Reimagining What Is Possible: Welcoming the Stranger in Australia
Jarrod McKenna is in trouble. It's not that the dreadlocked Christian activist is at risk of being arrested, as he has been at several anti-war and anti-coal protests. Rather, he has let five-year-old Congolese refugee Zephanta Baganizi eat the leftovers of our very late lunch, shortly before dinner time.
"Have you asked your mum if it's OK?" McKenna asks "Zopho," who is gazing at several pieces of bolani, a vegan flat-bread meal from Afghanistan. Transfixed by the food, Zopho doesn't respond.
"Just a small piece, then."
Zopho grabs the biggest piece. He runs off to his family's apartment, mouth overflowing with fried bread and vegetable filling.
"I'm in trouble," McKenna says.
The interaction between Australian, Congolese and Afghan food, people and culture is not uncommon at a large block at the end of Dudley Street in the outer Perth suburb of Midland.
It is the location of First Home Project; a former methamphetamine lab transformed into three apartments that provide medium-term accommodation at below-market rates for refugees transitioning into their new Australian lives.
"There were mummified rats in the ceilings because of the meth," says McKenna.
"There were giant holes for ventilation so air could pass through, presumably because of the fumes. The toilet was ripped out for its water. I guess that's what it was for. To be honest, I'm not really sure how you make meth, I've only watched two episodes of Breaking Bad."
Jarrod Saul McKenna, 33, is one of the most recognizable faces in a radical, grassroots Christian movement that believes when Jesus said, "Love your enemies," he probably meant, "Don't kill them."
They are the antithesis to America's — and to a lesser extent Australia's — religious right. They tend to be anti-war — or at least anti-"unjust" war — have a deep social conscience, and are not afraid to engage in non-violent resistance when the right campaign comes along.
They have a high regard for ecological protection, particularly when the threat, such as global warming, most affects the world's poor.
So what does a thirtysomething leader of such a movement do when it's time to get a mortgage? Jarrod and his social-worker wife Teresa and son Tyson decided to tackle one of the most controversial political policies of the past two decades — Australia's asylum-seeker and refugee arrangements.
In 2012, the McKennas sought a loan for $600,000 to buy the Midland property and establish First Home Project.
Fourteen institutions knocked back the loan request; in part because they suspected the family was planning a money-making venture — not fit for a residential mortgage — given they wanted to buy an oddly shaped block with a large building that ran over two property titles. And so the McKennas "crowd-funded" their mortgage, which is a process whereby money is raised through social media.
It took two weeks to raise the money, which the couple are now repaying to their social media lenders, although there are some supporters who lent the money interest-free.
'Room at the inn'
By Christmas 2012, they had two refugee families with them. As McKenna puts it, "There was room at the inn."
Equipped with a rental history and references, families eventually move into the private rental or home-owner market, making way for new families.
The project is seen as part of the antidote to the problem of leaving Australia's newest citizens to fend for themselves in expensive rental markets — which can lead to over-crowding in refugee communities — with no local job references or tenant history to get started.
The model could be replicated Australia-wide, although not by the McKennas.
"There's already a McDonald's, we don't need a McKenna's," he says.
The project helps get kids settled into schools, and adults into work. In fact, McKenna suggested, and I agreed, that instead of the usual "Lunch with the AFR" restaurant venue, we would break bread at his place.
Nouria Musawi, who is the mother of the Afghan family, has cooked the meal in what is her first paid job in Australia. She has provided us, and the photographer, with ample food, with the leftovers going to Zopho and my take-home container.
For his part, McKenna is a polite host, and in true biblical style, is barefoot indoors. Perhaps he'll wash my feet?
He doesn't offer, but he does ask if I'd like a beer — even though he doesn't drink himself.
Forks pushed aside, we eat our late lunch with our hands in a refurbished room that resembles a stylish warehouse apartment now that the meth-making process, once scrawled on the walls, has been painted over.
This is where the McKennas live. A Congolese family who spent 17 years in a Rwandan refugee camp reside in another apartment; and the Musawi family, from Afghanistan, live in the third.
The project is designed to contrast with the country's mandatory detention policies that were introduced by the Keating government in 1992 in response to an increase in IndoChinese boat arrivals.
To critics of mandatory detention, including prominent barrister Julian Burnside, the processing of refugee claims in communities would be cheaper and, well, nicer. McKenna would like every new arrival, be it via plane or boat, to have their refugee claim processed while they are in the community, which is almost the exact opposite policy direction of at least the last three governments.
McKenna says: "We won't take any money from government, because we won't be silent about the fact that mandatory detention is not only unnecessary and economic insanity, but it is immoral and just wrong."
The trained pastor grew up in the affluent Perth suburb of Churchlands, near the coast just north of the city, and attended the nearby private Hale School.
He was born to a father steeped in a monastic, renouncing-worldly-goods, Irish-Catholic background and a mother who joined a Baptist church so that she could belong to the same denomination as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Mix in a love affair with the Anabaptists, who adhere to a radical, peaceful Christianity which rejects violence and seeks to make God's love practical, and you begin to understand McKenna's mindset.
Even getting arrested was a peaceful process. "I've been arrested a number of times, but always in the tradition of non-violence," he says. "Being arrested in itself is not a good thing; it's only if it's tactically worthwhile for the overall campaign.
"It's a personal goal that I like to become friends with the police who are arresting me. … Usually I'm able to do that, even after being roughed up sometimes."
McKenna knows that he will sometimes end up on the wrong side of the law and of public sentiment.
In 2009, he was one of four Christian activists who entered the Shoalwater Bay military training area, in Queensland, to disrupt live-fire exercises, in a protest against Australia's involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The military shouldn't have been taken by surprise, since the group politely let the Defence Department know their plan several months in advance.
Rap sheet no barrier
McKenna, a graduate of fine arts, says there's nothing wrong with being a little cheeky and creative in your protests.
"Activism is about becoming a poet or artist of imagination, where you can give people permission to rethink or re-imagine what things should be like."
In 2012, McKenna helped train several hundred global warming activists to disrupt the massive coal operations at the Newcastle Port, north of Sydney.
I ask: "So, how does one protest, Christian-style?"
McKenna pushes his bolani to one side in preparation for the non-violence lesson. The mild-mannered pastor, who said he was terrified before the interview, is now a confident teacher.
"This is great — I didn't anticipate you would ask that question," McKenna says.
He says it is crucial to work out whether you have fight or flight tendencies. (McKenna says he has fight tendencies.) Once you are aware of this, you can fight that evolutionary urge, he says, and learn to take a stand without responding violently.
Magistrates have tended to treat McKenna and his co-conspirators kindly.
After being charged with hindering police at the Swan Island Military Base in 2011, he and three others pleaded guilty and were convicted. No penalty was imposed. His protest activities haven't derailed his speaking engagements in nations like the United States — McKenna says the U.S.'s history of non-violent resistance means U.S. customs officers are understanding about his rap sheet — or hindered his job prospects.
He is a full-time employee of World Vision Australia, where he is the adviser on youth, faith and activism.
Separately, World Vision is inviting Australian Christians to host a dinner for refugees through its Welcome to My Place initiative.
Back at the First Home Project, Zopho approaches McKenna and feigns sadness. He implies he's in trouble for eating before dinner time. But the five-year-old can't pretend to be in trouble for long, as his beaming smile gives the joke away.
If Zopho had arrived by boat, he'd likely be in a detention centre.
"We are not simply here to be denouncers of injustice, but announcers of an alternative," McKenna says, quoting Catholic social activist Peter Maurin.
"I guess at First Home Project, that's exactly what we are trying to do. We want to be able to name the injustice and embody the real alternative to it and show that another way is possible."
Jonathan Barrett is the Perth bureau chief, covering all state issues, for The Australian Financial Review.