I’m honoured once again to be here and encourage the vital work of school chaplains in our community.
I run a charity which is now called Liberty Enterprises. Our mission is to work with the most disadvantaged members of our community including violent criminals, drug addicts, the homeless and champion them until they’re independently flourishing and successful. We purposefully engage with the most difficult cases that fall between the cracks of the welfare system.
It all started with a little cafe in Aspley called Cup From Above. When we opened the cafe it immediately became a kind of drop in centre for people with all sorts of extreme issues. At the start it was completely made up of volunteers working inside the cafe. But the charitable agenda quickly exceeded the business of the cafe. At it’s peak people in crisis would queue up outside the cafe before we opened in the morning at 7am and some days the entire day was spent supporting one person after another. In 2014 we started a role called the “Cafe Chaplain” to address this phenomenon. At the time the people we were supporting would refer to me as “the priest at the cafe”. It seemed a little too blasphemous for me to call myself the Cafe Priest so we went with Cafe Chaplain. We figured that the role of chappy already existed in the conscience of the public. When you’re at school and you’re struggling you “go see chappy”. But what do you do when you leave school? A lot of people don’t feel comfortable going to a church or a psychologist. We also found that many people coming in for help wanted some spiritual support so it was more than a pure secular social work role. But for those who just wanted help with housing or food they’d get the help without getting preached to. And every single day for 6 years now we’ve helped women who are escaping DV situations, the homeless, people in trouble with the law, people struggling with addiction. Every day.
Before Cup From Above I worked supporting people with disabilities and also extreme behavioural problems. I had a shift just near here in Morayfield about 11 years ago. I was working with this young woman who was under house arrest. This young lady had an extremely traumatic life which had driven her to making a bunch of poor choices which led to more trauma. She didn’t have any real family that she was close to. I was on the graveyard shift one night and she went into her quarters. I was reading a book late in the night when I heard the alarm go off. I ran over to her area and sure enough there was smoke coming out of her room. She had set fire to her bed and it had begun to already spread up the walls. I ran back grabbed the fire extinguisher and emptied it on the fire but it was already raging. I ran back, called emergency services then went back in to get her out. I grabbed her hand to take her out of the building but she refused. I yelled at her to get out. But she refused to move. I realised in that moment she hadn’t lit a fire… for her: this was a cremation. She wanted to die and it was because of the horrific abuse she had unjustly endured that had driven her to that point. And me yelling at her was only reinforcing her reason to burn….
I realised the only thing that was going to get her out alive was love and by somehow really connecting with her. I sat down next to her which fortunately meant I was underneath the thick dark smoke streaming from the blaze. I kicked off the conversation with some dumb question like, “How was your day?”. It was from experiences like this I’ve learnt it’s not about the words you use. In those situations people get the intent before the words are spoken. I suggested we move somewhere else so we could continue talking about it. She agreed and we went outside and talked it out. Noone got hurt and the firies arrived soon enough and put the fire out.
I learned through this experience that listening saves lives. I’ve had the fortune to discover this first hand in a critical moment where it was literally life or death. But it’s so much better if we can be there to really listen before the fire. Most people go through some sort of existential crisis, especially in their teens. We wanna know if our world is on fire is someone going to listen to us? Are we worth being saved? Does someone care enough about me to sit with me in the flames? Of course most of the fires aren’t literal flames. They’re generally divorce, addiction, abuse, bullying, mental illness. The challenges we all face in life.
We’ve supported many families over the years. It often worked out that the parents who are in crisis that we support have children who become victims of their crisis. And those kids were often being supported by their Chappy.
One family we used to support were all living in a caravan in Aspley. 7 people, 3 generations, in effectively 2 bedrooms. 2 bedrooms that were falling apart and leaking. They had next to no income because they had immigrated to Australia and received no benefits. The mother had a brain tumour and was terminal. She was trying to get out of the caravan park and into a house. They joined one of the programs at Cup From Above. The mum was the matriarch of her family and was only just managing to keep things together. We supported them until they found a safe home. After her family was all settled in her new home and her final prayer was answered her battle with her tumour was over and she passed away. She was an incredible woman and fought to stay alive until her family were safe. The local school chaplain from Aspley High, Lauren, had been supporting her daughters all the way through when they were living in dangerous conditions and finding it hard at school. She was also there to support them through their mother’s passing. It was truly brilliant support.
A few weeks ago we had another mother from Aspley who we supported out of a DV relationship until she was found a safe home. She’s a mother of 3 and needed a fridge, washing machine, food and other fundamental things for her family. Lauren, the Chappy from Aspley High organised a fridge for her and even got a team together to drop them off. This was over and above her requirement for being a school chaplain. Another example of brilliant support.
For the last few years I’ve been supporting one man in our community who used to be a drug dealer. He’s now doing really well. He often speaks with me and has begun helping me work with some of the difficult members of our community to help them turn their lives around. His sister was also an addict and we were hoping to reach her. She was a mother of 2 and addicted to Crystal Meth. A little over a year ago she tragically overdosed and passed away. It was just devastating for everyone involved. Crystal Meth is a serious issue in Australia today. 1.3 Million Australians have used or are using ICE. That’s 5% of the population of Australia. We have been supporting many people addicted to ice over the years. Anyone who has dealt with an ice addict knows this is no normal drug. Good people do dark things on ice. When I went to the funeral, Wal, the chaplain from Zillmere State School was there to support them. I found out there he’d already spoken to the son and the family and had lined up some professional counselling.
This is another example of what chaplains do but is over and above what is expected of them.
When you dig into it this has been going on since the word was first used. The word chaplain comes from the Latin word capella which means little cape. There was a Roman soldier who became a Christian in the 4th century. While he was stationed in what is now modern day France he came across a poor old beggar. He cut his military cloak in half and covered the beggar with it.
This is the legend that literally defines what a chaplain is. Someone who is selfless and cares for the least of these in our community. This is the beautiful heritage that echoes today in the role of school, and other chaplains. It’s not just a job but someone who embodies a beacon of hope and support in the community.
A few years ago we came across a study that found people with 6 to 10 healthy foundational relationships cited they were content and were less likely to struggle with the crises that people with less healthy relationships did. At the start of Cup From Above I would regularly hear from people in crisis who would come in for support that I was the only person they knew who cared about them. I remember thinking it was just hyperbole. How could their barista be the only person on the planet that cares about them? These people literally only knew other people who were struggling with severe issues like addiction, crime, homelessness and unemployability. I’ve now come to believe that we don’t have an addiction problem. We don’t have a housing problem. We don’t call homeless people houseless. They’re homeless. The difference between a house and a home is the healthy relationships under that roof. You can’t simply solve homelessness just by giving someone a home. What if the solution isn’t the solution? What if these problems are just symptoms of the problem. And we’re avoiding what we all know it really is and that’s becoming vulnerable and sitting down in the fire with someone who is really struggling and listening to them. Not helping someone from a place of economic, spiritual, vocational or ethical superiority but simply becoming an equal friend and listening.
We’ve shifted all our focus around restoring relational connections. We’ve found that the “solutions” naturally flow from the healthy relationships once they’re restored.
It’d be hard to quantify the total impact that our school chaplains collectively have. But I know first hand if the chaplains can effectively support them as kids then I don’t have to help them with severe addiction and other issues as adults. I see them doing this every day in the most difficult situations and the positive effects they’re having in the darkest corners of our communities.
Your investment here tonight is purchasing the ears and hearts of these chaplains for a pretty low cost to listen and be there when it’s needed. Listening saves lives.