Big-hearted Church that’s crumbling around the edges
The Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s King Cross has always been something of an “edgy” place.
In the 1960s when Australia was very different, The Wayside Chapel was about the only place in Australia where a Protestant could easily marry a Catholic, Hindu or Atheist without much fuss or where you could get a cup of coffee at 3am.
It was a place you could wait for some poet to walk in the door and address a ready crowd with some words that reached beyond the confines of a high structured, fairly unimaginative world; and you never had to wait for long.
It was a place where leading intellectuals would push the barriers. Many Australians who have made a world wide impact, like Patrick White, were socialised or made awake to politics in the theatre at Wayside. Charlie Perkins was an active volunteer and his grand daughter is a volunteer there today.
The first office of the Foundation of Aboriginal Affairs started at The Wayside Chapel.
With the Vietnam War, The Wayside Chapel was the first to recognise how drugs were going to permeate the whole culture and in response developed the Life Education Programme that today is a major force in drug education for children in every state of Australia and around the world. Countless thousands of kids remember Happy Harold the giraffe who helped infuse a message of health into their lives.
The first voice in Australia to alert the country to the drug culture to come was that of Rev Ted Noffs of The Wayside Chapel. The first drop in and referral centre for help with addiction started at the Wayside. Champions who worked with Ted included Dick Smith, Bill Crews and John Singleton.
In an act of civil disobedience, The Wayside Chapel started Australia’s first medically supervised injection room. Our Pastor (Rev Ray Richmond) was arrested but the government was forced to see the urgent plight of people struggling with addiction. As a result the first Medically Supervised Injecting Centre began in Kings Cross which has literally saved hundreds of lives simply because it treats addicts as people needing medical help rather than as criminals. In spite of the obvious record of lower deaths by overdose, 88 per cent reduction in ambulance call outs and many other indicators, the centre still has the status of a medical “trial” because of fanatical opposition driven by the kind of fear that has little interest in facts.
Today the heart of Wayside is beating strong, just as it did in the 60s. It still attracts the kind of celebrity that cares about the world and so David Wenham and Claudia Karvan among other outstanding Australians keep in close contact. The programmes run today are both professional and cutting edge. We have a programme designed for people with long term mental health issues that has no component of clinical (tell me about your toilet training) work involved. It engages people in a program of fun and quickly feeds responsibility with the effect that someone who struggles to get out of bed in the morning soon feels, “needed”. Its tough work at times but it is effective and occasionally, hilarious.
Our problem is our buildings. They were probably not in good shape in the 1960s but they are a nightmare now. Our theatre is closed. The place where Darlinghurst Theatre was born, is fire damaged and boarded up. The asbestos roof is hail damaged, leaking like a sieve onto an unstable floor. Our main building also leaks so badly that about a year ago, bricks started spitting themselves out into the roadway below. We’ve just had advise that the top floor of our main building is such a fire hazard that we have to take all of our staff out.
The Board of Wayside have long recognised the need for action on the building. We have a DA and a funding campaign that swung into action - at the same time as the GFC. Ooops. We were told that we had no chance of getting help from the government of NSW but they came good recently with $2 million dollars. We have privately raised $1.5 million dollars which leaves us another $3.5 to get the building done. We’ve spoken to no end of Federal Ministers, who all love us and our work but none of whom have found a way for us to fit the categories of their funding provisions. We’re not greedy. If the Feds could help us with $2 million we’re confident to raise the remaining $1.5 from private pockets.
Unless the Prime Minister can judge our request by broader criteria, there is a real danger that our prophetic voice and our edgy programmes will be lost. We’ve written to the Prime Minister but are afraid that we’ll get a letter back from a public servant saying, “we love you who cares.” We’re asking all of our friends everywhere to help make sure that the PM sees our letter and considers our call for help. We are not involved in a political game but simply struggling to do a good thing in a good way. Can you help us?
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