“Didn’t Jesus speak English?”
“Are you a Christian or a Catholic?”
“Ooh I know! We’re the one with the bird!”
Working with 450 children and teenagers features daily moments of wisdom, insight, and facepalms as I learn how little of the church and the Christian faith they know, despite some attending schools associated with the Uniting Church for 13 years.
I am an ordained UCA Minister of the Word in placement as the school chaplain at The Scots School Albury on the Vic/NSW border.
My role at the school is varied. I lead worship regularly with strong student involvement. I run RAVE (Religion and Values Education) classes from kinder all the way to year 8, witnessing fantastic discussions about world religions, philosophy, ethics, and stories of our faith.
I spend time with students as they work through life issues, from how to survive exams to exploring concepts of life and death.
I witness students building relationships with community organisations and volunteering their time as they learn about the nature of service. I walk alongside students as they explore their place as leaders, as learners, and as humans.
This is the nature of being a chaplain in a school. A constant thread running through my ministry in this place is what I represent – the church and the faith.
I carefully consider what I say, knowing that for some, I will be in their minds the spokesperson of Christianity.
But like all education, I am not the only person from whom they learn about the institutional church and the Christian faith. They learn from media, from peers, from history and from extremists.
We teach them as best we can how to be critical of information and sort out the reliable sources, but that sometimes does not come until much later.
Some have a fantastically wide range of sources. Our older students in particular are media savvy and politically aware – recently 23 senior students attended an episode of Q&A and were incredibly thoughtful in their reflections.
Our students will be aware of the conversations about religious freedoms and the alarm that LGBTI students may be expelled from schools.
Like many Australians, some will take that information without critically processing it. Some will believe that all Christians want to kick out LGBTI students from their institutions.
Early in the conversation, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, as a prominent Christian voice, had the opportunity to affirm the humanity and belovedness of LGBTI people in religious schools.
But instead of quoting Scripture, he quoted legislation, saying the right to discriminate was an existing law.
At the time of writing this he has spoken further and I am sure he and other politicians – Christian or otherwise – will continue to speak about religion in the public sphere, as is their job.
He must surely be aware that people are listening to him, but I wonder how much he thinks his words are educating our young people about his faith?
If he publicly proclaims his Christian faith, then it follows that people will take his words as a proclamation from Christianity also.
Fairly or unfairly, this is the nature of being a public figure, whether in Canberra or in front of 300 impressionable teenagers.
So how do we ensure that what young people are learning about Christianity in our public domain is theologically sound, especially on issues that are politically divisive and vulnerable to sensationalism?
The main message I hope that comes through to our young people through this debate, from my faith, is that I believe every human is a beloved child of God, and therefore human rights should always come before institutional rights.
Alongside facepalm moments like arguing that Jesus was white and the Bible was originally written in English, I will be incredibly disheartened if our young people believe that the God of the Christian faith would exclude a vulnerable young person from their community.
Our schools are an incredible opportunity to teach our young people about Christianity and from a Christian perspective.
We are educating them with what we say and what we do not say and so we all need to take our prophetic calling seriously.
As I tell the young people in my flock, the most repeated command in the Bible is not ‘do not murder’, or ‘do not swear’; it is ‘Do Not Be Afraid’.
My prayer for this political conversation is that we will remember this command as we seek to be Christians in the public space.