Young Pastor at the Forefront of Social Change in Australia | Sojourners

Young Pastor at the Forefront of Social Change in Australia

Jarrod McKenna, courtesy Jarrod McKenna
Jarrod McKenna, courtesy Jarrod McKenna

He’s been arrested more times than he cares to mention, but that’s life when you typify the new generation of Christian leaders who are seeking to not just preach Christ’s gospel, but live it. Young pastor Jarrod McKenna describes it as “rolling up our sleeves and just getting on with the practical work of loving our neighbors.” 

A regular at anti-war protests, Jarrod is no stranger to the handcuffs of authority. But he’s also highly sought-after at home and abroad as a social change facilitator and speaker.

“There’s been a real cultural shift in Australia, with many Gen Y-ers wanting to engage issues differently,” says the 31-year-old. “I get to mentor a lot of people from all around Australia who are coming from across the board – from the Hillsong type mega-churches to Sydney Anglican conservatism, from Charismatics to Baptists and Pentecostals. All of them are saying, ‘We don’t want to walk away from faith, we want to share in a faith that’s more authentic than we’ve been offered before’.”

Jarrod is the youngest person ever to win the prestigious Quaker Peace Award, the Donald Groom Peace Fellowship. It was bestowed on him in 2006 for his work as director of Empowering Peacemakers in Your Community (EPYC), a nonviolence education program he founded in Perth in 2004. Last year alone he trained over 8000 young people through EPYC, and engaged thousands more in talks across the country.

His ability to inspire the next generation to live out the radical implications of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount prompted Tim Costello to appoint Jarrod as National Advisor for Youth, Faith and Activism for World Vision Australia last year. Since then he’s been familiarizing himself with World Vision’s diverse programs in Africa, India, Albania and in the Middle East. 

“World Vision’s emphasis is on children’s rights, and seeing children lifted out of situations of poverty and exploitation,” he said. “So much of its work is about empowerment, and it’s really humbling to be part of it. I’ve seen some incredible work that’s about more than charity, it’s about a restorative justice.” 

Balcatta-born, Hale-educated Jarrod credits his parents’ belief – “in serving the poor, you serve God” – with kick-starting his own spiritual journey by the age of 14. He studied Fine Arts at Curtin University then landed a scholarship to study theology at Lipscomb University in the U.S. There he was mentored by his professor, Biblical ethicist Lee Camp, who introduced him to the radical peace traditions of groups like the Quakers, Anabaptists and Mennonites, who embrace a Christianity that says “following Jesus means rejecting violence and making God’s love practical”. 

Living in the US during 9/11, Jarrod had friends who lost family members both in New York and at the Pentagon, and in the aftermath began seeing a very sentimentalized Christianity that had more to do with patriotism, militarism, race and privilege than it had to do with Christ. 

“That was really confronting for me,” he said. “I had to make a choice, ‘Am I going to opt out of this?’ because frankly, I was horrified by a lot of what passed for Christianity. But, ironically, it was that year I started reading Gandhi for the first time – a Hindu who spent two hours each day meditating on Christ’s teachings and encouraged his followers to do the same. Gandhi had this challenge that we must be the change we wish to see in the world, and I realize if this Hindu can take Jesus that seriously why not the church! That gave me the courage to seek be part of this brilliant, untold story of a Christianity that does look like Christ.”

Terrorism’s brutal effects hit even closer to home in 2002 when, as a newly minted pastor back in Perth, he learned that a friend who’d celebrated his 18th birthday with him had been murdered in the Bali bombing. Five years later, while helping train young Indonesians in “the practicalities of what it is to practice nonviolence,” he sat across the table from the leader of a militia group that once celebrated the Bali bombing. 

“What we saw in this work was this group starting to disarm, because brave Indonesians were reaching out and changing the narrative that said ‘The West or Christians are the enemy’. I met Indonesian Christians who had family members murdered by terrorists who were actually paying for people from this militia to do a peace-building course. And it’s taught me what forgiveness means.”

Forgiveness, he insists, isn’t ever about saying what someone has done is okay, and it’s not about forgetting. “It’s about remembering in a way that you will not become what Martin Luther King called ‘a victim of bitterness’, instead resolving to respond with the only thing that transforms, love.

“That’s a hard journey for all of us,” said Jarrod, who wants to invite people into a new narrative. “For me, that’s everything. All of us understand our lives in terms of a story, in terms of a narrative, and most of the narratives that animate our lives aren’t about love of others, but are often about ‘me’ and the ‘market’. I think we need to tell better, more beautiful and life-giving stories. And ultimately for me the Gospel is that. My prayer is that my life and my actions will tell that story, not merely my words.”

Bron Sibree is an Australian freelance journalist. In a former incarnation she was a potter living in remote rural Australia, but traded in the quest for perfection in form for the more elusive, sometimes sacred and profane power of the written word. She is a firm believer that the process of journalism, however mundane, can be transformative.

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