination and intimidation are from a colonial force desperate to hang onto power, a government that is not reading the signs of the time and is not governing for all the people. This is a disagreement on the grounds of power and control, not race, religion or anything else that tends to divide. These tensions are exacerbated due to the imminent elections to be held on the 7thOctober, with many Anglophiles seeking refuge in the Francophile parts of Cameroon. Most are expecting that the elections won’t actually change much in the country, with the government enforcing controls and ballot rigging being expected. Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s elections, as always it will be the people with little or no power that will pay the price of freedom. We can only hope that through their sacrifice, true justice and freedom will emerge for all Cameroonians.

I, Daniel Blake


I’m recommending the movie ‘I, Daniel Blake’ ( to everyone I see, who I know is interested in social justice. It’s a terrifying picture of an inflexible system getting it so wrong. This is my first blog which features a movie, so I hope there are no spoilers. If there are, please forgive me as it will only be because of my enthusiasm about the importance of this movie.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is set in Newcastle and follows the journey of an ageing Daniel Blake through the frustratingly close minded social welfare system in the UK. Having never needed welfare before, the system is very confusing for Daniel. He gets bounced from one component to another, eventually being told he needs to do part of the process online which, for Daniel is like learning to speak another language.

One scene has stayed with me, it is horrifying in its lack of empathy and its show of rigidity. While Daniel is waiting to be seen by a claims officer, in one of his many attempts to navigate the system. A lady with 2 children begins to get upset about the decision made by one of the workers who refuses to give more of her time to sort it out. The worker has called security on the woman. Daniel attempts to intervene, by asking the person whose next to be seen if he minds waiting a little longer, he doesn’t. Daniel attempts to explain this to the security officer only to have himself and the lady ejected from the building.

In our own hyper vigilant social welfare system frustration, pain, embarrassment, mental illness all can often be met with the same unhelpful responses. A neighbour asked me to go with her to meet a housing officer to talk about an ongoing issue with noise coming from the apartment above. We hadn’t been in the meeting 10 minutes before the officer had accused my neighbour of being rude and hinted at her being aggressive. This was despite the fact that on numerous occasions officers had cancelled meetings without informing her, had promised particular actions with seemingly no follow through. The officers tone continued to be condescending throughout the meeting and we left with similar promises to previous officers, with no clear pathway to resolution.

You will have no doubt heard about, or maybe even received a Centrelink debt notice. It’s been levelled at Centrelink that at least a third of these notices have been sent erroneously. However, the onus is on the customer to prove that it is a mistake. Ok fair enough, however, according to a leaked internal memo and a whistle blowers account, when customers approach staff to work through the issue they have been instructed not to fix it even if they can see where the error has occurred. Instead they are instructed to send people to an online portal, back into the very system that caused the error in the first place.

A further example of systemic injustice; I’ve been working with a couple of colleagues on a research project looking at pathways out of marginalization. The research is going to include a look at how the system traumatizes those in it and exacerbates homelessness and other issues around marginalization. You may have seen recent reports coming out of the ‘world’s most livable city,’ Melbourne about rough sleepers on Flinders St and plans to ban homelessness in the city. I don’t normally like to payout on the media however they have added plenty of fuel to the fire of discontent around these people, leading to a reactive plan by the Lord Mayor to introduce a local law banning rough sleeping in the city. Many come to the city because of its services, meals and the support of a homeless community, making an already traumatizing experience that little more livable. The ban would effectively scatter a community and leave people with the potential of incurring fines and greater debt, adding to trauma and the length of their journey out of marginalization.

As people of goodwill and compassion, how are we to respond to unjust, impersonal, stigmatizing and traumatic systems that leave people feeling dehumanized and abandoned? I haven’t got a quick fix answer, I don’t think there is one. However, we can cultivate empathy in ourselves and others. We can learn to be less dismissive and more open to the other. We can advocate, lending our voice and ideas to change unjust systems. If we are in positions of influence we can plan and strategise new approaches that value ‘consumers’ as people of worth, value and so much untapped potential. Let us commit to working towards a system with these things at its core.

Death of a Superhero… Me

So, it’s the time of year for resolutions, goals, objectives, gaining a sense of what we would like to achieve in 2017. However, I’ve seen a lot of chatter on social media that suggests many are bucking the trend and not making any resolutions, hitting the new year with no particular plans to change the world or even change themselves. ‘Besides,’ the rhetoric goes, ‘what’s the point any resolutions will be reversed after the first few weeks, promises made to ourselves, no better than any promise from a politician.’ I even saw a humorous post that suggested someone was wanting to open a bar and gym, expecting the first few weeks of the year to be filled with enthusiastic Adonis want to be’s, and then after that, as we all settled for our out of breath fat, the gym would be transformed into a bar. Now there’s something I could get on board with!

As 2017 rolls around and begins to take us on its whirlwind journey through time, I am acutely aware of my fragility, my weakness, my inability to do just about anything, including relationships, highlighted recently through a messy ending. Like a superhero stripped of their powers, I am left flailing in the face of any super villain that wants to come along. I had a conversation about this very thing several years ago. A friend and I were meeting at a café and talking about the fact we had both made it past 33, which meant that neither of us were the Messiah. As flippant as that sounds it was a staunch reminder to a workaholic activist with a Messiah complex that I indeed was not the saviour of the world, nor would I ever be.

I think its only been in the last couple of years that I’ve been fully convinced of that realisation’s truth. My fantasy of being a superhero, of fighting evil and changing the world towards the common good by whatever means at my disposal is well and truly dead. The urge to jump into any new project that promised salvation no matter how temporal has been replaced with a reluctance and the realization that my abilities and energy are in fact finite. As a mentor recently commented, ‘welcome to the human race.’

My sense of fragility was only heightened over Christmas as I spent time with Mum and Dad. To be fair it has been a hell of a year for them, both experiencing cancer, with Dad struggling to see and looking reminiscent of an emancipated prisoner of war and Mum reluctantly beginning to accept her role as carer. On returning to Melbourne, aware of their mortality and mine I found myself experiencing a few days of emotional exhaustion. Coming towards the end of that time I began to see something new.


I’ve always seen admitting fragility as weakness and so have worked to suppress it, recently I’ve not been so successful. However, perhaps that is not a bad thing. Owning my fragility, letting the false superhero die has in fact allowed a new authenticity and humility to come to the surface. It’s true I can’t just pick up any project that comes along, I’m finding more and more if the project doesn’t line up with the truth revealed by this new authenticity and humility I have a very strong reaction against it. This points to a deeper level. Saying ‘no’ is not a sign of laziness or avoidance, but in fact an affirmation of identity, of who I am created to be, what I am created to do. The unique me. Even though fragility is awkward and uncomfortable, it’s part of being human and it seems part of being uniquely who we are meant to be.

So this year, if there are any resolutions to be made, I’m not going to resurrect the superhero, instead I’m going to embrace my fragility and the identity it reveals.

Christmas Blog

Christmas Blog

 The buskers are out in full force, cascading the city in a mix of jazz, blues, rock and classic Christmas carols. Every few feet there is a new delight to behold from a group of human statues, standing perfectly still in their grey or gold, to a window display of the brightest colour and movement, a square filled with Christmas decorations and a fully dressed tree reaching far into the sky. The city is buzzing with a kind of nutty magic, as people rush from store to store looking for that special gift for Mum, Dad, Aunt Mary or Uncle Hubert. Some prefer to line up for one of the many attractions, waiting seemingly for hours, to quickly walk around a gallery of gingerbread or catch a glimpse of the red suited crusader. For others, the line itself is an attraction.

This last week, the lead up to Christmas has been a strange one for me. I’ve been in slow motion, when others seem to have hit hyper drive. Two days after arriving home from New Zealand, I went in for day surgery to have some lose bone removed from my jaw, the result of a wisdom tooth extraction. This short procedure left me in recovery mode, but has also given me the unique gift of slowness.

Initially this didn’t feel like a gift, as I struggled through the fog left by anesthetic, pain and analgesic, however as the fluffy white curtain began to part I saw a different quality in the world around me.

I wrote this one morning;

5 days till we remember and celebrate Christ’s birth. The reminder that he is with us, incarnate amongst us. He moved into the neighbourhood, he became flesh and blood. He identified with us, his creation. He took on our infirmities, our frailness, but also our beauty, our confusion, our everything. 

In the midst of the multi-cultural concrete jungle is His presence, his stamp, forever with us. He took on the reflection of his beauty in us. Lesser than his own beauty but a recognition and redemption of ours. We can see beauty in the green amongst the grey. Yet more beauty is revealed in the people around us. Perhaps a deeper more intricate beauty, one that is often hidden, yet has the potential for such healing and joy and freedom. Christ, intricately linked with his creation, perfecting his image in us.

To see the hidden beauty in others is an exercise in slowness. Perhaps as I practice it I’ll get quicker, but I’m not sure that I want to. As you slow down and watch people the intricate acts of everyday kindness are breathtaking. The father making sure his young daughter doesn’t fall over on the tram; people making space for each other to eat lunch on a crowded bench at a café; a volunteer giving up their Christmas with family to make family with those who have none; the passion in the eyes of someone struggling with addiction as they recall stories of another time; the wonder in the eyes of a young child, that ends up consuming their whole body as they point out city decorations; the smile of a waitress, no doubt run off her feet, as she serves yet another coffee; kind words spoken in conversations with strangers; and the list goes on.


Perhaps an even more difficult task is to recognize this same beauty in those we connect with, our nearest and dearest for whom in the hustle and bustle of the everyday can easily get taken for granted. The gift of slowness gives us the opportunity to watch, to notice the little things and if you are incredibly lucky, slowness will even allow you to lock eyes with a loved one and drink then deep into your very being.

This pre-Christmas time has been a different one for me, not filled so much with the frenetic pace of preparation but a preparation has been happening none the less. One that I hope will bear more lasting fruit than many of our Christmas activities. Fruit that perhaps we all need, as the realities of radicalized disaffected young people comes closer to home. The incarnation which we celebrate at Christmas is a reminder of hidden beauty that has been revealed, not for its own sake, not in a pretentious ‘look at me’ way, but revealed to remind us of who we are created to be. It’s a beauty that can change the world. It is a beauty that must change the world.

Advance Australian Christianity?

The theme of this year’s Ethos Conference was Advance Australian Christianity Where? God’s Public People in Secular, Pluralist Australia. The focus was on discovering the place of thoughtful people of faith in some of the most pressing issues facing our world including; climate change, relationship with Aboriginal people, secularism as a force, welfare and the growth of cities just to name a few. Below are some of the highlights that I picked out during the conference. I have attempted to offer just a summary although there are some of my perspectives dotted throughout.

Ray Minniecon

There were a few threads running through Uncle Ray’s talk at the conference. He shared personal stories of feeling burnt out, like an old car by the side of the road. And the encouragement of an old Aboriginal elder who simply called him to get inside the church and other institutions and make them more Aboriginal friendly. He shared stories of being effected by walking with men of the stolen generation, knowing their suffering in his bones. He has also felt deeply the need to recognize the Indigenous soldiers who fought and died for our country. This issue as well as working with World Vision on local Indigenous issues has taught Ray how politically volatile it can be to move in Indigenous affairs.

Ray also shared a history not many of us would think of. Next year is 50 years since the 1967 referendum that included Aboriginal people. Gough Whitlam was the PM that probably did the most good and the most harm for Indigenous people. He began the process of land rights but also came to the Aboriginal churches and handpicked the leaders to work on Aboriginal education, health and housing policies. The policies came from the vision of ministers of God. However, the church was left without leaders.

Over those 50 years Aboriginal people have had to adjust very quickly to personal, family, cultural and political changes. Ray asserts they have done a great job!

Ray reminded us that the Bible is not ours, sometimes we own it in an unhelpful way. Pointing to Scripture passages like Deuteronomy 32:7-8, Ray explained that it was the Church through Pope Urban in 1095 that instituted the Doctrine of Discovery which so pervaded the European culture, justifying invasion and the proclamation of Terra Nullius on the basis of not being Christian or (my words) not being like us.

Zed Talks – A Secular Age and Australia

It was helpful to hear the cultural mix from which Zadok emerged (one of the Ethos publications.) It was in the mid 70’s during the ferment of the Whitlam years as a somewhat quiet Australia was forced to interact with changing family law, affirmation of art, withdrawal from Vietnam, free tertiary education (don’t I wish) and the list goes on. Zadok came onto the scene to help Christians address these issues and ever since it has been a voice engaging both the centre left and centre right of the Australian political divide, attempting to provide a different voice.

Mark Brett lead a great reflection on Psalm 94 as a hermeneutics of protest. A quote from the Psalm resonates with feelings on both side of the political divide. ‘Wrong changes places with right and the courts host injustice.’ Connecting with my own thoughts as people of faith the Psalm points us to a political influence without dominance, lest we become too nostalgic for Christendom. On the surface that sounds very unappealing but the pull towards thinking we have some right in the public square is subtle yet still very strong.

Focusing on protest the Psalm is a lament to God, not to the King and it doesn’t take place in the public square. It points us towards the realisation of God’s Kingdom. However, we are not excused from the public debate but we go expectantly looking for God’s gracious acts. It is he who will repair the world and we are called to join with him in upholding the rights of the widow, orphan and the marginalized. This allows us to connect with others who are searching for the common good. Biblical wisdom literature leads us to expect these kinds of social interactions.

Angela Sawyer helped us reflect on the phenomenon of the ex-churched. She has settled on the term exiles, picking up a contemporary motif used by authors like Michael Frost. Many who are leaving church are not giving up on spirituality, simply the organized form of religion. She told the not unfamiliar story of a couple reflecting on their church experience and moving to the point of feeling physically ill before, during and after the service. She challenged the stereotypes around church leavers. They are often people who have been very committed to a church but have found it unappealing to continue attending for a whole variety of reasons. For some they had to leave to continue growing as explained in M Scott Pecks stages of faith.

We were left with two very important considerations, what does community look like for the post-church and how do they have a voice on public issues. The first question is one very close to my heart. My wife and I are in the church leaver but still very active in the faith category. We have not been able to settle in a traditional church for a long time, opting for small church expressions in houses, shops, pubs and parks. Expressions that may not even look or feel like church, yet have a deep sense of the divine.

Gordon Preece followed this with a very thoughtful interaction with Taylor’s A Secular Age. Pointing to the transfiguration as a better motif for us to invest in than the concept of transformation. Transfiguration suggests the holy coming down from the mountain and interacting with the stubbornness of evil. It is non-triumphalistic but allows us to enter into the world with hope having encountered the divine and allowing us to look forward to the promise of resurrection.

He pointed to the recently departed Leonard Cohen and his sense that the transcendent comes from fracture. There is glory shining in weakness. May this always be true! Science and the secular age has missed this concept largely because meta-narrative, any overarching story, particularly the gospel has been rejected. In its place is a story of subtraction, coming from Darwin (although his work does fit with a theory of evolution and providence) and expounded by Dawkins and Hitchins. Into this mix Taylor sees the inadequacy of Sunday school faith and points to the question of how do we prepare ourselves for a cross-pressured world. Preece sees the need for the rediscovery of beauty and myth as part of our tradition, linking this to the image of the transfiguration.

Steve Hatfield-Dodds and Jonathan Cornford brought ecology and economics together in two fascinating talks highlighting climate change and the need to live simply as a response. Interestingly Steve pointed out that growth is not the issue, it lifts living standards however the distribution of benefits is not equitable and that is a cause for concern. He believes sustainability and economic growth can be partners. One of the keys issues is that the advice on climate change has been coming in silos and is effected by special interest politics. The interest of the people is often forgotten. Hatfield-Dodds believes there is a middle ground in the climate change debate that could encourage institutional change without making it a moral issue. He believes that when it becomes a moral issue it can feel like we are trying to convert the person that is wrong. There is room for a diversity of values in this space and perhaps a common ground approach is better than a political solution. As we know, hope motivates ie hope of a better world and fear de-motivates.

Jonathan Cornford took an ecclesiological and missiological look at 2 crises, the global ecological challenge and the challenge of Christianity in the West. He sees that they come from the same root, our mode of living. The modern social imaginary has seen the economy become an objectified reality. If you stop and think about it most things are referred to in economic terms both at a personal and societal level. Our primary response as people of faith needs to be the modelling of a different way. We are a bit behind in this endeavor and people in the broader community may only now see us getting on board with where everyone else is up to in regards to climate issues.

Cornford offers 3 perspectives to help us model a different way. We have the ability to see the world through an entirely different lens, a new imaginary based on the biblical world view that embraces both the spiritual and material. 2. We need to re-orientate our central mission and vocation to embrace the material life. This helps us identify with the human community and the whole community of creation. Thirdly as a response to the ecological crisis we need to embrace a lower material standard of living, but a higher quality of life, (author comment – challenging the economic definition of flourishing).

Lin Hatfield-Dodds invited us to work on ways to, as theologians be inside faith based service organisations, sitting on boards helping theological reflection to happen. A number of faith based services are wanting to rediscover their roots, however currently many pragmatic decisions are being made without reference to faith. She painted a beautiful Kingdom orientated, shalom inspired vision of the world where churches are advocating for good jobs, housing, dental care etc. She reminded us that people of faith are not the only ones working toward these ends. Controversially she is an advocate of competition in the community sector as it relates to choice for the consumer.

I also had the privilege of running a workshop on Shalom and the City, for me the picture and possibility of shalom is so enticing, it has become my imaginary, the lens through which I view the world. I shared how cities can be both places of possibility and pain. That through the New Urban Agenda and the shalom lens people of faith can humbly enter the conversation around what makes great cities. If you are interested have a read of Isaiah 65:17-25 and think about how it applies to your city.

The Ethos conference was full of great people, great ideas and determination to put ideas into practice. It will be interesting in coming months to track where the ideas go.

President Elect Donald Trump; Deliverer or Huckster

I wonder if Trump becoming president of the United States will be one of those moments where people will remember exactly where they were when they heard? Me, I was out at the dog park joining others in stunned amazement at a celebrity billionaire’s journey to the most powerful position in the Western world. Whatever you think of Trump, he certainly defied the odds, the pollsters, the media and much of the academic world. His brash, divisive, unconventional, vitriolic style struck a chord with a dis-enfranchised majority of white working class men. Those that have been hurt by globalization, free trade and whom for a wide variety of reasons are wary of difference. However, as a global population can we afford to let division win the day?

Disturbingly the most extreme of those dis-enfranchised, anti-establishmentarians are already seeing Trump’s win as permission to act on latent racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. I was saddened to read social media posts collected from around America, describing hate crimes taking place as little as 24hrs after trump’s win was announced. School children were telling African Americans and Latinos that they should be sitting up the back of the bus. Caucasian males threatening women of different nationalities at petrol stations. A group of men on a subway trying to grope women. And the one that almost brought me to tears, a Muslim woman being told to hang herself with her hijab.

If this is the experience of so many so soon after the election I don’t blame people for being fearful of what 4 years of a Trump presidency could unleash. Not only from his policies which seem sketchy and ill-informed, populist yet potentially dangerous but from his supporters who feel he is a fresh face with fresh vision inserted into an old and staid political institution. Kumunda Simpson lecturer in international relations at LaTrobe university sees Trump’s win as evidence that many Americans have lost faith in the political class. With both Republicans and Democrats ignoring just how much their policies of the past 2 decades have hurt a significant number of people.

Liam Kennedy, professor in American Studies at University College Dublin doesn’t see Trump to be the hope of middle America, but rather a well-practiced familiar archetype, the trickster or huckster. Kennedy sees Trump’s campaign as one that has divided America, with Trump himself not being a pathogen but a symptom of and a channel for those with large grievances and insecurities about the current direction of America. With slogans such as ‘make America great again’ and answers to complex questions around policy such as, ‘trust me’ Trump has won the confidence of many. Kennedy believes that Trump will abuse their trust and confidence, capitalizing on his supporters’ gullibility. Despite their belief that his ‘tells it like it is’ personae is in opposition to what they see as a manipulative Washington.

According to Professor of Law at Drake University, Anthony J. Gaughan, in retrospect there were 5 key elements that pointed to a Trump Victory;

  1. A silent trump vote: In addition to issues with polling methodology, it is clear that many Trump voters choose not to divulge their opinion. The Polls also underestimated the damage caused to the Clinton campaign by the re-opening of the email scandal by the FBI.
  2. Celebrity beat organization: It is usual for both sides of politics to run ‘Get out and vote’ campaigns, Trump didn’t do this, relying on his 100% recognition after 30 years in the public eye.
  3. Populist vote against immigration and trade: Trump’s campaign was based on hostility towards liberal immigration and free trade. Doing well in traditionally blue states (Democrats), he knew the hostility ran deep and he was able to exploit it.
  4. Outsiders against insiders: He is the first to become President-elect with no political experience since Dwight Eisenhower, however he is the 4th in a row to be considered an outsider to the establishment. With Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barak Obama all being seen this way.
  5. America the divided: The election has shown that America is deeply divided along racial, cultural, gender and class lines, a question that hangs in the balance; will Trump work to genuinely unite the country or continue to exploit the division?


Only time will give us the answer to that question. In the mean-time as people of goodwill what are we to do with this now obvious divide in not only America but all over the Western world? Both Brexit and the political swing to the right in places like Australia are showing a desire among many for a more insular nationalistic approach to government and life generally. Has the globalization experiment failed? Are we destined to look only to our nation’s interests?

From where I sit in the midst of a very multicultural community, this feels like a dark and dangerously separatist position, however to others it speaks of freedom, autonomy and in some sense a psychological release from the issues that plague the majority world. Wherever you sit on this continuum as a person of goodwill it is time to rise above the political divide, the traditional categories of left and right are too limiting if we are to overcome our division and work together towards a world where everyone can flourish and reach their potential.

Just as I have concern about the vitriol of the right, currently personified by President-elect Donald Trump I am equally troubled by the anger I perceive in many of my left leaning friends. Fearful, perhaps in their own way of what the world could look like in 4 short years from now. The tone we take in the debate towards a better world, must be equal to the outcome we desire. Wherever we sit politically we musn’t lose sight of what it means for all humanity to progressively move towards flourishing as individuals and as societies. I don’t believe for a moment that this is primarily an economic question, first and foremost it is a question of the heart and the will. In the midst of what is an obvious political divide are we able to stay open to the other and invest in them, realizing our own wellbeing or ability to flourish is tied to theirs.

Relating for Gold (Part 4)

Creating Relational Proximity

Many of us tend to give airplay to the fact that relationships are important yet so often we behave in a way that betrays this understanding. I suspect part of the reason for this is the intangible nature of relating to others. It’s also just plain hard work. Dr Michael Schluter, founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relational Thinking Network has spent the last 30 years exploring the centrality of relationships in the Biblical witness. He has determined that the theme of relationships are at the heart of God’s intention for the world. Our relationship to Him, with each other and with the world around us. Yet our world is out of kilter in part because relationships have been bumped from front and centre, most often by economics. Schluter has worked on various initiatives aimed at describing what different sectors of society could look like if relationships were at the centre. He has also helped us to gain a tangible understanding about what is happening in the space between two entities.

Put simply The Relational Proximity Framework consists of the 5 dimensions or levers of a relationship; directness, continuity, multiplexity, commonality and parity. They relate to the domains of a relationship and they have a felt outcome.[1] The following is a little subjective as we explore the experience of the relationship in terms of the type of relationship. The levels of each dimension vary and would be different in a spouse relationship compared with a business one.

As we go through the 5 dimensions think about them in terms of one of your significant relationships.

Directness – Refers to the amount and types of contact. Is there enough? Is it face to face, or is the communication only mediated? Is the communication clear or are there cross purposes? Is the communication intellectual or is there emotional empathy?

Continuity – Is about shared story or history over time. A few years ago I saw my cousin for the first time in 10 years. During our later teen years we had a close relationship, often spending the weekends at each others place. We then both got married and our paths separated. When we reconnected, after some momentary awkwardness, we picked up right where we left off. Other relationships aren’t like this, I heard rumour that my High School graduating year is organising a 25th Year Reunion. I haven’t seen or had contact with most of the people in my year over those 25 years… awkward!

Continuity looks at foundation or history, have there been time gaps in the relationship’s development? It also looks to the future do you anticipate a positive future or are the difficulties going to swamp the connection? A sense of belonging is also important for continuity. Do both parties have loyalty to the relationship and do they hold the relationship at the same level of importance?

Multiplexity – Refers to the breadth and depth of knowledge that you possess about each other. How much do you know about the other person and how they will respond in different circumstances? What do you know about their background and their culture? Do you understand why they act the way they do? What do you know about their skills, interests and talents? Gaining this sort of knowledge about the other person presumes a level of trust and openness to each other and so multiplexity is also concerned with appreciation. Does each party feel known and appreciated by the other?

Once every couple of months I catch up with a group of guys to talk about life’s journey and how we are responding to that journey. Although we don’t see each other all that often we each know a lot about the other men’s lives and can input into situations they are facing with a high degree of accuracy. We have spent the time and made the commitment to develop the trust that allows us the freedom to be open and honest with each other.

Parity – Is to do with the distribution of power in a relationship. As we think about working with marginalised communities parity is very important to consider. When a trained social or community worker or even someone volunteering with a church welfare program is connecting with a client or participant the power tends to be all in the workers favour. These encounters can tend to be very disempowering for those for whom we are seeking to make a difference. Thinking about your significant relationship, can each person take action without fear of being told off? Are you consulted, heard? Can you influence the relationship?

The perception of fairness is also very important. Is it fair that a job network provider can decide whether someone is entitled to their Centrelink benefits or not? Is there excessive power from one side? Are the risks and rewards shared fairly in the relationship? Respect is key, is each party valued by the other, for who they are and what they have to offer?

The relationship between CEO and board is always interesting. As a CEO I was working on a project with a board member and I found my frustration levels increasing. We stopped and took the time to talk it through. I felt that the parity was out because I perceived I was taking the time and financial risk and if things went south the fallout would affect me more. On talking it through I realised the board member was making considerable sacrifice to be a part of the project and in fact we were both equally committed to its outcome.

Commonality – Looks to the future, are there shared goals? What will get in the way of achieving them? Is there enough common purpose to overcome the difficulties? Does each party have similar commitment to the goals? Does your connection go beyond achieving the goals? Is the energy created greater than the sum of the parts? Do you have a convergence of values and spirit that almost doesn’t need a goal?

Essentially commonality asks what does the future look like? Is there a shared path towards it? Many married couples can struggle once the kids leave home and commonality can be a part of that struggle. When the kids are at home the common goals are often around raising the family and making sure they are safe and well cared for. As this role changes couples can find it difficult to re-orientate to a shared future outside the kids.

The Relational Proximity Framework is a helpful way to think about the ‘helping’ relationships that we have and check in to make sure our connection with others is empowering them to move forward, not leaving them frustrated and feeling unheard. For Steve being heard and feeling valued were keys to unlocking the gold that was buried under layers of hurt and feelings of being misunderstood.


A local community can be described as a place where there is an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world. As we know the relational web in our communities is broken, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction affecting individuals, families and the very fabric of society. However as people of faith we recognise that God is present in each individual and there are Kingdom possibilities in every community. Each person and every community has gold to be discovered, for many this gold is hidden under layers of poverty, unemployment and a raft of social issues, leaving the individual lost, alone and in pain. To unearth the gold we need to focus on the strengths of individuals and communities. In addition we need to help these strengths come together around a common planning table that will help inspire a community to move towards God’s picture of it. The most effective way to build and work towards this common picture is to foster healthy connections that reflect the importance God puts on relationships.

My mate Steve struggled to find a place in life, but slowly over time as our relationship with him deepened a beautiful man emerged who despite many ups and downs was able to make a positive difference in the lives of many. Might we hold the same high view of people that God does and seek to unearth the gold that is there individuals and our communities.

[1] Various in house training modules, the concept first appeared in Michael Schluter & David Lee, The R Factor (London, Hodder & Stoughton Religious, 1993).

Relating for Gold (Part3)

Relating for Gold (Part 3)


Five Steps to Whole Community Mobilisation

Suddenly by employing AI and ABCD someone in Steve’s position has the potential to be caught up in a process that perhaps for the first time encourages them to see themselves as a valued and needed member of a local community. For those of us who are reasonably functional we can take that perspective for granted, but for someone on the margins such as Steve, that realisation is profound, potentially life changing.

Kretzman and McKnight outline a 5 step approach to classic ABCD. Many communities are picking up on the principle of working from a strengths approach but not necessarily employing all 5 steps. However for our purposes understanding the original methodology will help in its application.

Step 1 – Asset Mapping: As described above the process of creating a register of skills and perspectives is instrumental in helping each person feel that they have a worthwhile contribution to make. A church with a robust Kingdom theology and appropriate orientation towards the world would be in a good position to facilitate such a process, in fact to be key in all 5 steps. As completion of the register nears the community can then ask the question what resources do we have to tackle the concerns in front of us.[1]

Step 2 – Building Relationships: Healthy connections are key to the success of this process. Traditionally churches have done well at the fostering of internal relationships, this skill can now be turned outward to help the community construct meaningful connections. These networks could be between individuals, or between any of the 3 layers of the community. Meals and other informal gatherings allow the opportunity for trust to grow and people to find common ground. Celebration is also another key way to foster the building of relationships. Because of the centrality of relationships to the CD process this paper will dedicate a section to examining how to build what’s called ‘relational proximity.’

Step 3 – Economic Development and Information Sharing: Many parts of local communities are depressed economically, with people suffering from unemployment or under-employment. As people become aware of the skills they have, their ability to start micro enterprises increases, which in turn increases confidence and the negative cycle of poverty can begin to be turned around. Businesses, associations and institutions are also encouraged to as much as possible source what they need locally, helping to stimulate the local economy.[2] This has many positive effects, including reducing greenhouse gas emission as goods are not being transported large distances into the community.

Communication is also key to successful community building. When people lived in a village, the community hub was the well, everyday most people would need to go to the well, so it was not uncommon to see people sitting and talking discussing current issues. Today communication nodes are more complicated however the information flow needs to be tracked through local papers, community radio and the ‘grapevine.’ These are also avenues to actively promote new messages.

In Pakenham there were a couple of key communication nodes, the publican at the bottom pub and the barber. I found the barbershop a fascinating phenomenon, the barber was fourth generation and the old men of the town would gather at the shop, sure for haircuts but I suspect more to have a chat and a catch up on what was happening in the town. So if we wanted to promote a project, I would often talk with him and if he came on board you knew the informal chain of communication would get worked. We were also regularly in the local papers, with the journalists beginning to chase us for stories at certain times of the year.



Step 4 – Community Visioning: If we are working to see community regeneration, this step is vital. The community begins to come together around the creating of a shared identity, vision and values. Without this common thread the process of regeneration can stall and people can turn inwards and the possibility of a fuller community experience so necessary for human flourishing is diminished. It is important that everyone is invited to the planning table, especially the marginalised. These meetings are future focused and build on the foundation of AI allowing people to voice their aspirations. Typically in these sorts of meetings common themes are discovered which begin to set a course of action for the community. It is important to invite buy-in to this process and its outcomes so people are invested and willing to work together toward change. It is important that the change envisioned is grounded and not excessively future orientated[3] as this allows people to enjoy early success and provides motivation for future endeavours.

Step 5 – Leveraging Outside Resources: As a community develops there may be the need to enlist specialist services, which the community doesn’t have. It is essential that this is the last step in the process.[4] Many communities look at what they are lacking and lament that ‘they should fix it.’ This attitude locks these communities in poverty as they wait for a magic handout. The community working through the ABCD process has become an empowered community and instead of expecting a handout to fix the community’s issues, they look to partner with the provider of the services they need. The nature of relationship with outside help is vastly different to that of a needy community putting out their hand.[5]

Another way of expressing ABCD is Asset Based Community Driven, it is essential that the work of regeneration is done by the community, not for it. This approach challenges the welfare models predominant in the social services. Many of these models have a biblical root, where we are told to feed the hungry, look after the poor and so on. Purely handing out goods and services is a misunderstanding of this biblical mandate. For the most part when the Bible talks about the alleviation of poverty it is so individuals and the community can participate socially and economically in the broader society. A key to ABCD and preparing people for involvement in this kind of enterprise is relationships. In poorer communities hope has quite often gone missing. There is very little belief that things can ever be any different, personally or for the community. As relationships are developed and trust grows there is the opportunity to feed in an alternate message.

[1] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 346.

[2] Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 68.

[3] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 352.

[4] Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 69.

[5] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 354.

Relating for Gold (Part 2)

The Rise of Localism

Whilst not subscribing to every aspect of ‘localism,’ as a political philosophy and economic strategy it has something of merit to offer. As its name suggests, Localism prioritises the local. It supports local production and consumption of goods, local control of Government, production of local history, culture and the forming of a local identity.[1]

Proponents of this thinking tend to favour the local over the regional, national or global interests, a better way maybe to follow the old adage of ‘think global and act local.’ Meaning in this instance we can promote the local with an eye to broader concerns. Local Government is beginning to pick up on these notions, not only looking to strengthen the identity and economy of a municipality but to foster a place based approach, which recognises smaller hubs of community and seeks to empower them.

Media expression is also picking up the concept of the local with the rise of what is know as hyper local journalism. Yarraranges,tv is a burgeoning website focused on the telling of local stories for the purpose of building familiarity and relationships between members of the community.[2] In and of itself the telling of story is important to cement identity and create commonality, however with the further aim of building local connections, storytelling takes on a deeper and increasingly significant role in the community.

Localism is one way to help us understand the importance and to motivate us to be part of the rebuilding of the relational fabric of our communities. I can’t help wondering how different life might have been for my mate Steve, if that fabric had been stronger.


I first met Steve at our Op Shop in Pakenham. Big House Communities the missional endeavour that Amy (my wife) and I were leading, after a few years of operating out of our house, with no public space, had finally managed to secure a double shop front. We used the space to sell clothes, furniture, books, bric-a-brac and a host of other items. Then in the spacious back room we were able to create a lounge area and a kitchen space. Each week day a small team of volunteers would make sandwiches or soup, sometimes a cake, which would all be available for those that needed a feed, or community or just a place to come and sit and be.

One day a particularly rough looking man came for a sandwich. His grey hair was dirty and messy, his skin was a funny yellow colour, with tattoos covering his arms. He arrived with his two best mates Collie and Taebo who waited patiently outside with a bowl of water. Steve had lived a tough life, I suspect someone who just couldn’t find their fit in the world. He had been in and out of prison for various robberies and assault and was currently living in the shed of a suspected paedophile.

Over time a relationship began to form between Steve and a few of us in Big House. He eventually accepted an offer to stay with one of our families. It wasn’t long till he had bonded with the kids and began to feel somewhat at home. The journey wasn’t always simple and there were a few hiccups along the way, however in all of this process a new Steve began to emerge. We saw a kind, articulate man who loved to help others. There were constant stories of him working in people’s gardens, building planter boxes and generally being around if people needed a helping hand. The first day he helped at the Op Shop saw him showered, hair tied back and a huge smile on his face as he set off to vacuum the whole shop.

Life was never simple for Steve, despite seeing the colour of his skin change and him coming to faith, he eventually died of alcohol related causes and experienced many ups and downs along the way.

For me, Steve’s story raises a few questions; What are the expectations that we have of a transformed life? As Bart Campolo (now a Humanist Chaplain) said a few years ago at a Surrender Conference, ‘his ticket has already been punched.’ Campolo was referring to people like Steve who have lived a very different life to most of us and are fairly entrenched in that life, to the point that they may not be able to make a complete break from it, or at the very least will continue to wear the physical and emotional consequences of chronic alcohol and drug abuse and criminal activity. Taking into account the complexities of working with people like Steve what are some guiding principles and methodology that will help us live and demonstrate the essence of the good news we are bearers of?

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)

For many, thinking about community development in a Western context is a bit of a conundrum. Traditionally CD is thought about in the third (or developing) world and has economic implications. This is also true of ABCD in a Western setting however the economic lift is a by product of developing the social capital within the community. Put simply ABCD is a process for the empowerment of whole communities through the utilising of strengths within that community.[3] Though not a response peculiar to Christian thinking in our language ABCD recognises the inherent worth and value present in individuals, each person being a loved creation. It also affirms that within each community there are Kingdom possibilities yet to be unearthed.

In this way ABCD is akin to Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which is a reconfiguration of action research. It focuses on a 4-D cycle; Discovery, Dream, Design, Destiny / Delivery.[4] The research method is collaborative with participants and seeks to discover what is working well within the community, what people enjoy about where they live and what they would like to see happen over say the next 5 years. The underlying belief behind this approach is that organisations or in our case communities move toward what they study.[5] Related to this Whitney and Trosten-Bloom describe four beliefs about human nature and organising that form a basis for AI and highlight its roots in the research epistemology known as social constructivist theory.

  • People individual and collectively have unique gifts, skills and contributions to bring to life (this is also a core understanding for ABCD).
  • Organisations (and communities) are human and social systems, sources of unlimited relational capacity, created and lived in language.
  • The images we hold of the future are socially created and, once articulated, serve to guide individual and collective actions. (ABCD seeks to bring together these images or hopes for the future, encouraging active participation in their outworking)
  • Through human communication in the form of inquiry and dialogue, people can shift their attention and action away from problem analysis to lift up worthy ideals and productive possibilities for the future.[6]

ABCD builds on this and values the contribution of 3 levels within the community; individuals, organisations and institutions. Kretzman and McKnight emphasise that everyone within a community has something to offer to build it up. This could be in the form of a gift, skill, perspective or some other talent. They especially include the mentally and physically handicapped and those who sit on the margins within a community.[7] Kretzman and McKnight advocate for an intensive mapping of these assets alongside what organisations and institutions have to offer. In the pure form of this methodology individuals are interviewed to determine their skills, what they might be prepared to offer the community and even what they might be willing to teach others.[8]

The next level of contribution are organisations or what is called in the United States citizen associations. These include churches, sporting clubs, hobby groups, not for profits and so on.[9] Kretzman and McKnight believe that the possible contribution of these groups is greatly underestimated and that they can often be stretched passed their original purpose to become full contributors in the development process.[10]

This potential was demonstrated by recent work I was involved in with the City of Wyndham. They wanted to do a strength based community planning process and so we designed a set of questions that helped the community members identify the community groups around them, what they saw as their current strengths and how these strengths could be utilised to realise a vision for the community.


In this kind of mapping the third level in the community are formal institutions, including businesses, schools, libraries and hospitals. These are some of the most visible aspects in a community and it is relatively easy to list their contributions. It can be difficult to help them gain a holistic view of the community and so motivate them to be involved in the development of the whole community.[11] However in a local context I believe this conversation is becoming easier as placed based approaches to development are gaining momentum.

ABCD Principles

(Next week we’ll unpack the principles of ABCD and introduce the relational proximity framework)

[1] “Localism (Politics),” Wikipedia, last modified July 17, 2015, accessed August 4, 2015,

[2] “About Us, ”, last modified 2015, accessed 4 August 2015,

[3] John Kretzman and John McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilising a Communitys Assets (Chicago, IL: ACTA, 1993), 1.

[4] Fiona Cram, “Appreciative Inquiry” MAI Review, 3 (2010): 1.

[5] Cooperrider, Whitney & Stavros (2003) cited in, Cram, “Appreciative Inquiry,” 1

[6] Whitney and Trsten-Bloom (2003) cited in Cram “Appreciative Inquiry,” 2.

[7] Andre M. Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom: An Argument for Asset Based Community Development in local communities as a practical expression of the Kingdom’s advance” (MA Minor Thesis, University of Divinity, 2012), 66.

[8] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 6-7.

[9] Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 66.

[10] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 6.

[11] Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 8.

Relating for Gold (Part1)

Over the next few weeks I’d like to share with you an article I have written on the importance of Asset Based Community Development and Relational Thinking in relation to strengthening individuals in the context of working with marginalised communities.



I wonder how do you see the people that you work with? What are the views you hold of the communities that you seek to change? As you reflect on your answers to these questions, a challenge for us in the thrust and parry of the everyday of caring community work, is to remember that each person we come across, whether an old friend, work colleague or a new connection from the street has inherent worth, because they are a loved creation of our creative God. Each one is made in His image and innately reflects something of the divine (Ps8:4-9). However for some, this spark of gold is hidden under layers of hurt, rejection, pain and heartbreak.

If we are to be true to the high value God bestows on humankind, we need a framework that will help us dig below the surface that elements such as emotional and existential pain present. Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)[1] together with Relational Thinking (RT)[2] establishes such a framework and provides for us a rationale and demonstrable methodology or set of principles for our community work.

Through the exploration of community I will unpack the importance of local connections and how they unearth hidden strengths, opening the door for personal and community empowerment. This process will help to shape a theology of engagement that recognises God’s Kingdom is in the world and that he invites each one to play a part in its advancement.

Local Communities

Think with me for a moment about your local community, either where you live or where your work is based. What are the elements that make up that community? Sometimes it’s hard to stop and analyse the waters that we swim in or the air we breathe. In each of our communities there will be elements that seek to meet the needs we have, whether they present as physical, emotional or spiritual. These include the business community, schools, medical care, friends and family, sporting clubs and other varieties, churches and the religious expressions of other faith communities, libraries, local government, social services, media outlets and so on.

If these elements of the community are working well and in harmony, they form an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world.[3] If you like, a safety net of relationships has been established which affords the individual the opportunity to explore more of their external and internal worlds. There may even be the opportunity to explore new abilities in this context.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 2.52.55 pm

Figure 1 Jane’s Community. The ideal community recognises the individual placing them in a relational web, which provides for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs and those of their family.

Unfortunately we know only too well that our communities aren’t like this and in fact the relational web that provides this safety is broken in so many places. The causes of this rupture are numerous including; individualism, consumerism, family breakdown, domestic violence, tall poppy syndrome, selfishness, addictions of various types and the list goes on. The results are equally as devastating both for individual psyches and communities more generally.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 2.53.55 pm

Figure 2 Effects of the Broken Web. These are just a few of the results of a broken relational web, as we look at our communities the story is way too familiar.

During the time I spent leading a missional community in Pakenham, on the South Eastern outskirts of Melbourne, I sat on the welfare committee of one of the local primary schools. Each Wednesday of the school term we gathered in the staffroom to work through solutions to some of the most concerning issues that the young students were facing. One morning we discussed the unfortunate divide present in many families and its effects on the children. Pakenham was a sleeper suburb with over 70% of the population leaving the community everyday to go to work. It was also one of the fastest growing suburbs in Australia. These two factors had a number of immediate implications. Firstly it meant that many parents spent long hours each week commuting up to 120km a day into the CBD. As well the time away from the community often led to the focus of the parent’s lives being elsewhere, even recreation could be removed from the place where there house was situated. On the other side of the equation the children were in the community. They lived their lives in the local community, were encouraged to become active in it, learnt about its history. In a sense made their ‘home’ in the community. We saw direct links between this disconnect and children ‘acting out.’ They couldn’t name it, yet the divided focus they were asked to live with and the confusion it caused was palpable.

Even within a household the relational web can be broken leaving the members floating and feeling disconnected from each other and broader society. Some would argue if the basic building block of a community is broken, ie the household, is there any point looking to a more utopian hope for our communities. Sociologist Jim Ife believes that we must start there, as it provides inspiration and a framework for development that moves us from reaction to a focus on medium to long-term goals.[4] From a Biblical perspective the prophet Isaiah outlines what a community could look like. He sees a place where; there is joy, the young and old are valued, each have what they need in terms of shelter and food, there is a strong connection between work and purpose, and the people recognise their dependence on God (Isaiah 65:17-25). The building block for this type of world is the local community.

(next week I’ll show the importance of the local community and introduce you to Steve)

[1] Asset Based Community Development is a methodology for community worked designed byJohn Kretzman and John McKnight. They have established the ABCD Institute that furthers this thinking around the world (

[2] Relational Thinking refers to the work of Michael Schluter, from a Kingdom of God viewpoint he has designed a framework of Relational Proximity which can be used as a guide to establishing life promoting relationships (,

[3] Working definition of a community, developed and taught by Andre Van Eymeren.

[4] Jim Ife, Community Development: Creating Community Alternatives – Vision, Analysis and Practice (Melbourne: Longman, 1995), 98.