National Magazine of the Lutheran Church of Australia

Hills of Grace

March 2016

By Lisa McIntosh

From the inner cities of Australia and New Zealand, to country towns and the outback, LCA pastors, lay workers and members have worked with, and cared and advocated for, refugees and other new arrivals for many decades.

In this way, these servants of Christ – some of whom were refugees themselves – have been bringing his love and compassion to life for their new neighbours.

Nestling picturesque hamlets that time forgot, and fertile countryside where fruit trees and grapevines thrive and cattle prosper, the Adelaide Hills region is among the most desirable dirt in Australia. The hills exhale the tranquillity and beauty of the bush, along with the old-world charms and culture of 19th century Germany. The descendants of the area’s earliest European settlers still form a sizable part of the population today.

This peaceful idyll is literally a world away from the refugee camps of Jordan and Kenya, and figuratively a world away from the defunct Woomera and Baxter immigration detention centres in outback South Australia.

When pastors Steven Liersch (formerly Onkaparinga) and David Preuss (Lobethal) answered calls to serve Adelaide Hills parishes in 2003 and 2009 respectively, ministering to refugees would not have been at the forefront of their minds. But that all changed in 2010 when the Australian government announced that a former Defence housing area in nearby Inverbrackie would become a low-security detention centre for asylum seekers awaiting immigration processing.

‘Getting to know the refugees’ stories was fascinating’, he says. ‘The trauma that these people had been going through was very significant. Christianity brought hope for them, and that was wonderful that we could bring them that hope and pray for them.’

Both men remember the 2010 announcement well. Pastor Steve says a ‘furore’ broke out in his community in Woodside, while Pastor Dave says some people in Lobethal and the local congregations had ‘mixed feelings’.

‘People were concerned that there was going to be an influx of people walking the streets, that there would be gangs and that house prices would drop’, Steve says. ‘The fear was huge. People were venting their anger at the government and even at the churches for accommodating them, even though it was a humanitarian thing to do.’ Both pastors spoke to the media to say the asylum seekers – initially most were from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka – would be welcome in the Hills community. They teamed up with other churches in the area to produce a statement, which was endorsed by their denominations and issued to the media as a genuine Christian response to the announcement.

Both Lutheran churches hosted public information sessions. Woodside church also was home to meetings of the volunteer group Friends of Inverbrackie.

While the pastors say it was difficult negotiating the red tape surrounding access to the centre and facilitating off-site worship for those detainees who wanted to attend, the churches did what they could to support and minister to them.