People power

friendshipReview by Julie Perrin and Andy Calder

Book | The Power of Friendship, the Open House story  | Digby Hannah

FROM its beginnings in 1971, Open House Ivanhoe – and now Open House MacLeod – has taken on the characteristics of a  social movement.

Based on research and interviews, author Digby Hannah has compiled the stories and images that make up this compact yet abundant book. Hannah’s experience as a youth worker, teacher, editor, pastoral minister and songwriter make him well placed to write about this remarkable community.

Instigated by a passionate church youth leader, George Farrington, Open House became an independent community operating out of a shopfront near Ivanhoe Town Hall, complete with ‘the obligatory pool table.’ Funded by donations, the heavy lifting was done by a range of volunteers Farrington referred to as the ‘motley crew’.

Initially, Farrington was employed by St James Anglican Church, but Open House was soon independent and interdenominational, including Uniting Church members.

Today, Open House inhabits the previous site of the MacLeod Uniting Church and manse and maintains its Christian identity. As Farrington said, “The volunteers are not there to convert people…It is a friendship model based on God’s grace with no strings attached.”

Hannah addresses some of the theology underlying the Open House approach of respecting people who have been marginalised.

It adopted the biblical passages in Matthew 25 and 28 (where Jesus challenges his followers to leave their comfortable places, respond to those in need and make disciples) as its foundation.  The teaching of Athol Gill’s Life on the Road and Kraybill’s Upside Down Kingdom also influenced Open House. Hannah is familiar with the theology, the era, the joys as well as the costs of this approach.

Open House never became an agency, it exists with minimal government funding and refuses to compartmentalise services. The community was – and is – based on reciprocal friendship rather than the implicit separations of professional practitioners and clients. In this way, Open House diverges from and speaks into the familiar scenario where church agencies are now fields of professional social work practice.

Throughout the last 45 years, Open House has offered programs including drop in centres, live-in accommodation, a plant nursery at Hurstbridge, numerous camps, weekly clubs, cricket and football matches and billycart-building workshops. It engages with people experiencing mental health issues, alcoholism, social and emotional issues arising out of fractured family life, family violence, poverty and disability. People are not siphoned off into silos according to need, but are seen as co-participants in the community.

Over the long haul, participants are companioned in the slow changes of daily life that can open into transformation. To this day George Farrington holds that the ‘motley crew’ approach works best within this friendship model.

“Life is messy and sometimes the most unlikely connections bear fruit as turning points in people’s lives,” Farrington said.

A letter from a previous participant says, “As we sipped coffee or played pool we heard no lectures or sermons just felt warmth, compassion, understanding and caring – from people who were comfortable in their positions, not proving anything to anyone, allowing us to follow by example.”

Surprising volunteers pop up in the story, like the mayor of Ivanhoe who called by at the drop-in centre and became the long term architectural consultant to Open House. The women in this story sound extraordinary, many of them with four or five children of their own – including the beloved ‘Ma C’ who oversaw the live-in accommodation. They’ve volunteered for years at a time or supported their partners to do the same.

Since Farrington’s early long-term leadership, Open House has been directed by Ross Oldmeadow and now Paul Burgess. Hannah examines the limitations and the strengths of the Open House approach with the hope that the holistic model of the ‘motley crew’ may still have something to offer in this era of increasing specialisation. He hopes to illustrate the surprise factor “…when unequal relationships become mutual friendships – when people who have imagined themselves as helpers or benefactors realise they are also ‘the helped’.”

The book is available for $20 at www.openhousecic.org.au 

Rev (Deacon) Andy Calder is the Disability Inclusion Advocate with the Vic/Tas synod.

Julie Perrin is a writer and oral storyteller.

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