A Prayer of Praise and Thanksgiving

God of all life
God of all grace
God of all beauty
God of free space
God of all mercy
Great God of grief
God of deep comfort
God of belief
God of all silence
Of music and dance
Of being, creating
Great God of romance
Great God of nuance
Of life irony
Paradox, laughter
The pain in my knee?
God of life’s hope
Of all energy
Great God of friendship
And community
God of all joy
Below and above
Great God of wonder
Of freedom and love.

I praise and thank you!
Each breath in the stillness,
A prayer:
On earth
As it is in heaven!

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Oasis is like…

Oasis is like…

I am having breakfast on the balcony of the apartment of my AirBnb student host in Dresden, Germany. There are some swallows darting around and I notice there must be a nest under the gutter of the apartment opposite. I am reminded of the story of a mathematician who was also observing swallows flying outside the train he was travelling on. It got him thinking- in all their darting about, how do they know which way they are going? Is there a leader? No- it’s all so chaotic! So how could their behaviour be described mathematically? These thoughts led the scientist to make advances in particle (chaos and complexity) theory.

Now I notice a plane flying above the swallows, it’s vapour trail marking its path between airports A and B. It is probably a well travelled route and the planning and execution of each flight guarantees its objectives.
Flights between airports is ‘managed’. The separate services within an airline are coordinated to achieve the best A to B results for its paying customers.

In an institution like a university, much of what we call ‘services’ is like the airline. Different services help ‘clients’ get from A to B; ‘management’ is important for the institution to achieve its own and its students’ A to B goals.
But Oasis is envisioned more like the behaviour of the swallows, seemingly chaotic, yet knowing where the nest is. There are no direct flight paths.

Birds somehow learn how to sing without sheet music. Some human musicians play or sing like birds; they can’t or won’t ‘read music’. Others go through the discipline of training. Yet both benefit from each other in the music community; though I suspect the untrained are more often than not discriminated against. It is fascinating that two musicians can play the same notes of the same music, yet one is playing only notes, while the other is playing with soul. I know which I prefer!

This is a conversation I have with my music student host. She understands implicitly. She is taking Master Classes during her immanent holidays and is committed to mastering the technical challenges of her instrument and revelling in the experience of contributing to the Dresden Opera and other orchestras, as invitations to draw on her musical expertise come in. Yet she loves to improvise. We listen to some of her improvisations and we join together doo daa-ing to one of her recordings!

Oasis is more concerned with soul, the feel of things, the intangibles that make all the difference to the quality of the experience. Oasis complements the managed services of the university. It is not a service as such to be managed. Nor does it try to do what other services are doing. It plays indiscrimatory like the swallows, improvising to contribute, inspiring others to soar in their own way. There is a ‘science’ to spirituality, but it can never be tied down.

In my book An Improbable Feast I compare traditional hospitality with today’s hospitality industry. It is interesting to see how this is being played out as I choose to use AirBnB – the potential sharing economy version of the hotel.
My host in Dresden is a music student with a spare room who has recently begun hosting. Her reason is to get a little cash on the side to help pay her way through Uni. As we sit on her tiny balcony sipping tea and coffee, she tells me about a couple who came and were appalled at her conditions. So she suggested that if they did not want to have the AirBnB experience, they should go to a hotel – which they did!
What is the AirBnB experience? For her it was what we were doing right there and then, sharing our lives and experiences. The focus is on the hospitality rather than the conditions. The conditions take care of themselves when true hospitality is offered. My offer to take her to dinner to celebrate finishing an exam is matched by her choosing a good restaurant and taking me to an incredible evening of music with her music friends at the Jazz Club. It doesn’t matter to me that there is a nail holding a power lead to the wall plug in the kitchen, or that her tiny plastic kettle has no on-off switch, or that the bathroom drains are showing all the signs of blocking up pretty soon! She is offering me what she has, not what she hasn’t! Going about our own lives, we open space to each other, to enrich each other’s lives.

But even at this early stage of AirBnB the signs of the power of consumerism and the corrosive power of the spirit of unfettered economic gain is taking hold. In Amsterdam they have had to legislate to control the wealthy from buying up apartments as sources of AirBnB income that is depriving rental housing in the city centre. The unscrupulous always seem to find a way to screw up a good idea and make life difficult for everyone!
Need I say that Oasis has always chosen to avoid any commercial aspect to its operation on the grounds of accessibility to all, regardless of financial situation. And like the generous, hospitable experiences many of us have experienced when visiting the poor, Oasis aims to enrich the lives of its visitors by sharing what we have with each other, together, particularly the spirituality of our common humanity.

Traditional hospitality is likely to always pose first world problems and be subverted by materialists who are either ignorant or prejudiced with regard to the primacy of the spiritual for human sustainability, or fall for the myth of protectionism, putting up fences and charging admission using the pretext of controlling imagined risks.

Embody

As we travel, I have been endeavouring to read for half an hour before breakfast. The book I’m reading at the moment is ‘Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination’, a series of essays in tribute to Walter Brueggemann’s classic, ‘The Prophetic Imagination’. (Sandy got me a signed copy of his new edition when she met him at a conference in the US last year!)

This morning I discovered another saint I identify with, German Protestant theologian Dorothee Soelle (1929-2003).

Apparently she often told a story from Berthold Brecht’s play, ‘Mother Courage and her Children’.

The play takes place in Northern Europe during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that pitted Protestants against Catholics and emerging nation states against the consolidated interests of Rome. The play ends in 1636 as one of Mother Courage’s children, Kattrin, a young girl who cannot speak, is told “Pray, you poor creature, pray! when soldiers lay siege to the town during the night. As all the others bend their knees and begin to recite well-known prayers, Kattrin slips away to the rooftop of the barn and plays her drum. The sound of her drumming wakes up the sleeping town and gives them a chance to fight for their lives. Kattrin loses her life in the battle but her actions save the village. Kattrin’s prayer is one of action and defiance rather than quiet acquiescence.

This was a story Soelle told in 1968 when she was still simmering with anger at her own country and how it acquiesced to the Holocaust. In the great silence of the German people, where were the rooftop drummers? (Just go to church and pray quietly…get an education and get ahead…don’t ask too many questions about the government or military police…)

Later, she reconciled prayer and prophetic action for herself as ‘living out God’ in daily life – embedding the vision of ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ in our hearts, minds and hands.

To live out God is to celebrate freedom, dignity and hope in the midst of daily life, together, right here and now.

For me, Oasis has always been about just that – embedding this vision of a renewed earth through the quality of relationships we form and breaking the silence about whatever demeans human flourishing.

But we ‘break the silence’ not so much by words, but paradoxically, by listening – for only when there is someone to listen can the deep world of the human heart find expression (Nouwen).

And we may also break the silence by symbolic action, eliciting a response and therefore opening a conversation.

Brueggemann says, if all that we see and touch has been been imaginatively constructed, then it may equally be re-imagined, and reconstructed. That is the meaning of ‘Prophetic Imagination’.

Oasis is a re-imagined community of hospitality to each other that involves inclusion of all and has a heart and mind for well being.

 

The Stayers

I am in London.

This morning I was chatting with a Brit selling fruit in a traditional East London lane market near where we are staying. He had picked out three mangos for us that were neither too hard nor too soft. I said that it was because of friendly people like him, London was such a great place. He said London was ‘finished’. ‘A woman could fall over at a bus stop and the line of people would just walk over her where she lay.’ There was a despondency, an inner bitterness, a profound sadness and a dispirited sense of resignation welling out to me as a ready listener. He was 76, though I thought you’d never know it; in his mind, too old to make a new go of it; passing time in a world of passing faces from other worlds, each moment reminding him that his golden age was gone forever. I was happy to celebrate it with him.

The lady selling eggs was equally as friendly. Having decided on our dozen, she was happy to chat away with us about things we could do and places we could go – like the fruiterer, passing the time – every day at the same spot, setting up early, cheerfully engaging with  customers, closing up, restocking – a relentless life routine, day after day.

I admire these folk. They provide still points for those of us passing through. They do us such a cultural service. Without them life would be like a standardised shopping mall – all gloss but no soul, all show but no intimacy. They are beacons that remind me of no ‘progress’ without hospitality, of no greatness without goodness, of no Life without love of life and love for each other.

 

 

Oasis and International Students

Presentation Notes provided to the International Committee,
Flinders University Faculty of Education, Humanities and Law
Wednesday 11 May 2016,  Oasis Common Room

A tour of Oasis preceeded the meeting. The concepts behind each part of the centre were explained.
The short film of the ‘Cultural Conversations’ BBQ the previous Friday evening was shown and the history of the evolution of this group and the multiple networks involved was explained.

Background

Oasis evolved from the Religious Centre, gifted to the University at its inauguration by the Christian churches and Jewish communities.

In the 1990’s the Religious Centre was influenced by intra –religious rivalry and the protection of identity and boundaries among Christian groups – primarily between Evangelical and Liberal, represented by externally appointed “staff workers” and to some extent reflected in the Christian denominations, represented by denominational chaplains.

As universities internationalized, the growing presence of students of other faiths relativised the intra-Christian rivalries. The desire by other faith communities to have representation in the Religious Centre resulted in a multi-faith chaplaincy. The first multifaith event, with the support of Asian Studies and the Student Association, took place in 1999 in support of Indonesian students being targeted by Australian students as a result of events in East Timor.

The multifaith chaplaincy worked with the University to ameliorate historical and emerging conflicts in the Religious Centre and to promote respect between groups. A weekly, shared chaplains’ lunch built strong friendships and a shared vision based on universal human values embedded in traditional religions, coming to fruition in 2008 with the launch of Oasis – a metaphor for refreshment, openness and intercultural-interfaith friendship.

The VC placed Oasis within the newly formed entity, Flinders One, that provided administrative support; then in late 2012, Oasis was embraced within the administrative structures of the University, funded jointly by newly introduced student service fees and the University. It was situated within Student Services under the management of the Head of Health and Counselling. Two staff were appointed – myself, as Oasis Coordinating Chaplain, and Lisa Chandler, formerly from the International Office, as Manager of the centre.

The Present

The re-positioning of Oasis within the University validated a process that had been well underway – the negotiation of the religious in a secular institution and the re-imagining of chaplaincy as unconditional pastoral support across the University.

As a result:

  • The mission of Oasis was re-stated in secular terms in order to foster inclusion.
  • The mandate of Oasis was reframed to foster interconnectedness across multiple perspectives, directed toward well being.
  • The primary vehicle for transformation was identified as hospitality- the making of space. (Nouwen 1975 [i])
  • The immediate effect became understood as a personalized home-way-from-home; a small community of regular Oasis users began to grow.
  • The activities within Oasis tended to be student initiated – Oasis acting as host, rather than offering formal programs, thus creating space for student and staff initiatives.
  • A theoretical model, focusing on listening, underpinning the practice of the Oasis volunteer team, was developed, sustained by a professional skills development program.
  • The Oasis team was openned to those committed to contributing from their life experience to the vision and values of Oasis. It meets weekly for lunch and monthly for professional skills development.
  • A Lean-Agile-Scrum model of organization was explored and adapted.
  • Empowerment of opportunistic relationships energized university staff and students to take initiatives to enact their own ideas, while fostering the values and activities of Oasis.
  • Religious observance (apart from Muslim) was displaced to religious organisations in the community; and Flinders religious clubs and societies to FUSA.
  • The architectural imagining of a purpose-built centre supporting the aspirations of the evolving Oasis enabled Oasis to be at the international leading edge of progressive initiatives in the domains of peace-building, resilience and intercultural and interfaith practice through pastoral care.
  • A theology of religious pluralism and inclusion continues to evolve.

Consequently:

From Health and Counselling perspective, Oasis acts as a safety valve, complementing the formal medical model of Health and Counselling – sickness, appointments with experts and requiring bureaucratic formality – Oasis focusing on wellness, informality, ongoing support by volunteers and peers, and person-centred learning.

Some staff have introduced particular students to Oasis as a safe place to relax and renew.

The accessibility of the kitchen, encouragement of a culture of sharing, and the offer of free tea and coffee have assisted some students who face financial challenges, while also providing a focal point for intercultural connection.

Oasis has provided a mutually enriching opportunity by collaborating with the School of Social Work – Oasis acting as a kind of laboratory for applied Social Work practice. Five students, supervised by a member of Social Work staff, are on placement in Oasis, undertaking a number of negotiated projects in support of Oasis and the university.

In fact, Oasis can be thought of as mirroring the New Venture Institute, as an innovative centre of social entrepreneurship.

Oasis has also been working with SWAPv, centred in Education, providing a sounding board for ideas for the hosting of their first (international and cross-disciplinary) conference in July on the basis of a shared interest in promoting well being.

Liaison with the wider community sometimes results in the recruitment of new Oasis volunteers. Recent connections with Rotary International promise exciting opportunities for international students and re-invigoration of local Rotary clubs.

Oasis also operates at Tonsley, a small number of staff acting as the Oasis volunteer team; and at Sturt, where a part-time member of staff leads a small team of community volunteers supporting international students via a regular morning tea.

 

[i] Nouwen’s Concept of Hospitality

Hospitality… means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbour into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit. It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opportunity to others to find their God and their way. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt a life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find their own.

 

Henri Nouwen. Reaching Out: The Three Movements in the Spiritual Life. (1975 Doubleday. New York) p. 68

 

The Complexity of Oasis in Action

An event last Friday evening illustrates the complexity of Oasis, yet alludes to what may be achieved by collaboration across established boundaries – staff, student, community/ the Academy and Service Providers/ teaching, research and community engagement.

During the New Year break, three Chinese students reflected on what would have helped them most as international students. They concluded that connecting with locals would help them with colloquial Australian language and Australian culture.

They decided on a strategy and went to International Student Support for advice and support. Because of the close relationship between Oasis and ISS, I was invited into the conversation. The students were encouraged to talk with FUSA and to perhaps create a club. This would give them a financial and structural foundation. Oasis could host their meetings and work with ISS to give moral support. It was agreed that the students had opened up a big issue and it might get beyond them – so I negotiated with the Social Work staff to provide support from the social work students in placement.

Coincidentally, one of the Oasis Team was talking with Rotary International about Rotary re-invigorating their support for international students.

The film captures the coming together of all of these strands – the initiators of the club, international students, the FUSA International Officer, members of the local community, including Rotarians exploring what they might offer, ISS staff and some of the Oasis Team.

During this process over last few months, one of the initiators of the club has suffered a relationship break-up and a sudden bereavement. Providentially, the relationship we had enjoyed provided a good basis for Oasis to offer emotional support.

The complexity of networks creates a sense of belonging, friendship, trust and support. And new opportunities for good.

 

 

The New Oasis –the first months

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Awesome!  I love this place!  Love everything!  Great kitchen area!  Everything smiley!  Nice staff and manager! (Thanks!)  Been waiting so long.  Love that new smell!  Very beautiful and homey – love it!  Our second home!  Wow!

I’m reading off a whiteboard we’ve left out for comments during the first two months since moving in.

There have also been many magic moments – like when Lisa was showing a female Muslim student the new prayer rooms – when Lisa opened the door, she just stood there and wept in gratitude for how her religious needs had been recognized.

Like the day I had three lunches!

Three women students from Bangladesh cooked us one of their typical cultural dishes to say ‘thanks’ to Oasis. Then I was invited to share homemade Roti and vegetables with a student we have been helping to break his coffee addiction, linked to the pressure he feels about his studies. Then my turn, providing a lunch of rice and vegetables for a group of visiting Indians who work with the poor in Kolcuta, hosted by the School of Education.

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Mr Mukerji (left) with Oasis Muslim Chaplain, Dr Farooque, who was born in Kolcuta

As we were eating I pointed out to Mr Mukerji, who had worked closely with Mother Theresa, a little moment that was happening. The anxious body language of a new young female student from East Africa attracted the attention of the Indian man who had brought me lunch to share. He moved over and sat next to her and began a healing conversation to help her feel more at home – a Hindu encouraging a Muslim! Later in the day a Cambodian student showed her where she could get help from the Student Learning Centre. These are the magic moments of Oasis in action!

But the Oasis culture of hospitality not only provides a nurturing context for student-to-student support, but also for student initiatives.

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In January, a small group of International students, got together to think about how they could begin to solve a big problem for international students – learning colloquial Australian language and understanding Australian culture. The university is quite good at teaching the technical language of each field of study, but it’s the vernacular that seems to create the most difficulty in everyday conversation, and particularly when students have to undertake external ‘placements’.

They talked with International Student Support who then connected with Oasis and soon a new ‘Club’ was formed, Cultural Connections, finding a home in Oasis. They are in the process of linking international students, on a one-to-one basis, with ‘local’ volunteers.

In a recent email, Henry from Cultural Conversations wrote:

…we have got much more international students signing up for our program. So we have to work even harder to get more volunteers and do the interviews and matching, which are a huge work load for our team.

Can I get support from you in the following issues:

Share our volunteer recruitment information to staff members and students in our school. (see flyers attached)

Link one or two social work students to our program so that they can involve in our marketing, interviewing, matching and evaluation process.

Discuss plans and strategies for future development of our program.

If you’d like to be a ‘local’ volunteer, let us know!

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Alan Larkin, Oasis Team member, and some of the Oasis Social Work students.

A four year conversation with the School of Social Work about international social work student issues has now resulted in five Masters of Social Work students undertaking their placement in Oasis, supervised by a member of Social Work staff. These students are making a big impact within Oasis and are potential supporters of Cultural Conversations and other initiatives.

In the meantime, Verity Kingsmill in Careers has been dreaming of a Cultural Café that encourages local students to broaden their cultural horizons by engaging with international students – they will, after all, graduate into a global market!

Hence the potential that these two ‘dreams’ could come together from opposite directions – the need of international students to understand local culture and its language, and the needs of local students to experience other cultures.

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At the same time, Oasis Team member Alan Larkin has been talking with Rotary International, which has a long track record of support for international students and perhaps, being a service organisation, might provide further inter-cultural opportunities for  Flinders postgraduate students.

If you would like to find out more about supporting ‘Cultural Conversations’, look for cultualconnections.flinders on Facebook, or email culturalconnections.flinders@gmail.com

Or to follow or support any of these intercultural developments, contact Oasis.