How it all goes together

One of the things I said I wanted to do this year was to write regularly – and that has taken different forms throughout the year, but I’ve found it has been really worthwhile. Being a personal blog, the content here has changed over the course of the year. (I’ve also done some private writing for my study, as part of a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church in Australia, and as part of a pilgrimage to Lake Mungo.) On this blog recently I’ve almost only been talking about tabletop roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons, but earlier in the year I was also posting a lot more religious-mythological Bible content, stuff I’d been observing in my neighbourhood, opinion pieces about the proposed homeless ban in Melbourne, stuff about migrant-settler-colonial identity in Australia…

Sometimes people tell me I’m doing an awful lot of different things, but in my mind all of those stuff comes back to one thing, and that’s critical engagement with stories. As my collaborator Matt Valler has been saying,

‘Every city is full of hidden stories that quietly enforce the rules we live by. Labyrinth uncovers those stories so that together we can rewrite the rules.’

We need to be able to engage with stories in a critical way because they can shape our society for better or for worse. (And it’s often a lot more complex than just good stories and bad stories!)

Anyway, that has been my focus, and I hope that gives an idea about what holds my year together!

Religious-mythological story
This year it’s been really helpful having regular contracts with the Victorian Council of Christian Education, illustrating resources written by my friend Beth Barnett. (I also did a little bit or writing for the season of Lent early in the year.) What I like is that VCCE are really in favour of critical reflection on the Bible, not just in academic institutions and not just for adults but for the whole church. Personally it’s also been helpful just having regular stuff to work on so that I can improve my skills and reinforce a regular practise of drawing – which makes it easier to pick up other religious-mythological work with groups like Scripture Union Victoria, Gembrook Retreat, Baptist Union of Victoria, Surrender and Melbourne Welsh Church.

Story through gaming
The discipline has also meant I’ve been able to start expanding into doing tabletop roleplaying illustration through Owlman Press (I’ll be playtesting our new game Phantasmagoria next week) and Encounter Roleplay (my new Dungeons & Dragons adventure King Dawutti’s Legacy is now available to our Patreon supporters). I find there’s often also cross-pollination between the two, because a story from the Abrahamic mythologies might provide a structure or a setting for an adventure, or the elements of a parable might provide an idea for a monster. In the new year I’m excited about some new gaming projects that I’m currently working on thanks to connections with the #DnD community on Twitter.

What interests me most is how our games often draw on stories that are already part of our society, but invite us to engage with the creatively. I think there are also opportunities to experiment in how we cooperate with others or engage in conflict at the table. It’s been great getting back into a regular rhythm of hosting games (and getting to occassionally play!) with a fairly diverse group of players.

While I’m talking about gaming, I also need to mention that I’ve appreciated being able to continue working with Evan at Rival Sky. I don’t play most of the games we sell (I do play Star Wars: Imperial Assault a little bit) but it’s really helpful having something to do that’s regular, dependable and practical. (You might be surprised how therapeutic the physicality of packing parcels can be!)

Story in the real, physical world
I think physicality is really important. I don’t think our engagement with story can stay in the realm of reflecting on Biblical mythology or participating in narrative through games. I think it has to have an impact on our actual world. With Labyrinth we’ve been inviting people to do this kind of critical reflection on stories in the city streets, as we have done in Melbourne for a long time. It’s been great being able to see this practise continuing in Melbourne as Urban Seed (where I learned this practise) has been gradually winding up, and seeing experiments happening in London, Dallas and Washington DC. Reflection on the stories needs to lead to response, and for some of us that has meant engaging with the government and wider community about the homelessness ban that was proposed by the Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.

What we do in our home is also being informed by reflecting on our story. Our household, the Indigenous Hospitality House (named in honor of the hospitality we’ve so often received from Aboriginal and other Indigenous peoples) is a response to the story of our colonial history and the to the question ‘What does it mean to live on stolen land?’ In recent years we’ve been trying different ways of inviting other people to reflect on and respond to that story and question, because we think it’s something our whole society needs to grapple with. Early in the year we released a book as a way of sharing some of our learnings and inviting others into reflection. Mehrin and I got to take some time out to participate in the Yingadi pilgirmage to Lake Mungo with Vicki Clark, a Mutthi Mutthi woman who helped set up IHH at the beginning. As we finished up this year we have a few people leaving our household, but the three of us who’ve been living there for a while feel encouraged to have others joining us – especially since a few years ago we weren’t sure where we’d find enough people to keep operating!

In 2018
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this year I participated in a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church. My sense throughout this period has been that what I need to be doing is spending time near the boundaries of the church and out in the wider world, where people are engaging with and responding to the stories of our world. (I think that fits within the scope of the Uniting Church’s understanding of what a deacon does.) I expect I’ll be continuing these practises and seeing where they lead.

Learning to cook at Credo Café

When I was doing VCE, Mum went back to study, so I ended up cooking dinner some of the time. When I say ‘cooking dinner’ I’m pretty sure I was just boiling some pasta and heating up sauce from a jar.

That’s often what cooking was when I left home and went to Ballarat for university. I can remember getting a reputation as a bad cook because I had a friend around for dinner and I started heating up the pasta sauce, then added mince into the sauce to cook.

When I moved back into Melbourne and joined the community at Credo Café, where I learnt from Tomsy, Gin, Karen, Mel and Neil how to cook big meals. I really appreciated the experience of being able to learn from people who had a lot of experience and had the time to teach others. Each week we’d all be rostered on to cook at least once. Cooking for 50 to 70 people every week for a few years gives you the confidence to cook for large numbers. Some of the staple meals were spaghetti bolognese (also known as Tuesday surprise), beef stroganoff, red beans and rice (you’ll want to eat a plate twice), pumpkin lasagne and chilli basil beef.


Last night we were expecting to have a lot of folks around for dinner. We had some pasta already cooked in the fridge from earlier in the week and lots of beef strips in the freezer. So I cooked up some beef stroganoff, a Credo classic that I hadn’t cooked for a long time. I also cooked some pumpkin pasta, which one of my fellow residents at Credo had said was what he cooked whenever they had vegetarians around – although it ended up pretty different because we just need to cook with what we have available any given day. It reminded me to appreciate the time other people took to teach me.

Tales from the Table

tales from the table

Our household, Indigenous Hospitality House, has just published a book. Tales from the Table gathers together a range of things that our household have been learning as Settler (non-Indigenous) people sharing our home with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, on stolen land.

While the practical part of our mission is providing hospital accommodation, we also recognise that we have a role to play in helping Settler people rethink Australian and Christian identity in light of our colonial history. We hope that this book can help extend those conversations into the wider community.

You can buy a copy at our web store here. If you want to drop in and pick up your copy you can save on postage. And you can stick around for a cup of tea and a chat.

Presence

Earlier in the week I noticed Kaitlin Curtice’s blog post, ‘People Who Hold Space Will Heal the Church’, and I’m interested in what she says about holding space. She basically says that the church (and I think a lot of other institutions too) like to try and manage people rather than holding space where transformation could occur. (Reminds me a lot of the stuff I’ve been re-reading in Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out.

On a similar theme, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be present to someone.

Sometimes it just means what some of us might regard as trivial bullshit. Talking about the weather, exchanging friendly banter, talking shit…

But we need to be alert to when that’s not what’s needed, when our guest has something deep they need to talk about – illness, love, death, family…

We’ve also got to be attentive to when someone just needs silence or space.

Sometimes presence means sitting with someone. Something it means banter. Sometimes it means politeness. Sometimes it means eye contact. Sometimes it means (thank God) no eye contact. Sometimes it means depth. Its just being present to the person and situation and responding as appropriate.

Silence in hospitality

Yesterday we opened up our house for a discussion about the idea of hospitality as ‘making room’. I think when we’re talking about making room it’s important to think about how we demonstrate that in the discussion. I think that in our society we often try to fill quiet space with words and activity, and that if we allowed spaces to remain quiet and empty, we might hear voices we’d otherwise miss. For that reason I want to get comfortable with preparing less (or being okay not to use eveything I’ve prepared) and leaving more space in discussion for silence.

How do you feel about the place of silence in hospitality?

Gastvrijheid: freedom for the guest

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen talks about hospitality as ‘freedom for the guest’. (He says this is the literal meaning of the Dutch word for hospitality, gastvrijheid.) This means that we aren’t welcoming the guest in order to try and change them. Instead we’re welcoming them into a space of emptiness, a space where transformation might happen, but where we don’t know what the transformation might look like. It’s not a space where we’re seeking to influence them to take on our ideology, religion or way of life. It’s not a space that the host tries to fill with themself. It’s a space where the host and guest can discover each other and potentially be transformed by the encounter.

IMG_2277

Three ways of making room

I’ve been sick and exhausted for a while because a lot of things have been going on at once. This week i got to have a couple of days to be at home and rest. That’s a way of making room.

I also got to do some cleaning and tidying before a new housemate moves in to be more involved with our project. That’s another way of making room.

While we had a room empty, I was using the empty room to work and study, so I’ve needed to move my things. But that’s been an opportunity to rethink how I can best use the space I have. I don’t have a lot of space to work and study in, but I’d allowed it to get pretty messy and inefficient. I’d also had some ideas about how I could better organise the space, so it would be easier to work in. that’s another way of making room.

Hostipality with Nouwen and Safran


I’ve been reading Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out and John Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist at the same time. I’ve spent a lot of time reading Nouwen’s book before, and one of the things I’ve appreciated most about it is the way he talks about the relationship between hostility and hospitality. He acknowledges that when we begin to practise hospitality, we’re often using it to cover over hostility. We can use our ability to provide for others as a way of holding power over them. I think everyone has had some kind of experience of recieving grudging hospitality or passive aggressive hsopitality. Nouwen thinks that if we’re able to recognise the hospitality that often underlies our hostility, we can start moving toward true hospitality, which is freedom for the guest.

I’ve also been interested in how Safran picks up on the theme of hospitality and hostility, although in some ways it’s quite different. John Safran seems to have made himself vulnerable in the process of writing his recent book, by participating in hospitality with various Australians who have, for various reasons, been called ‘extemists’. By going and visiting folks from various Australian extremist groups, spending time in their homes, sharing beer, smokes and pizza, Safran has made himself vulnerable, and I think many of his subjects have also made themselves vulnerable in response. At the end of his visit to United Patriots Front member Ralph Cerminara, Cerminara said he was going to write an article about Safran for his website Left Wing Bigots and Extremists Exposed, but he said he’d changed his mind because ‘it was nice [Safran] came over to chat.’ Safran also visits Muslims from different traditions, visits the Aboriginal tent embassy in Redfern and has a fresh look at the presence of extemism in his own Jewish community. All of these encounters seem to complicate the nature of these groups, when their opponents and the mass media seem to want to simplify everything. Safran shows that they aren’t as homogenous as we might expect. He find that there are Jews among the United Patriots Front despite the presence of neo-Nazis. He finds that Cerminara has Italian and Aboriginal heritage, is married to a Vietnamese migrant, supports Aboriginal land rights, is angry about governments trying to move Aboriginal people off their land, and hates that he gets lumped in with the left wing activists because of these views. I’m not by any means saying that UPF are admirable people, but that the story is more complex that what we’re often told.

Continuity through practices

On Saturday I posted about how our household (which is predominantly Christian) is trying to make sure we are clear about making sure there is space for folks who aren’t Christian. We want to make sure we can work alongside and learn from people who have other worldviews, not just people who have worldviews similar to our own. I’ve noticed that when groups make this decision there is often concern from Christians that the group will lose it’s Christian character. I don’t have that concern because I believe the project’s Christian character is preserved in our practises. (I’ve also been part of other Christian projects where we’ve involved people from other faiths or no faith, and we’ve been able to do that by focussing on Christian practices.)

I don’t think Christianity is generally known as a faith that emphasises practices. Generally we think of Chritianity as being focussed on beliefs. However, the gospels suggest that Jesus first invitation to his early disciples was to come and follow him. By looking at Jesus’ behaviour (rather than looking for theological doctrines) I think we can find the kind of practices that Jesus was teaching his followers:

  • befriending the stranger
  • sharing meals across social boundaries
  • providing access to medical treatment
  • reconciling with enemies
  • bringing marginalised pople back into the community

Those Christian practices are all things that we do in different ways as part of our project. They don’t require people to adopt our religion to participate. But I think they do preserve continuity with the teachings of the founder of our movement.