Give them a pair of undies ... in love

Wayside Chapel’s Valentine’s appeal

“Go give them some jocks!” is not a phrase you expect to hear spoken into a microphone from the stage of a conference, several times over the course of a day. But this conference is “Side by Side” – being run by the Wayside Chapel, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, so there’s plenty of talk about undies.

Wayside is the charity and parish mission of the Uniting Church, located near the red-light district of Sydney’s Kings Cross. It has been offering access to health, welfare and social services to people living on the margins of society since the 1960s. It declares its mission to be “creating community with no ‘us and them’” and says “we do this by breaking down the barriers of judgement and providing a safe place where people from all walks of life are welcome.”

Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a clean pair of undies.

And all the talk about underwear?

“Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a clean pair of undies,” proclaims Wayside’s Valentine’s Day campaign. It encourages people to “share the love with those doing it tough on the streets” by donating to Wayside’s work to provide practical assistance to Australians who are doing it tough.

Accordingly, between speakers, Side by Side’s conference MC Graham Rich is handing out undies to attendees and asking them to pledge a donation in return.

“These are going to cut off my circulation!” laughs a big, burly conference attendee holding up a pair of undies that he’s just been given. He pledges $50 nonetheless.

Each week Wayside Chapel provides 482 showers and toiletries; 1,629 low-cost meals and 533 changes of clothes and underwear, along with 303 instances of practical help, from collecting mail to phone support. All of it is undergirded by a vision of “love over hate” of “living on the intersection between love and hate, between faith and no faith, between the haves and the have-nots, the housed and the homeless, the sick and the well.”

At Side by Side, this vision is outworked on stage by the microphone being shared by both people who have high public profiles and people who don’t. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sits alongside his daughter Daisy Turnbull Brown, who is wellbeing director at St Catherine’s School, and impressive high school student-leaders Eloise Aiken, Ethan Cheung and Alice Morgan.

“Doing subjects like Aboriginal studies has educated me about the state of Australia and how we are treating our First Nations people … I have been able to see that it’s incredibly concerning that we’re a developed country and many of our First Nations people do not have access to basic human rights,” said the passionate Eloise Aiken, school captain from Cheltenham Girls High School in northwest Sydney.

“The quickest way to shut down a conversation with someone is to ask how you can help them.” – Jon Owens

Wayside’s board members discuss social housing with one of Wayside’s visitors, Josh Macey, who actually lives in social housing. Features editor of Guardian Australia Lucy Clarke interviews Nijole Naujokas and Amethyst DeWilde – two authors who write for the paper’s “Life on the breadline” series, in which Australians living below the poverty line share the details of their day-to-day lives, as well as their personal insights on the world of welfare.

Wayside CEO Jon Owens told attendees that “the quickest way to shut down a conversation with someone is to ask how you can help them”. A better approach, he said, was the one expressed in the quote by Aboriginal activist Aunty Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

“You are who you eat with,” he told Side by Side attendees. Owens described Wayside’s work as being “an invitation to intimacy” and to have “disarming naked encounters with humanity”. Naked encounters with humanity, wearing a clean pair of undies, that is!