It is convenient, for the sake of political argument, to perpetuate the stereotype of churches as gatherings of middle-class, middle-aged, mostly white, suburbanites on a Sunday morning.
It polarises the argument when the identified group – “the Church” – is simple to define, thus making the issue about compliance, or not. There are “people who attend” and, therefore, people who do not.
It may be convenient, but it is also a myth.
The stereotype fails to reflect the diversity throughout our church, and many others. This diversity is not just cultural, it is social and structural. This means that any conversation engaging with mandatory vaccination for faith communities needs to understand that we are as diverse as the communities in which we live and work.
The Uniting Church, like many other faith traditions, is deeply engaged in our communities. Our congregations run op shops and food banks, kitchens and play groups, community gardens and homework centres. Worship is the central act of our existence, but certainly not the only one.
When we talk about our congregations, our membership is far more comprehensive than Sunday worship and morning tea.
The church, at its best, exists for others, and especially those for whom the journey of our lives is difficult. During the pandemic, life has become more difficult for many.
At this moment, we are funding support ministries across the state for people still recovering from previous disasters – drought, bushfires, and floods. During the pandemic we are providing finance to university students and hampers to the communities of Dubbo, Wilcannia and Goodooga.
We have Parish Missions around NSW and the ACT; ask Wesley Mission, or Wayside Chapel, or Exodus Foundation who belongs and who does not. What does it mean to ask someone in need if they are vaccinated, before we offer a meal, or shelter, or safety?
The social justice arm of our church, Uniting, is engaged in aged care, as well as foster care, early learning centres, working with young people in need, with people who are differently abled, and with First Nations communities. The Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross is part of our Church’s life and ministry.
The cultural diversity of our community is echoed in our congregations. People gather for worship in Tongan, Mandarin, Fijian, Armenian, Korean, Swahili, Samoan, Indonesian, Cantonese, Tagalog as well as English, and these communities are growing. The next Moderator of our Church in NSW and the ACT is a Tongan Australian woman, Rev. Mata Havea Hiliau, reflecting the breadth and depth of our church.
We are working hard – and together – on communicating that vaccination is critical for everyone. We are using social media, emails, video links and worship services to emphasise the need for vaccination across our whole church. We have identified many of the cultural challenges before us, and that has been recognised by our state politicians, as well as our congregations.
For many of these communities, church is not just Sunday morning, but community at its most inclusive and comprehensive. Mandating vaccination needs to be understood through cultural lenses as well as political and health-based ones. There have been social media campaigns by some religious fringe groups, using faith and scripture in unhelpful, even destructive, ways, to undermine the need for vaccination.
For churches like ours, this is not some facile political argument about freedom, but about the radical shape of hospitality when we follow Jesus. We serve at cost to ourselves; we exist for the sake of serving others.
Once again, at our best, everyone is welcome. How we create a safe place for everyone is always a challenge, but that does not make the need for hospitality any less vital. We are absolutely committed to keeping people safe through vaccination and all the pandemic protocols.
However, the breadth of our churches, and the critical service they offer in our communities, require a more nuanced approach as we emerge from this phase of lockdown.
Our churches understand – perhaps better than most – the need to protect the vulnerable members of our community. We are committed to working with the government and other services for the sake of everyone around us.
We are profoundly committed to those whose lives are at risk, whose voices are silenced, whose hands appear empty. To these neighbours our door is open.