Churches grapple with unity and love while Bendigo divides over proposed mosque

Churches in Bendigo have found themselves in the middle of heated community tension over the building of a mosque, as anti-Islam rallies in the city make national news headlines.

An anti-Islam rally was held over the weekend in Bendigo, led by the nationalist group United Patriots Front. It’s not the first time the group has protested in Bendigo, with hundreds gathering in late August to protest the construction of a mosque in the city. Two weeks ago, leaders of the United Patriot Front staged a mock beheading of a dummy outside Bendigo town hall, suggesting that Islamic terror would be the result of the push for cultural diversity in the city.

So when Bendigo’s St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral featured in a YouTube clip from United Patriots Front, the Cathedral’s dean, John Roundhill, suspected the church would be drawn into the debate.

“We mustn’t draw such tight lines around ourselves and others.”

The video highlighted the church’s numerous banners and posters displayed on the building, including one that reads, “Let’s Fully Welcome Refugees.” The same banner has been installed by several Anglican churches around Victoria.

A sign outside St Paul's Anglican Cathedral in Bendigo.

A sign outside St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Bendigo.

“Not even the local church is spared the relentless far-left propaganda,” says Blair Cottrell, a Victorian UPF leader, in the video. “As you can see, they [Muslims] get inside institutions and they spread their filth.” Pointing at the cathedral’s high steeples, Cottrell continues, “This great structure was built by one faith, one nation, not by many. So you can plaster it with all the signage and all the propaganda you want, but at the end of the day this structure belongs to the creativity and individuality of our nation, Australia, and Australian people.”

“The UPF are using fear mongering and at times they dress themselves as Christianity, but using fear is not Christian,” says Rev Roundhill. One member of the church had a swastika graffitied on the side of his house recently after his address was made available on Facebook, while a decommissioned church building in Bendigo had the words “Islam will rule” graffitied on its walls over the weekend.

But Rev Roundhill says fear and bullying won’t cause his church to stray from their belief that Jesus calls them to love their neighbours.

“If we believe that God works in the world today, by his word, and change individuals or, God willing, whole cities like Bendigo, then we should have confidence in God’s power.”

“Almost everyone in the Cathedral, to my knowledge, is in favour of a diverse Bendigo and would agree that the mosque should be allowed to be built,” says Rev Roundhill. He believes an effort by the church to get to know its Muslim neighbours has cemented relationships that can withstand current attempts to divide the community.

“For many people in Bendigo, if you asked them, ‘Have you ever met a Muslim’ they’d say, ‘I’m not sure’. Yet, they’re here and they’re doctors, engineers, former refugees. Getting to know them takes some of that fear of the unknown away from the situation,” says Rev Roundhill.

The church has recently hosted interfaith lunches and breakfasts, bringing Christians and Muslims together over a meal.

“I think the Bible says a huge amount about all of this,” says Rev Roundhill. “At one level, you can say that the Bible is very clear that it promotes a particular faith and doesn’t tolerate other faiths. If you want to read that in the Bible, you can.

“But, equally there are deeper texts in the Bible that talk about God’s love for everyone, and Jesus’ injunction that we go out and help people and love our neighbour as ourselves. We mustn’t draw such tight lines around ourselves and others.”

“Our main platform is the gospel. Over and above everything else, we believe in the Lord Jesus. I don’t place my faith in ‘Bendigo’.”

Another poster on the Cathedral now reads, “Stop the Mosque? No! Stop the hate. Try loving your neighbour.”

In Bendigo’s south east corner, Russ Grinter is leading a Presbyterian Church plant called Reforming Church. He told Eternity that he knows some Christians in churches around the city who have joined the UPF protests, which is of particular concern to him.

“That’s personal, because some of them are friends of mine,” he said. “For them, there’s a real question about where our confidence lies. Do we think that these protests will bring the change that we really want to see, as Christians?

“If we believe that God works in the world today, by his word, and change individuals or, God willing, whole cities like Bendigo, then we should have confidence in God’s power. Fear and anxiety expressed in protesting against the building of a mosque doesn’t reflect that confidence.”

Pastor Grinter says that his church is for freedom of religion, and so believes the building of the mosque should be allowed. But he believes there’s a disconnect among many Bendigo Christians about what the “main game” should be for the Christian faith in this matter: “that’s Jesus,” says Pastor Grinter.

“In the marketplace of ideas, if a mosque is built and there are more Muslims here in Bendigo, we’ll have the ability for them to tell us about the God they worship, and we will also have the freedom to speak about Jesus. And you’ll see the difference Jesus makes, the difference of Christianity. That’s a powerful opportunity.”

“There’s no benefit to hatred and prejudice and violence on either side – there’s no reflection of Jesus in that.”

Back at St Paul’s Anglican, the church is helping to promote the ‘Believe in Bendigo’ campaign, launched in September by Bendigo residents to counter attempts to divide the community and promote cultural diversity. It’s displayed more banners outside its building, and on its Facebook page.

Brad Chilcott, the founder of Welcome To Australia and a Christian pastor from Adelaide, says supporting ‘Believe in Bendigo’ is one of the best things churches could do in Bendigo right now.

Chilcott joined Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten in Canberra yesterday to launch the National Day of Unity, which is also seeking to celebrate diversity and positive relationships between people of different faiths and ethnicities.

“The National Day of Unity was a great thing to happen only days after the recent Bendigo protests. It’s a stand against the xenophobia and prejudice that we saw at those rallies. Movements like ‘Believe in Bendigo’ are a visible, tangible demonstration of the beauty of Bendigo that reflects people at their best.”

Yet Pastor Grinter from Reforming Church is mor
e cautious about his church getting behind the movement, though says he understands the sentiment. Reforming’s ‘mother church’ is the bigger St John’s Presbyterian Church in the centre of Bendigo. The most recent UPF rally began its march right outside the church’s gates, and Pastor Grinter says there’s been many discussions about whether they should put up a banner or Bible verse on the building, given its prominent location.

“The reason we’ve chosen not to do so is that we’re hesitant to pick a side – whether it’s siding with those who want the mosque, the UPF or even the ‘Believe in Bendigo’ movement. Our main platform is the gospel. Over and above everything else, we believe in the Lord Jesus. I don’t place my faith in Bendigo. We need to show where our ultimate hope and confidence lies. If you haven’t got Jesus, what hope have you got?

“We didn’t want any of our banners or posters to be used by others in the community pointing to us and saying, ‘See, the church is on our side.’ We haven’t taken a side. We’re on Jesus’ side.”

Brad Chilcott from Welcome to Australia says that whatever the churches’ response, it should always “reflect the character of Jesus, the kingdom of God and the community we hope to see built in light of that character.”

“There’s no benefit to hatred and prejudice and violence on either side – there’s no reflection of Jesus in that nor any part of it that builds a better community for anyone,” he said.

Meanwhile, a new sign is hanging outside St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral this week. This is what it says: “O God make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship; narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and strife.” – Bishop Thomas Ken 1637-1711