First published in Time Out Sydney June 2014
Pastor Graham Long takes Andrew P Street through five decades of unconditional love
In 1964, Ted Noffs established the Wayside Chapel in a downtrodden area of Kings Cross. What started as a few chairs in a back room of a crumbling building has grown into the city’s foremost organisation providing frontline assistance and support for the city’s most marginalised people.
For the last decade the Wayside has been under the leadership of paster Graham Long, whose enthusiasm and good humour does nothing to hide his passionate advocacy for social justice, even as he’s dealing with the frantic preparations for Celebration Sunday.
“Actually, yeah, ‘frantic’ is not a bad word,” he laughs. “You go into these things thinking ‘this is a big occasion, we should do something’ and everybody’s got a great idea – until you get close and you think ‘god, who thought of all of this?’ But it will be absolutely enjoyable – when it’s over.”
He’s very clear on why it’s happening though. It’s because Wayside means a lot to people in Sydney – in the most direct, personal ways.
“For the ten years I’ve been here, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere – a party, a wedding, anywhere – where someone hasn’t come up to me and said ‘I was married at the Wayside’ or ‘my kid was buried at the Wayside’ or something like that. Ted Noffs did 18,000 weddings, although that was the days before civil celebrants, so if you were a Catholic and wanted to marry a Protestant Ted was the only show in town,” he chuckles. “But that’s still thousands and thousands of people touched by the Wayside.”
“And the other day I had Ita Buttrose telling me ‘oh, Ted had me working hard around there’ and Jonathon Coleman was telling me he used to sweep the footpath! So many people have been touched by the Wayside, so it would be a shame to let the 50th come and go. There’s enormous value in just stopping for a minute and being thankful that somebody’s here.”
Even when Wayside started Noffs’ determination to help those at the bottom at the pile has drawn condemnation from all sides: the church told Noffs he was wasting his time when he founded the Wayside, and there was even the possibility of arrests and closures when the Wayside decided to open a safe drug injecting room rather than leave people shooting up in the streets.
“We’ve been on the cutting edge many times,” he shrugs. “And we really suffered over that thing – but what it led to was the injecting centre, and that’s led to an 88 per cent reduction in overdose callouts, and deaths on the street have gone down from around 130 to about 12 a year. You couldn’t criticise it on rational grounds. But there are shock jocks and politicians whose job it is to peddle fear. That used to be the job of the church,” he laughs darkly. “Compassion is out of fashion.”
So Long’s noticed our immigration policies, then?
“Oh, there is nothing about our recent history that makes any sense whatsoever,” he declares. “We call these people detainees – but they’re prisoners! In PNG, they’re calling refugees clients. Clients! It would be laughable, if it wasn’t so sad. When you divide the world up into goodies and baddies, you divide your own soul.”
Language is something that Long is very aware of. Those that visit the Wayside are not clients, patrons, users, customers, or any other euphemism.
“We’ve never found the perfect collective noun,” he says, “but the one we use is ‘visitors’. Because when people visit your home, they’re visitors. They’re people, exactly like you and me.”
That’s what the Wayside offers, more than anything else: unconditional love.
“Most people who walk into Wayside believe they’re alone. And if you can overcome that sense of ‘I’m handling this on my own’, when you realise that there are others with you and you are there with others and for others, people just move towards health. We’ve seen it over and over,” he says. “We’ve seen people come to life, and it’s not because we have any sort of therapy going: what we’re creating is community.”
And once the 50th is passed?
“We’re very conscious that this is the beginning of the next 50 years. We’ve been significantly staffing up, and we’ve been building a lot of stuff very recently: we’ve created a garden up on the roof and homeless people can learn to grow their produce, and there’s bees up there as well so we create our own honey,” he enthuses.
“And we want to go further with that: one day when we’re rich and famous we want to build a greenhouse up there. And I have a bit of a dream that we’ll farm fish up there as well. I reckon it’s doable!”
He laughs heartily. “All we lack is a little bit of money, and if you say that quick enough it doesn’t seem like such a barrier!”