Welcome to The Shed Door – church in thongs

Eternity is revisiting some of the stories our staff writers most loved writing.

Penny Mulvey, former acting editor of Eternity, chose this story. She says: “Most of the time these days, journos make phone calls to get a story. But visiting in person is way more satisfying. I had a wonderful day with Phil Simpson, the man behind The Shed Door in Mitcham. Phil is a lawyer, storyteller and passionate evangelist, who has created a safe place for men and boys to gather, do stuff, drink coffee and hear about Jesus.”

Phil Simpson is a bundle of energy. I’ve barely shaken his hand and stepped into The Shed Door when we are off on a tour of the facility … a factory space that has been converted into a bright engaging indoor ‘play’ area for adolescent youth and men. BMX bikes adorn the walls. Minibikes are part of the decor. There is a decent space for shooting hoops. A basic kitchen. Upstairs quiet space. A stage with mikes and sound system, a mobile coffee cart, old neon signs. It’s both laid back and exudes warmth.

Phil is one of those people who has an idea a minute. It would be exhausting to be with him if he were not so exuberant, passionate, and likeable. This man loves people. He wants the best for everyone, and what is particularly on his heart are ‘blokes’ and youth.

He is a barrister, chaplain, gentle evangelist, an advocate for the down-and-out, a man who gets things done.

How does a barrister end up in a little office in the middle of factory central off the Maroondah Highway in Mitcham, Victoria?

Over the course of our time together, he mentions Shed Youth, Shednite for men, 36 hours of prayer, ‘coffee and cars’, Food for Thought, business lunches, an Alpha group for youth, and setting up support services for the homeless in the area.

Let’s start with the barrister. The man in front of me in the baseball cap, hoodie and jeans does not fit the image of the wigged and cloaked professional we see on the television news striding towards the courtroom. How does a barrister end up in a little office in the middle of factory central off the Maroondah Highway in Mitcham, Victoria?

Phil Simpson will appear at Magistrates’ Courts across the state to represent his clients. When the initial meeting between potential client and legal adviser takes place at The Shed Door, the client is always pleasantly surprised to find him tucked away in a factory. His legal work enables him to work voluntarily for The Shed Door, while also (along with his wife Lara, who is a primary school teacher) ensuring the bills are paid and there is food on the table. They have four children, aged 21, 19, 17, and 15.

Open for legal business Penny Mulvey

“I deal with people who’ve done something dumb,” Phil the barrister explains. “I don’t wear jeans for conferences, but I don’t wear a pinstripe either. I often put on a tie, usually a vest, and people just take a deep breath, and they go ‘thank you.’

“People like coming here because they don’t have to find a park in the city, they don’t have to worry about a receptionist, they often think they are in the wrong place, and they sit here and they bare their souls and they tell me their dramas and I’ve never had anyone say ‘this is odd or bizarre.’ They normally go ‘this is so good’.”

At the end of every conference (the legal meeting between client and barrister), Phil will give his client a tour of the shed.

“Blokes are really poor at debriefing stuff, they just hold it in. And often, as they look at the bikes, it will lead to ‘Oh this is what happened to my dad …’ So giving them a tour, that’s an important part of the whole process.”

“It’s sort of church in sandals.” – Phil Simpson

As the dreams, passions and wonder at how The Shed Door came to be, phrases such as “it’s just a mish-mash of humanity”; “It’s fantastic”; “This is a thing for blokes”; “it’s lowbrow”; “it’s relatable” flow out of Phil’s mouth. But can it be defined for those of us who like things to fit into a neat box with a bow?

“Well,” says Phil, “it’s sort of church in sandals or church in thongs.

“Even if there was no faith element to it, it’s the coming together of people to de-isolate and reconnect. But that’s a community service, and that’s probably not me. I like seeing that, but the faith underpins the story for me.”

He also says The Shed Door is not a Christian organisation, but he does regard this little registered charity as a mission partner with One Community Church and New Hope Baptist Church in Blackburn. The idea of Shednite emerged from Phil’s small group at One Community several years ago.

While Phil does not seek funding from the churches, he does want them to be aware of what The Shed Door does. “We pray for you and, if you could, pray for us,” he says.

“We’ve got to start finding ways to bring back the relevance of God in the lives of people.” – Phil Simpson

Every Tuesday morning volunteers gather to pray for the work and relationships birthed at The Shed Door and his entire family attends the weekly Youth and Young adults night on Wednesdays.

More than 70 young people turned out for the latest Youth Night to eat free pizza and to hear from Trey Moses, a 208cm professional basketballer, on the vital topic of mental health.

Phil describes Wednesday Youth Nite as a cross between youth group and he’s not sure what, “but the kids keep coming”.

“It is a funny, disorganised sort of crowd. There’s one kid who comes and he’s hilarious. He’s 17. He walked in the other night covered in black paint. And I said, ‘What have you been doing, Stewy?’ And he said ‘Graffin’. And I said ‘Graffin?’ And he said ‘Spray painting.’ I responded, ‘How’s that goin’ for you?’ ‘Alright, I’m in a bit of trouble.’

“He was pretty stand-offish, but he sat down in my office for about 20 minutes, and he goes ‘Mate, I’ve got a few dramas at home and I’ve been doin’ a lot of dumb sh**.’

“They’re the people I love to connect with because they don’t have many other positive influences – no filters, no structure – and I take the view that you probably need two or three peer groups in your life, particularly when you are a young adult.

“One group pulls you this way, another group pulls you another way, and if you can do it properly maybe you can sort of go down the middle.

“A lot of people are lonely and overwhelmed and I just think, ‘Well, if we can just do a tiny little bit just to connect people.’”

70 youth attend Wednesday Youth Nite Phil Simpson

Recently Phil was challenged to think about whether he had ever literally heard God’s voice. His initial reaction was ‘No’. And then he started to think about the conviction he had to start this small initiative that morphed into The Shed Door.

“You throw it out, you’ve got no idea and people walk in the door and you just step back and you let it unfold.

“I think the closest sense of God saying to me was ‘Just get on with it. You don’t have to have it all written down, you don’t have to have a handbook. You don’t have to have ten speakers. Just get on with it.’ So I went to the guys and said, ‘Let’s just do it’. It’s ad hoc. It still is.”

Phil just asks when he needs help. He reads about someone doing something remarkable, and he finds them on Facebook and sends a note.

They held their first Shednite for 2022 in April, with their guest speaker, AFL player Matt Kennedy from Carlton.

The Shed Door’s Facebook page described the event this way: … a ripping bloke with an amazing story. It was a great message of faith, resilience, hard work, and strong family values.

Phil says the speakers are not always Christians, but they will all have a good story relevant to the crowd. For example, the next speaker is a supercar driver who competes at Bathurst.

“He wants to tell the story of a guy who he had only just met who gave his life for him.” – Phil Simpson

Phil also reached out to a man who survived a shocking skydiving accident in Torquay last year, when the instructor positioned himself to take the bulk of the impact after the parachute malfunctioned and was killed.

“I just Facebooked him. He said he talks at community events because he wants to tell the story of a guy who he had only just met who gave his life for him. That fits in pretty nicely with the gospel message.

“As he was plummeting to earth, the guy who he had never met [before] turned around and said ‘You better start praying, mate’ and he lived. That guy died but he lived and he wants to tell people that story.”

“The biggest legacy we could leave would be for others to catch the vision of something like this in their own setting.” – Phil Simpson

Before setting up Shed Door, Phil was a chaplain at Blackburn Primary School a few days a week. He would play footie with the kids. He has gone on 27 school camps, and his own children never went on primary school camp without Dad being present. What a legacy! Young people he hung out with in their pre-teen days still call him, seeking his advice or support.

Does Phil have any advice for others who are motivated to do something in their own neighbourhoods?

“The biggest legacy we could leave would be for others to catch the vision of something like this in their own setting. It doesn’t have to look like this. It looks like this because I’m into cars and bikes.

“Ultimately, I would like to see people imparting what the Kingdom looks like in a practical atmosphere with zero or very low barriers to entry. That’s what it’s about. I don’t think people generally are critical or antagonistic towards church. They just don’t see the relevance of it. We’ve got to start finding ways to bring back the relevance of God in the lives of people.”