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Karina and Armen’s urban mission

A newly married couple show how to love your neighbour

Karina Kreminski and Armen Gakavian walk into the urban village café in perfectly synchronised steps and sit down, taking each other’s hand. Married for just seven months, they transmit infectious joy and thrilled attraction as they describe their new joint ministry, Neighbourhood Matters.

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When they announced on Facebook recently that they were launching Neighbourhood Matters as a husband-and-wife team to offer the church training and equipping in the area of neighbourhood ministry, particularly with an urban focus, they were touched and amazed by the enthusiastic response.

It’s almost as if God has brought this couple together expressly for this! From their first meeting, the couple were delighted by how much they had in common – their European backgrounds included – and the synergy between their heart for “urban mission” grew only more intense with time, along with their growing romance.

As Karina says in an upcoming episode of ABC TV’s Compass on Sunday, July 28, called Love Your Neighbour, urban mission is not primarily about what you do but who you are.

And this is what she is: a Baptist minister and theology teacher, Karina is well known in the neighbourhood of Surry Hills, an inner-city village in Sydney, for bringing disparate people together. She is the facilitator of The Happiness Lab at the Surry Hills Neighbourhood Centre – which is a six-week course exploring what it means to live a flourishing life through practices such as mindfulness, forgiveness, residence, self-care and gratitude. She is also known for her blog called Surry Hills & Valleys, which features stories about the life and times of Surry Hills locals. She has laid out her theology of loving your neighbour in a book called Urban Spirituality: Embodying God’s Mission in the Neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, Armen has spent the past eight years pioneering Ministry at the Margins for the Australian Navigators in partnership with the Salvation Army in Ivanhoe Public Housing Estate in Sydney’s northwest. He is also Editor & Associate Director at Ethos: The Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society, which helps people to profess their faith in their public and professional life.

“So with Karina’s teaching and my past mentoring experience, we thought we want to do something that comes out of what we’ve done, the experience that we’ve had and something we can do together,” Armen explains.

“People also dig the romance behind it as well. ‘Oh, look, God brought them together and now they’re doing this!’” – Karina Kreminski

Karina says: “This is a concept that people are really interested in. They’re really thinking ‘what is God up to outside the church?’ And ‘how do we go beyond just Sunday morning service?’ So people are craving to understand that. I think it’s also that we’ve been around for a long time – Armen’s been doing ministry for decades and I have as well, so people know us and know we’re not dodgy.

“I think people also dig the romance behind it as well. ‘Oh, look, God brought them together and now they’re doing this!’”

Before they even formally announced the initiative, Karina and Armen had formed two partnerships which confirmed the need for what they are offering.

Karina and Armen will design and run an urban internship for BaptistCare’s Hope Street, which supports the disadvantaged and people on the margins. They will train people for mission in the urban space, designing the practical and theoretical elements of a curriculum and oversee the placements, which could be in Surry Hills, Woolloomooloo or Darlinghurst – all inner-city villages.

The other partnership is with Vertical Villages, a project of the Salvation Army that is being supported by Macquarie University in Sydney’s north, which looks at community building in high-rise villages. Karina and Armen will design toolkits for churches and train churches to connect with vertical villages, specifically in the area of Macquarie Park, which will soon be Australia’s third biggest CBD after Sydney and Melbourne.

Taking on these projects has prompted Karina to leave her role at Morling College, a Baptist theological college in Macquarie Park, where she was coordinating the master’s and church planting programs, although she is likely to still teach one day a week there next year.

She and Armen believe that Christians – particularly young Millennials – are looking for more creative ways of training for mission and ministry than some Bible colleges are offering.

“Theological colleges are struggling in general – you have to be really creative to adapt,” says Karina.

“Are we training ministers or people to work in the neighbourhood? These are the on-the-ground questions colleges are not keeping up with. People are looking to study elsewhere and that’s what we’re providing; we’re providing an alternative to a Bible college.”

“Jesus is with us now and he’s at work in this neighbourhood and listening and discerning and creating things.” – Karina Kreminski

Having lived as a missionary in the urban environment of Surry Hills for almost four years, Karina loves the idea of coining new words to describe her experiments in community building, allowing practice to inform theology.

“I want to experiment with stuff and then something comes out of it and you go ‘yeah, let’s call it that’ – you know, give language to things,” she says.

“There’s got to be life in that kind of thing because God’s spirit is alive and active – it isn’t just about a book that we read or a person who lived a long time ago; Jesus is with us now and he’s at work in this neighbourhood and listening and discerning and creating things.”

One of Armen and Karina’s joint creations is a locals gathering on one Sunday a month at the pub, which they started in February as a purely social event.

“Everyone can come and just hang out and sometimes we get four, sometimes we get 10, just depending on who’s around. It’s just a nice way to connect with people,” says Karina.

“Over a glass of wine or beer, people do tend to open up so we do end up chatting a little bit more deeply about stuff of life.” – Karina Kreminski

Friendships deepen over time, Karina says, “because over a glass of wine or beer, people do tend to open up so we do end up chatting a little bit more deeply about stuff of life.”

They also have a chance to go deeper while meeting the same people at the Surry Hills Neighbourhood Centre café one Saturday a month and holding Happiness Lab dinners once a month.

“If we go for an afternoon walk, as we do, we just text her and say ‘do you want to join us?’ – just including people in what you do already.” – Armen Gakavian

“Then we make sure that if we do have a deep chat with people and they’re struggling, they’re going through a difficult time, we text them; or the other day we met up with somebody who’s had a horrible incident, they got a bad virus and they were really struggling alone at home. We found out about it and just went over and visited her. So just keeping up with what’s going on in people’s lives,” says Karina.

Armen adds: “And with the same woman we’ve gone for a walk together. So one day if we go for an afternoon walk, as we do, we just text her and say ‘do you want to join us?’ – just including people in what you do already.”

Karina says the friends she’s made in the locality didn’t know she was a Christian when she started reaching out to them; by the time they found out, they accepted it because she had already established relationships with them. Her calling became obvious to all when ABC Television started filming the Compass episode – to be shown this Sunday, July 28 – showcasing her ministry in the area.

“So we had to say to them I’m being framed as a missionary in an urban neighbourhood and chatted about what that means. They were really good about it because they know us, they know that we’re not going to try and convert them or force our opinions on them or look down on them because they don’t believe what we believe and so it’s fine.”

“The more you do it, the more you exercise your courage muscles, then it becomes a lot easier.” – Karina Kreminski

Karina and Armen admit that getting to know the neighbours and inviting them into your life requires a bit of boldness and courage.

“But the more you do it, the more you exercise your courage muscles, then it becomes a lot easier. The first time you do it, it’s difficult, then you do it again and again and, hang on, this is coming pretty naturally now,” says Karina.

“I get a lot of people saying to me when we talk about this, ‘I’m an introvert’ and I say to them ‘we’re introverts!’ I don’t think it’s the issue. I just think it’s having that courage to just say a kind word.

“I also talk about having a posture of curiosity. So just being curious about people and that will trigger something in you to say, ‘oh, I like your earrings’ or ‘is that crystal you’re wearing – are you wearing that because you’re religious?’ And people love talking about themselves! Nobody will ever go ‘it’s none of your business.’”

Armen adds: “People are looking for opportunities to connect, but they’re just as afraid as we are – someone needs to break down that wall.”

As well as a posture of curiosity, Karina also stresses the importance of a posture of non-judgment. “Just not judging at all, just accepting whatever the person is saying and feeling and at some stage they’ll start asking you about what you believe and you can share that.”

Armen and Karina comment that at their stage of life – he is 50 and she is almost 50 – they are eager to invest in others.

“Armen and I always joke and say if we’d done this in our 30s, we would have called it Armen and Karina Ministries, but you let go of that and at this stage go, ‘no, it’s bigger than you just wanting to get your stuff across.’ At this age, you settle a bit, in a nice way,” says Karina.

Armen adds: “And I feel it’s at the stage where I owe it to people to pass on what I’ve learnt, but also it’s nice to learn from young people, so it will be that two-way learning.”

ABC Compass Love your neighbour screens at 6.30pm on July 28.

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