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A drop-in centre with a difference

How one small church is creating safe spaces for Aboriginal young people in Alice Springs

A small hall in Alice Springs is the catalyst for change in the way young Aboriginal people experience life in central Australia.

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“Young people don’t feel safe and welcome in general in Alice Springs,” says Steve Bevis, the minister at Alice Springs Uniting Church. “They feel on the edge of things; there are too many messages back to them that they are unwelcome. They have a sense that they are held in suspicion, and many of them do end up in juvenile detention.”

Even before the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, which inquired into the treatment of children in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin and other detention facilities in the Northern Territory, there were plenty of problems with young people in Alice Springs.

“Everybody in this town was faced with the reality of people’s lives that led so many kids to be in those detention centres.” – Steve Bevis

Into that context, Bevis and the team at Alice Springs Uniting Church decided they wanted to create a safe space for Aboriginal youth. They have called it The Meeting Place.

“A bunch of our young adults caught a vision of walking beside Aboriginal youth,” says Bevis. “Three years ago, the crisis with Aboriginal youth in this town was really starting to get people’s attention. Out of that has come the Northern Territory royal commission because of the sad and appalling state of those detention centres. However, everybody in this town was faced with the reality of people’s lives that led so many kids to be in those detention centres at Don Dale and here in Alice Springs.

“The government had pulled out funding, and services had been defunded. Into that gap, this congregation bravely chose to stand.”

“They call it home. That’s pretty special in a town where they don’t often have a home.” – Steve Bevis

Three years later, they have a drop-in centre that is open a couple of nights each week. It is held open by volunteers from church and across the community.

They have a few rules – you can’t come in with drugs or alcohol, and you can’t be violent – but, other than that, they just open up the space to any Aboriginal youth who want to come along. They have on average 100 kids turn up every time.

“They come here freely – there’s no one who rounds them up and tells them to come here, unlike most youth services in this town,” says Bevis.

There’s a skateboard ramp, couches and computers, and the young people play games and computer games, watch movies, throw basketballs and ride bikes through the place. They paint it, and then repaint it, and tag the walls.

“It’s very easy with that trauma to flip from being smiley and happy one minute to on edge and upset the next.”- Steve Bevis

Their guidelines read: This is a safe space for young people. We believe in equality. We practise non-violence. This is a drug and alcohol-free space.

“They call it home,” Bevis tells Eternity. “That’s pretty special in a town where they don’t often have a home.”

But Bevis says, “it’s still hard. These are kids who are traumatised, who have seen parents and grandparents out of work – intergenerational unemployment and poverty. There are drugs and other alcohol problems. And young people are faced with violence and despair. They’ve grown up with that … Their world was shaped by The Intervention [a set of controversial policies introduced by the Howard government in 2007 in response to the Little Children are Sacred report, which claimed that neglect and sexual abuse of children in Indigenous communities had reached crisis levels.]

“So it’s very easy with that trauma to flip from being smiley and happy one minute to on edge and upset the next.”

“It’s about building those relationships. You can take steps forward.”- Steve Bevis

As an example, the building next door is the Supreme Court, and while the church was constructing it, they used the back of the church hall (which hosts The Meeting Place) as the site office.

Kids would break into the office and steal computers, which understandably caused some pressure between the church and the construction team.

“So we sat down with the kids and said, ‘Look, we want you to have this space, we know that you don’t feel safe or welcome in other places, but as we hold this space we are together with others and we need to find ways of working together and being with each other.’

“At that point, one of the younger fellows said it was one of the young kids who took that computer. I asked him if he thought he could sort that out. The next morning the computer was back on the desk. So it’s about building those relationships. You can take steps forward,” says Bevis.

But relationship building is slow work, and is affected by the history of white settlement.

“So many missionaries and so many missions did provide genuine safe spaces, meeting places, for people.” – Steve Bevis

“For all the complex history around missions and the relationship with colonialism and the settlement of this country, violent as it sometimes and often was – and the church’s place in that – it always provided, in some sense, a place of cushioning, some sort of opportunity to slowly, in the midst of an overwhelming world, find your way.

“So many missionaries truly gave their lives to sitting down with the people they went to, and to truly trying to understand them. They learned languages, learned people’s culture. They tried to discern, with people, how God’s story comes into their story. And that’s the same here.

“Yes, there were problems and, yes, some missionaries are better than others and, yes, it is bound up with that history of globalisation; and so because of that, some missionaries had attitudes which resembled Western imperialism. But for all of that, so many missionaries and so many missions did provide genuine safe spaces, meeting places, for people. People may not have had much choice, but they did operate in that way.”

“All of us need to understand more, but only some of us need to go on that journey.” – Steve Bevis

For Christians who are keen to support our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, Bevis wants to pass on the same advice he received from Aboriginal Christian leaders.

“On the one hand, Aboriginal people and churches are struggling – families are in prison, people are living with unemployment, they’re dealing with marginalisation and degrees of explicit racism all the time. There are only so many things they can cope with, and having hordes of us non-indigenous whitefellas is too much. All of us need to understand more, but only some of us need to go on that journey. People need to discern if it is a journey that God really wants you to go on.

“For those of us who feel like that’s a step too much, GOOD. Own it. That’s fine. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to, as congregations and churches around the country, be aware of their needs. To know the stories. To pray. And to work out how do we as God’s people be agents of reconciliation in this country.”

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