The dreadlocked minister with a heart for refugees

How Jarrod McKenna the schoolboy fighter became an outspoken advocate

Jarrod McKenna decided to follow Jesus when he was just 14 years old. After searching the heavens and praying “if you’re out there I need you,” he made the big announcement to his family one Saturday night as they were having a meal at a food court in Perth.

“Over a plate of nachos, I looked up at Mum and Dad and said: ‘I want to follow Jesus’ and I burst out crying – and then my sister started crying and then my mum started crying and then my dad started crying,” says the dreadlocked minister with a chuckle.

“I was to love those that Jesus loved out of this deep realisation that he had first loved me.” – Jarrod McKenna

“Everybody in the food court must have looked around at us and like, ‘who’s died?’ And the theological answer is ‘my old self.’

“The next morning, a number of people before church came and gathered round the family swimming pool and sang I Have Decided to Follow Jesus as my dad [who ran a house church] baptised me in the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit.”

It was a hugely significant moment for the West Australian pastor and justice advocate whose dedication to opposing the federal government’s policies towards refugees and asylum-seekers has landed him in jail several times.

McKenna was one of the founders of Love Makes a Way, a movement of Christians who seek a return to more humane asylum-seeker policies through prayer and non-violent protests (such as occupying government offices).

Becoming a Christian was transformative for the dyslexic kid with ADD who got by at school by being quick with his tongue and quick with his fists. It meant he could no longer beat kids up but had to break up fights instead.

“It meant a different group of people were now mine and I couldn’t relate to them in the same way. I couldn’t deal with my pain how I previously had if I was to follow Jesus. I was to love those that Jesus loved out of this deep realisation that he had first loved me.”

“If you meet my parents I make a little bit more sense, both in the ways that I fit or perhaps don’t.” – Jarrod McKenna

That Jarrod’s commitment to following Jesus drove him to campaigning on justice issues, especially those affecting refugees, makes complete sense when you consider his parents.

His father had been a monk in an Irish Catholic order, caring for the sick and dying, before backpacking across the world to Australia. Working at a hospital in Perth, he asked his boss out on a date. She asked him if he was a Christian and when he said “it’s complicated,” she said “the only date you’re getting out of me is coming to church.”

“Dad came to church and a week later he was baptised. So from Dad I got a strong sense of Catholic social teaching, and that sense of ‘we see Christ in the poor’,” Jarrod explains.

His mother grew up in a family of atheist Russian Jews, but was deeply impressed by TV footage of Martin Luther King Jr from Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 when police turned fire hoses on young African-Americans protesting against racial segregation.

Noticing that Luther King was a Baptist minister, she presented herself at her local Baptist church and gave her life to Jesus Christ after responding to the altar call.

“So from mum I got a love of Martin Luther King and a strong indoctrination in the civil rights movement. Mum has an incredible ability to get what she needs for a greater good and having people like her in the process, so I’ve got that can-do activism of Mum.

“Dad’s very contemplative, he’s a thinker, so in some strange way if you meet my parents I make a little bit more sense, both in the ways that I fit or perhaps don’t.”

“It’s our inability to enter into pain which sometimes means that we can’t enter into God’s joy.” – Jarrod McKenna

For the past six years Jarrod and his family have lived with refugees at what he calls the “First Home Project” – a former meth lab acquired by crowd-sourcing a mortgage – which they have divided into three apartments. The sprawling home provides housing and a rental history for a succession of refugees who are trying to settle into the community.

He calls it “hospitality” but says that while being a host to asylum-seekers and refugees requires being willing to give a lot of support, the “incredible gift” of such hospitality “is that these people bring more joy to me than I have ever done anything for them.”

“The church has this prophetic opportunity in this time in history to show Australia and therefore the world what it is to welcome people, as Christ has welcomed us.”

Jarrod believes he was chosen to be an advocate for refugees, because he believes all Christians have been chosen to be advocates for refugees.

“Our first call, our first vocation is to follow Jesus; to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow him.”

He says that it’s in the daily rhythm of learning to be a Christian: “loving our neighbour, letting our yes be yes, doing those things that are drastic to remove temptation, learning to trust God and not hoard, learning to pray the Lord’s Prayer instead of what we often pray about …”, that we find our calling.

“As we follow Jesus, we find where our skills, our talents, our passions, our interests come together with God’s kingdom purposes. And then we’ll see that we’re all called to come alongside the poor.”

Jarrod cares about things deeply. He talks often of being brought to tears by the people he has met as he travels the world speaking about non-violent activism and advocating for refugees. Yet he says there are too many times where even he feels apathy or a hardness of heart. In those instances, he turns to the Psalms.

“I find an incredible gift in the psalms and learning to lament,” says Jarrod. “It’s our inability to enter into pain which sometimes means that we can’t enter into God’s joy.

“Ask God to break your heart for the reality of these people …” – Jarrod McKenna

“So learning to pray the psalms – even the psalms that we don’t often sing, the psalms of desolation. My encouragement to people would be not to do that merely by yourself, but to be a part of a community [to help you] develop a prayer life that is rich and deep, so regardless of where are emotionally we can be in it for the long haul.

“That’s the slow, gradual work of becoming a person of prayer.”

Prayer is something Jarrod says more Christians could be doing for the refugees stuck on Manus Island. Jarrod himself visited Manus Island late last year, smuggled into the detention camp by local Christians.

“We’ve forgotten them,” says Jarrod. “We need to keep up the conversation that there are people who are seeking safety whose futures are frozen indefinitely on Manus.

“[We must] start with prayer. Ask God to break your heart for the reality of these people … it’s the heart that breaks that God’s mercy can flow through. And continue to sing, to pray, ‘break my heart for what breaks yours, everything I am for your kingdom cause.'”

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