Q & A: Jarrod McKenna

Jarrod McKenna is one of the most interesting youth workers you’ve never heard of. He lives in the First Home Project alongside recently arrived refugees to Australia, and made international news for standing on the steps of an Australian Law Court in his pants (we told you he was interesting). He spoke to Premier Youthwork’s Jamie Cutteridge.

JC: How did you get involved with non-violent activism?

JM: I’m not sure! I was just trying to follow Jesus! I guess initially it was through studying. I was studying under Lee Camp who wrote Mere discipleship. I came back and connected the dots between God’s profound love for me as an individual and figured I should love my neighbour like that. I realised that there were a whole heap of systems that actually worked against my neighbour. My first direct action was in 2001 at a US military base in Australia. That made me incredibly unpopular and removed all my church speaking invites until I was given a national peace award, and then things changed a little.

JC: This stuff makes you into a bit of an outlier. Why isn’t this type of overt activism the norm in Christianity?

JM: My experience is that more and more people are getting involved, not out of a sense of guilt or frustration but because intuitively it makes sense. People feel it in their spirit; it looks like Jesus, it smells like Jesus so it must be Jesus! We could go into all the historical reasons and look at times when the Church has got in to bed with the principalities and powers, and that hasn’t gone well for us, but I don’t want to give those Constantinian Christians too much of hard a time; if I was living in catacombs and being thrown to lions, I’d probably go: ‘Yeah I reckon this is God, now that it’s no longer illegal to be a Christian.’ It sounds heaps better than getting a hard time. I think the work comes from a further revelation of who Jesus is and the humility that comes with that, and then people are prepared to roll up their sleeves. The only political parties I’m interested in are the ones Jesus threw, where tax collectors, street workers, lepers and other problematic people like me were all included. Often with issues it’s not so much where we stand but how we stand. Are we positioned in such a way that we can wash the feet of even those we strongly disagree with?

JC: Tell us about the work you do with refugees and immigrants.

JM: A term that gets thrown around here in Australia is ‘xenophobia’, which is the Greek word meaning fear of strangers. I find it amazing that the New Testament word for hospitality is ‘philoxenia,’ which is literally sisterly and brotherly love for the stranger - love for those who larger society might teach us to fear. Because of the love we see in Jesus, we’re taught to welcome and to love. It’s loving your neighbour and there’s no asterisk after that to say, ‘as long as your neighbour looks like you, votes like you, talks like you and is from the same place as you.’ Actually it’s really clear that ‘neighbour’ includes everyone and there comes a time when living God’s love becomes costly and becomes unpopular.

JC: It feels like this is the stuff that is attractive to young people. Can that kind of work be a youth ministry in and of itself?

JM: Yeah! My crazy idea is that youth ministry should revolve around following Jesus. As youth workers get busy in their own lives, living God’s love and that simple business of putting our Lord’s suggestions and commandments into practice, some people say: ‘Oh my goodness, why would you do that? I want to get caught up in that stuff as well.’ I think the more we separate evangelism from discipleship we end up separating the gospel from how Jesus goes to the cross and rises again to save us. If we separate those things, we’re left as clanging gongs and cymbals. 

The only political parties i’m interested in are the ones Jesus threw, where tax collectors, street workers , lepers and other problematic people like me were all included  

JC: One of the most notable things you did recently involved taking off all of your clothes…

JM: That’s the best leading question I’ve ever had! The Love Makes a Way movement which I’ve been a part of here in Australia, has seen 193 church leaders arrested, or take part in arrest-able actions in the last 12 months. We want to see children released from detentions, in place as a result of Australia’s horrific policies to those seeking safety in Australia. Last December there was an action that a bunch of us were doing in a politician’s office. We baked cookies and we came, sang hymns, said prayers and shared cookies with the police, and refused to leave until we had an answer to when these children would be released from indefinite detention. There’s an inquiry going on right now that has just revealed that children are being sexually abused in these so-called detention centres. Human rights abuses are rife. All of this is happening in Australia’s name.

We were arrested for not leaving the premises which is a trespassing charge and we were all strip-searched. When it came to the time of our court case, I was praying about how we could actually turn the other cheek, give our second garment and go the extra mile. It became apparent to me that we should quite literally give our undergarments as well. We were told that there were some journalists outside the court but we came out and found a scrum of journalists from every single news station, both local and national. We talked about how for nearly a year we had been committed to turning the other cheek while highlighting the situation for people seeking safety in Australia. Now it was time to take the next verse and put that into practice - we would not only give our outer garments but our undergarments as well. We took off our clothes on the steps of the West Australian law courts while telling the press that what stands in the centre of our faith is a symbol of intimidation and fear, a symbol of torture that we believe God transformed into a symbol of love and freedom. So attempts to intimidate us with strip-searches have failed. We serve a God who can take anything and turn it into the love. So, we took off our kit and we placed upon ourselves signs that read ‘Refugees are People’ and we marched from the law courts, an hour away, in 40 degree heat, to that member’s office.

JC: I’m interested in the impact that this work has back in your churches. I look at the work you’re doing and I reflect on the early Church when the members seemed to get arrested for doing what God wanted…. Do we need to see more church leaders getting arrested if we are serious about the gospel?

JM: Do church leaders need to take much more risks in living God’s love? You bet. Christian faith makes no sense at all unless our lives look like Christ. Our experience at West City Church is that we’ve seen so many people come to faith in the last year or so because the church has stepped out and stood in the place with those on the corners of society that others are so willing to sacrifice, but we’ve said: ‘No, that’s not okay. We won’t be silent.’ Nor will we merely be angry and rant back, but in costly ways we’re willing to stand with those that others simply want to sacrifice.

That’s what I mean when I say that discipleship is evangelism. People ask why we are doing this crazy stuff and we should be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have. If all we’re doing is activism, we’re simply replicating what others in society are doing quite well. And should the Church be there? Well, the Church should be faithful to Jesus, so if it looks like Jesus and we’re being led to do that, of course. In the same way, whether it’s social work or activism, if we don’t actually invite people into the empowering grace that is ours because of the cross and the resurrection, all we do is replicate things that are happening in larger society. Problematic, messed up, broken people such as myself can take part in God’s grace and invite others to do the same.

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