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Australian pastor and justice activist Jarrod McKenna was arrested four times last year, but has been described as ‘the sort of God botherer that you don’t mind being bothered by’. Justin Brierley meets him.
Most churches would consider it both a moral calamity and a PR disaster if their pastor was arrested and detained for any reason. The opposite is true for Jarrod McKenna’s Westcity Church in Perth. The media attention has resulted in a wave of young, unchurched Australians turning up on Sundays, intrigued by the activities of McKenna and his fellow activists, and the Jesus they say they represent.
This summer, at Calais and across Europe’s border points, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers has come into sharp focus. In Jarrod’s home country, immigration and asylum has long been a source of political debate, and the pastor has made a name for himself by opposing the draconian detention policies of the Australian government. His ‘Love Makes a Way’ campaign (whose oversized badge he is wearing for our interview) is aimed at shaming the authorities into ‘repenting’ of their treatment of asylum seekers.
It seems that McKenna was a born rebel. As a child he was known for his short temper, but becoming a Christian was transformative. ‘My early experiences of following Jesus were breaking up fights that I would otherwise have been in,’ he says.
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN INCREDIBLY MOVED BY SEEING THE CHURCH ACTUALLY RISK SOMETHING
His faith drove him towards a strong sense of campaigning on justice issues, something that runs in the life blood of the Anabaptist tradition he counts himself part of (albeit ‘a charismatic sacramental one’). Most recently it has led to the establishment of Common Grace, a network of Christians in Australia campaigning on social, economic and environmental issues. Perhaps McKenna’s particular concern for the immigrant also stems from the fact that his own father moved to Australia from Ireland and his mother’s family were Russian Jews.
‘In Australia we’re either colonised, colonisers, convicts or immigrants. So that’s who we are, and it’s funny how that makes up my story as well,’ he says.
Conversion hasn’t bred conformity, however. The unruly dreadlocks aren’t the only indication of the pastor’s unconventional approach to life. He’s crowdsourced a mortgage to repurpose a former drug den into a home for his family to live alongside 19 asylum seekers. He’s developed an unlikely friendship with one of Australia’s best known atheist comedian radio hosts and spends time with countercultural figures such as Billy Corgan of the rock band The Smashing Pumpkins.
There’s something infectiously attractive about the rebellious pastor. Whenever McKenna gets arrested following peaceful occupation-style protests on government property, the police are on his side, the magistrates let him go as soon as possible, and now over 200 other church leaders have also risked arrest as his movement has taken off. I doubt that Christ had dreadlocks, but something about McKenna is reminding many of his countrymen that Jesus was a rebel too, who famously got himself arrested.
Why were you arrested last year? That’s not usual behaviour for most pastors.
Australia is walking away from its international obligations to people fleeing war and persecution – commonly known as refugees or asylum seekers. In Australia in particular, there are over 200 children held indefinitely. Their futures are frozen in detention centres offshore. This is stuff that has been condemned by Amnesty International and the UN. The rate of self-harm is over 90% for children that are in detention. There have been cases of sexual abuse. As people who are seeking to live the life that God has showed us in Jesus, I’m not sure how we can keep silent.
So after seeking to meet with politicians and continually being turned away, some of us ‘God botherers’ decided that we’d pay them a visit, and I guess refused to leave (in the most amiable, respectable kind of way) until we got an answer on when these children will be released. That started in Sydney, in the immigration minister’s office.
This was all part of your ‘Love Makes a Way’ movement. You ended up getting arrested, and forcibly removed...
We did. But I’ve not been arrested in the past year without police shaking our hands first. We actually had a police officer say to us, ‘If you’ve got any more of those badges, I’d love one. But I can’t wear it while I’m at work.’ Police officers were literally in tears. Maybe it was our slightly out of tune hymn-singing; maybe it was the prayers for the police and what they do in the community. It really was worshipful as an experience, and I think that’s had a big impact. We had a situation in the first arrest where they left the prison cell doors open, which is very peculiar, and let me take my phone back to the cell. So it wasn’t Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, but it was tweets from the lock-up. We did a radio interview with one of Australia’s top comedians from within the cell, and it was a top trending topic on Twitter in Australia.
Are people surprised to find a Christian pastor fronting this kind of activism?
We have nuns in their 80s alongside Pentecostal mega-church pastors, alongside the local Anglican vicar, alongside evangelical Presbyterians. Seeing that mix of people and us all agree on something is quite remarkable, but also seeing us risk our reputation and future job prospects and tithing contributions on a Sunday. It has had a deep impact on the Australian psyche.
WHY WOULDN’T WE PLAY THE JESUS CARD EVERY SINGLE TIME?
People have been incredibly moved by seeing the Church actually risk something for people who are often considered lost and last and least in our society. In my own congregation we’ve seen a number of people come to Christ because they’ve seen church leaders get arrested. They rock up on Sunday and say, ‘We saw you getting taken off. If that’s what Christianity is about, I want in, because for me that looks more like Jesus.’ I find that very moving.
Where did your own Christian journey begin?
My own commitment happened around the age of 13, and I was baptised in the family swimming pool. Mum and Dad were part of a house church at the time, and people gathered early on a Sunday morning and sung ‘I’ve Decided to Follow Jesus’, as I went under the waters. I was a kid with dyslexia and ADD, and I dealt with not doing all that great at school by being quick with my tongue, and when that didn’t work, I was quick with my fists. I was depressed as a child, and it was a huge thing for me, realising that I had value, that God loved me and that that love which saves me is also something that we can live.
How has your faith developed?
I’m not sure if my faith is all that more complicated than those early 13-year-old commitments. God loved me so much that he gave himself for me and rose for me, and we’re invited to live that love.
If problematic, broken, messed-up people like me can get in on it, who else can’t? So I learned I couldn’t beat kids up, and my early experiences of following Jesus were breaking up fights that I would otherwise have been in.
I got on my bike and rode to school and said, ‘God, who are those people in my high school? Because I know you love them like you’ve loved me.’ I found myself in situations where the Holy Spirit works and you connect and you have the opportunity to serve people. My first youth group was my sister, myself and two other girls in the house church; by the time we were in Year 12 it had grown to 140 young people, and only eight of us with Christian parents.
You’ve also begun the First Home Project which involves sharing your house with a group of refugees and asylum seekers.
The project recently made the news because for the first time in history we crowdsourced our mortgage. We felt called to do it and my wife is much more faithful than me. Teresa is phenomenal. She was actually nominated for ‘West Australian of the Year’ last year and when we told one of the families that live with us, they said, ‘Oh no, why would they nominate her for worst Australian?’
Teresa responded to what the spirit was doing in our lives much quicker than I did, it took two dreams and a word from somebody in our congregation before I said, ‘Ok.’ We put an offer down on a place which used to be an old meth lab that we have since transformed into a place of hospitality and co-liberation and the beautiful things that get released in people’s lives.
Who are these people? Where have they come from?
They are the most phenomenal people. The best kept secret of our life is a) how much fun it is but b) how transforming it is for us. Our Lord says, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matthew 25:35). Jesus comes camouflaged as those needing safety and a place to be welcome.
There are no strings attached, this isn’t a sneaky way of doing evangelism, but people are so caught up in the love of God being embodied that they say ‘we want in on this’. So we are seeing people who have come out of detention who are putting their lives together and are now running their own ministry for people.
So evangelism happens in a natural way as people get a vision for Jesus?
Yes. When evangelism and social action get separated, both can become quite sick and anaemic.
In our post-Christendom setting, insisting on ‘the Way of Jesus’ means very little to people unless it’s actually connected with Jesus being ‘the Way’. But our proclamation of Jesus being the Way means even less to people if they don’t see it connected to ‘the Way of Jesus’.
So the Way of Jesus, and Jesus being the Way, when they come together, has a beauty that makes people lean in. Jesus is the best thing we’ve got going for us. I mean, why wouldn’t we play the Jesus card every single time?
This summer has seen many of our own headlines over migrants and refugees coming to Europe. How do we navigate between unfettered immigration and the gospel’s call for hospitality?
Faithfulness will always put you in a position that demands creativity. It demands that we respond on our knees, seeking the Holy Spirit. No one is talking about open borders, or a free-for-all. What we are talking about is being part of a network of nations that respond with a human rights framework that actually upholds the dignity of these people, instead of falling into the scapegoating and the ‘othering’ of people.
There are 55 million refugees in the world right now. If every nation closes in on itself then we will find these stories and traditions that have so much to give actually becoming something hate-filled and scary and turned in on itself. It is Martin Luther’s definition of sin: the human heart turned in on itself.
It is not a crime to seek asylum. If the Church is going to remember who we are, so we can be a picture of God’s future, we have to enter that creative space where we trust in how God has loved us, so that we can respond in ways that are good for all involved.
Follow Jarrod @jarrodmckenna and hear the full interview on Premier Christian Radio, Saturday 3rd October at 4pm.