A conversation with the barefoot Bishop of Wellington

Famous for going barefoot and sporting a thick bunch of black dreadlocks, Justin Duckworth is the Anglican Bishop of Wellington. Prior to his installation as Bishop in 2012, he founded Urban Vision, a missional community committed to expressing God’s love for a hurting world. With Urban Vision, Justin and his wife fostered 40 young teenage women, developed a model and home of hospitality in an underprivileged part of Wellington and started a new monastic community in a rural area outside of Wellington. He’s in Melbourne next week for the annual Surrender Conference, held at Belgrave Heights between 20-22nd March.

Justin Duckworth, dreadlocked Bishop of Wellington.

Justin Duckworth, dreadlocked Bishop of Wellington.

What gave you a heart for ministry to the margins?
I actually think it was understanding that if you choose to follow Jesus, you have to follow him to the margins. I can’t get away from that in Scripture. It wasn’t that I came from the margins and so I understood that intuitively. It was: if you follow Jesus, I can’t see how you can’t follow him to the margins.

By us joining in the suffering of the world we actually see the resurrection power of Jesus released afresh.

But then obviously once I journeyed to the margins then I was exposed to so many times when I saw Jesus present and working and that just opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing God and experiencing God. The more you follow Jesus the more you find the fulfillment and the meaning of life that we all so deeply desire. So I think that as I followed Jesus to the margins I then found a fulfilling, rich life and the more I thought how could anybody do anything but this?

What does that mean for ministry to the mainstream, do you think?
Yeah, well that’s it. Two and a half years ago I found myself the Anglican Bishop of Wellington, which certainly in many ways isn’t the margins. In many ways we are an old, institutional church and in many ways quite a wealthy church. So I think part of my role is to help us re-engage and journey back to the margins where we belong.

So I just see that as trying to help our guys to re-find Jesus in the unusual places of this world and maybe to turn our back on some of our addiction to success and power and comfort and instead to find the one who walks the road afresh again and to go to the highways and the byways and join in with what God is doing there.

I think that’s very much my call – to help the church re-align with that timeless truth that God is at work on the edges and the margins.

So in your mind it’s kind of like you start at the margins and the gospel will work its way back in rather than the other way round?
Obviously I think you should start where you find yourself. But I think there is a sense where renewal, the Spirit of God breaks in, I think, historically, on the edges primarily and does permeate back in. It’s only when Jesus heads to Jerusalem, ultimately, that he got himself crucified. So I think there is a sense where God does work more clearly and more freely on the margins and the edges of our society. I think the more mainline and mainstream we are we often struggle to see the same transforming work of God. So yeah, my belief is that if you want to join where God is moving, you place yourself at the edge.

If there were three things you’d love to see change in the church, not just in Wellington, but in general, what would they be?
I think for the church in the western world that I observe, one thing is I think to re-engage with a God who does have a priority for the poor and for justice. And I think by doing that, by re-engaging with a God who turned his back on power and instead chose to embrace redemptive suffering, that we actually transform and we save the world through joining in the suffering. By us joining in the suffering of the world we actually see the resurrection power of Jesus released afresh. So I think if we can re-engage with that truth, that actually the resurrection of power is released as his faithful followers journey with him to difficult places I think that would be amazing for our church.

I think also that we need to re-engage with what it really means to be people of reconciliation, grace and forgiveness. We’re all in local communities where we find it so hard to forgive, so hard to actually mend the generational wounds which rip our communities apart. I think we really have to re-engage with Jesus who said on the cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do”. I think that innocent as he was, tortured as he was that he could pray that – I think we’ve really lost sight of that. We’re all quite keen to spend our time often seeking revenge as opposed to seeking reconciliation. But it’s so important for the church in the west to embrace that – that humble and graceful position. That would be a wonderful thing.

Thirdly, for the church to regain the confidence of the gospel; that actually Jesus makes a difference. That God is a God of solidarity and of transformation. Yes, God journeys with us in our pain and our suffering, but God also actively seeks to transform our lives and our world. So just having a confidence in the transforming power of our God, that God does make a difference and that God’s people empowered by his Spirit are actually catalyst people.

That first point you made just reminded me of Pope Francis. What do you make of the new Pope? Do you think he’s helping bring the biggest church in the world back to the roots of the gospel?

I think he’s brilliant. I think not just the statements that we’re hearing, but his actions. How he’s going about things is just beautiful and I think the world is responding. I think the world is looking on and they’re saying, “Finally, here is a church that we thought was meant to be a church which seems humble, a church that prioritises those we’ve forgotten.” It was lovely the other day, I don’t know if you saw the coverage in Australia, but a homeless man was actually buried in the Vatican. Just beautiful, beautiful stuff. I think he’s not only talking the right stuff, but he’s actually living it, which I think is more important.

Tell me a bit about your past ministries, particularly the period of your life when you and your wife were raising a young family and fostering young, vulnerable women in your home?

By our mid-20s we were running a home for young women who couldn’t live at home. We fostered around 40 teenage young women over four or five years and their home lives were very unsafe or troubled. That was a great thing. It was one of the great privileges of my life, that ministry, just to be safe and present for those amazing young women.

And then we felt God’s invitation to shift into the inner city of Wellington and we put ourselves in the interesting end of town. There we gave hospitality for the street community and in partnership with others we planted a church with the street community and we had wonderful adventures there for about five years with all sorts of wonderful people filling our lives.

Then we dreamed of creating an environment where it was hard for our friends who we’d made in the previous ministry to not make good decisions, somewhere which was conducive to one’s restoration, wholeness and healing. So we bought a property about an hour out of Wellington in a beautiful rural space called Ngatiawa.

We set up a contemporary monastery where we were for around 11 years and still run today, offering hospitality to lots of people, particularly those who don’t get options of places to go. And so over any year about 1500 people come and stay.

It’s beautiful. We do the three offices of prayer a day and a community of around 20 people live there, but there are always extras staying. That was the ministry we were doing before I was called to be Bishop.

If I can rewind to your time fostering the young women, I’m just curious: what is it God taught you during that time? I imagine it would’ve been quite a steep learning curve.

Oh yeah, totally. I mean, our own children were born in that environment. It’s not like we had any parenting experience at all, let alone of teenagers.

I think firstly we learnt that everybody has got a story and often people don’t choose their story. The second thing we learnt is that those young women were amazing. To have the resilience they did in the face of some of their stories, they were heroes as far as I was concerned.

Some of us are called to [live communally] and some of us aren’t, but all of us are called to do life deeply with each other, to be the body of Christ.

Third thing I learned was the skills of helping people to unload their backpacks and how to help get below the years of defense mechanisms they had created to survive and actually get beyond them and to help them actually unload. That obviously took conscious effort of learning those skills, to have those conversations in a helpful way.

I think another thing we learnt – in the words of Jack Johnson – was that “It’s always better when we’re together”. It’s always fun doing life with other people as opposed to as a nuclear family, so for 20 years we’ve always lived with more people than just our nuclear family and it’s been great.

We probably learnt how to cook for 12 people as the norm as opposed to the exception, and that continues. And learnt how to make numerous dishes on a low budget.

What were some of the hairiest experiences you had during that time?

Obviously we had these young women and at various times they’d run away and all that kind of stuff and then they’d be caught up in minor addiction circles and petty criminal circles that were hard to escape. So you know, there’s a lot of pain, but then there was a lot of really good times.

We had some slightly dodgy/dangerous moments. I remember a real sad night: One night one of the young women came bowling upstairs distraught because she had heard the next door neighbours were having a loud, alcohol-fuelled party and that kicked her into all of her own alcohol abuse traumas. But then you know, the party next door got out of hand and sure enough it turned into a case of domestic violence. So having to go next door and break up a family violence situation where the woman was blacked out on the floor unconscious, to have the courage to take the tension out of the situation and get the necessary medical help … that was not a fun moment.

I don’t know what it’s like in Australia, but in New Zealand we’re slow to engage in stuff around domestic violence and I think we let a lot of stuff slide instead of getting involved and saying we can do better than this. I think those things are always scary but actually important.

There’s actually a massive conversation happening over here at the moment because a local journalist wrote about domestic violence in the church and the doctrine of submission.

Oh really that’s fascinating.

Christians have been responding with a mixture of views ranging from “it doesn’t happen in the church” to “you bet it does” and women writing anonymously.

I think it’s a totally valid comment by the journalist and I think that we are slow as a church to honestly engage in those conversations with each other.

Obviously lots of parents would be concerned with keeping their children safe and that sort of thing. How have you guys come to terms with putting your kids in situations that other parents would deem unsafe or dangerous?

We’re really intentional about our parenting. I think we’ve always been really intentional with our parenting. We’ve been very keen to try and discern what God is asking of us as a family, that is true. But we’ve always been very keen to take our children on that journey, so we’ve worked really hard at helping our children make sense of the experiences that happen in our lives while at the same time retaining their innocence.

I like the quote: “Children are very good observers, but very poor interpreters.” Children observe everything, but often they interpret it in the wrong way. So as an example, a child will observe their parents fighting, but a child will interpret that they are fighting because of the child, so they’ll blame themselves. Classic example.

So we’ve spent a lot of time helping our kids make sense of what they experience and debriefing with them. We help them debrief not just about living with people with a lot of pain, but also school and other things. We’ve spent a lot of time unpacking that with them.

So you know, yes, we live with people with mental health problems, but we explain it like, “When you’ve had a hard life often your life ends up being sad and sad people often do some things which most of us struggle to understand.” So just trying to break it down into language they can understand while protecting their innocence. And I think we spent a lot of time doing that. Every day, every night we would spend time debriefing with our children. You know, explaining about who they lived with – petty criminals in and out of jail. “Sometimes when you do some things which aren’t that great then sometimes you have to go to time out as a child. And as an adult, you do things which aren’t great and sometimes society sends you to time out. So and so is in time out.” They can get their head around that.

Living with teenage young women was great because for the young women it gave them these children who offered them a bit of unconditional love, with whom they could bond and be present for. And it broke down the barriers.

Did you ever feel like your kid’s lives were in danger?

We were always vigilant. But our kids now are 20, 18 and 16 and I think they look back and we look back and think they had a really good deal. They had a great life – a hard life – they never had many toys and didn’t have the exposure to popular culture that everybody else has, but they had a richness of life that others don’t, with many aunties and uncles, including the many Christian young people who we also shared life with.

Coming to the monastery, are you able to give me an idea of what an average day looks like?
People get up and have breakfast. First office of prayer is about 8:30 in the morning in the chapel. People then come back from prayers. Those who are around, some do work around the property, some just retreat and read, relax and talk. Lots of coffee gets done. Then midday, prayers again and then evening prayers around 8 o’clock at night. The meals are shared. Often people are looking after the children, that kind of mixture. Every week is a bit different, sometimes there’s a project on the go: a garden to be planted, a fence to be painted. Once a year there’s a big festival and so there’s a lot of work that goes into that.

There’s always a cup of tea, lots of visitors and hospitality and everybody there is self-supporting so they go out and make their own money and have jobs. So therefore the monastery is financially sustained by those who live there; it’s donation only for those who visit.

I know you’ve done a lot of research into the topic of the monastic movement renewing the church. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Yeah I got halfway through a PhD and then abandoned it. I’m really interested in that dynamism between the edge and the centre and the more edgy, Christian neo-monastic groups and their renewal influence in the church, that’s kind of what my interest is in. Kind of how those groups enable the mainstream church to renew itself in a way that it’s not capable of doing itself.

In your mind is it the ideal for Christians to live in community?
No. I think all of us are called to belong deeply with one another. Some of us are called to do that residentially and some of us aren’t, but all of us are called to do life deeply with each other, to be the body of Christ. But I think throughout history there are some groups which are full of people who are captivated by a particular call and that is a gift to the wider church because they keep calling the church back to that aspect of the ministry of Christ.

We embody very strongly the call to community and the marginalised and so that just helps the rest of the church remember that call by the lives that we choose to live. Now, other people will choose to live that differently, but we choose to embody that part of the body of Christ as a living signpost. Other people will embody other facets of Christ’s ministry but we feel called to embody that one strongly.

What are some monastic principles or practices which you think the average Joe could or should incorporate into their life?
I’d put two out there. One is doing the daily prayer office together. We now, even though we’ve shifted into the Wellington city, still do two offices of prayer a day as a household and I think that’s just transformed our lives. We’ve been doing the daily office now for 10 years or more together and I can’t see how people can do ministry lives without joining together daily in prayer. We use the monastic daily offices for it.

The other thing I think is a strong call to hospitality. I think if we can reclaim our corporate prayer and lives of radical hospitality, then I think we’ll be doing really well.

Justin is appearing at Surrender, March 20-22nd, along with a number of other speakers passionate about ministry to the margins.