Friday, 17 February 2017

Narration of Steps for Rev. Elenie Poulos Closure of Ministry Service

Written by Colleen Geyer

Elenie’s ministry at the Assembly began in January 2002 and she was inducted at Centenary Uniting Church in Parramatta on the 22nd of March.

It was a time when justice, peace and faith in humanity were extremely challenged around the world.

The horrific images of planes hitting skyscrapers in the 9/11 terrorist attacks were freshly seared on our souls. The International Security Assistance Force had taken control of Afghanistan and the US Government was turning its sights to Iraq.

At home, the MV Tampa and Children Overboard incidents had shattered previous bipartisan understandings not to politicise the humanitarian treatment of refugees.

It was a time that justice needed a hero. Enter Elenie Poulos.

At her induction our ninth President Rev. Professor James Haire presided while Rev. Grahame Ellis preached. Grahame’s here today and the stole Elenie is wearing is the one he presented her with at her induction.

In all, Elenie has worked with six Presidents – James Haire, Dean Drayton, Gregor Henderson, Alistair Macrae, Andrew Dutney and Stuart McMillan.

It’s fair to say that her long tenure as National Director has made her the most recognisable public spokesperson for the Uniting Church.

However the area where Elenie began her work in back in 2002 didn’t have a catchy title.  

It was called “National Social Responsibility and Justice”.

Putting her keen eye for design to work, in 2003 Elenie launched UnitingJustice Australia - a new name, a new logo, and a restructured reference committee.

UnitingJustice was ready to push out into our justice-challenged world and explore.

Refugee policy was immediately front and centre.

Despite a rapid learning curve Elenie’s mastery of her material saw her quickly drawn into ecumenical work on refugees for the NCCA and the World Council of Churches.

In those enlightened times, UCA chaplains were still allowed to work in immigration detention centres and they were doing wonderful work, sitting alongside refugees in their time of trial, and saw a number of coverts to the faith. Using back channel diplomacy, Elenie, Dean Drayton, Rosemary Hudson Miller, Bev Fabb and others worked to halt deportations and secure residency and freedom for many refugees. None of this was ever reported publicly. But it was work that saved lives. 

Elenie’s horizons continued to expand, taking full advantage of opportunities such as training for church advocates at UN Headquarters in New York. 

After being a delegate to the Ninth WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre in Brazil in February 2006, Elenie was elected to her first seven-year term as a member of the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. She’s now in the middle of her second term.

The work of a justice-oriented Church is relentless.

There are resources to produce for events like Social Justice Sunday that have become regular features of the church calendar.

Elenie also pioneered Federal Election resources, which she has produced for the last five elections.

In pushing the Church’s justice work out into the broader community, Elenie found herself engaging in coalitions for the common good, such as the National Civil Society Dialogue.

This brought her into contact with national leaders like former ACTU President Sharan Burrow and environmentalist John Connor.

A media interview on Channel 10 about the Howard Government’s Workchoices policy was a reminder that your own flock won’t always agree with your prophetic advocacy.

Industrial lawyers for one Uniting Church agency were apparently keen to argue the policy’s merits with her after Elenie’s TV appearance.

It was a reminder that ministry in the justice space requires persistence and grace. I think history showed who was on the right side of that argument.

As the decade progressed the work of UnitingJustice expanded its focus to include human rights policy.

In line with best practice, Elenie connected her work with Australian reporting to the UN and our international obligations.

At that time you may recall global humanitarian concerns about the treatment of prisoners held without trial at the US Guantanamo Bay detention centre, including Australians David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib.

These concerns were more than justified by stories and images that emerged from places like Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

This work brought Elenie into contact with human rights lawyers, community legal centres, and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The Uniting Church joined the campaign for an Australian Human Rights Act, with Elenie joining former Senator Susan Ryan on a national steering committee.

Along the way there were of course a number of our Church’s triennial Assembly meetings.

At each of these meetings Elenie diligently ensured that the zeitgeist was given a theological frame, embedded in UCA policy, and then reflected in subsequent Church statements and submissions to Government.

Notwithstanding its generally obstructionist role in international human rights forums, in 2017 the Australian Government has seen the light and decided to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. Elenie has been arguing for that since 2008. What that means is that Australia will have to establish a national system of inspections of all places of detention.

At the 11th Assembly in Brisbane in 2006, Elenie presented Dignity in Humanity - a Uniting Church statement on human rights.

One outworking of this policy was for the Uniting Church to take the public position that as a Church, we do not support blanket religious exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation. As far as we can tell, we are still the only church to hold this position.

That human rights framework is most recently reflected in the Church’s submissions in support for the maintenance of Sections 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that sanctions behaviour that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates someone because of their race or ethnicity.

As the Global Financial Crisis bit from 2007 to 2008, people’s concerns grew about our way of life and the environmental toll it was taking on the planet. 

Elenie presented the statement: An Economy of Life: Reimagining Human Progress for a Flourishing World to the 12th Assembly in Sydney in 2009.

This led to her involvement with Tim Costello, Fiona Stanley and others in the Australian National Development Index project with the University of Melbourne. 

For every justice concern across our diverse church, Elenie has been there to apply her expertise.

As Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress shared their pain at the Northern Territory intervention and subsequent Stronger Futures legislation at the 13th Assembly in Adelaide, Elenie stepped in to coordinate the Church response.

The landmark event A Destiny Together was held on the lawns in front of Parliament House in March 2014.

A Destiny Together and the Week of Prayer and Fasting around that event deepened the Covenanting relationship between the Church and the Congress and reflected it back to the whole Church.

And at the 14th Assembly in Perth in 2015 Elenie brought the Church’s asylum seeker and refugee policies up to date with the comprehensive statement: Shelter from the Storm.

While wins in the refugee space are few and far between, Elenie is particularly proud of her work in successfully lobbying for complementary protection visa legislation.

The campaign for that legislation took four to five years, working with specialist refugee agencies, Amnesty International, the Refugee Council of Australia, and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Despite some recent amendments that legislation is still protecting those who don’t fall under the Refugee Convention.

Elenie has been absolutely meticulous in defining and explaining justice across our Church.

Last year she brought her vast experience and editing skills to bear to publish - with Cynthia Coghill - For a World Reconciled, a collection of justice statements by the Uniting Church from union to 2015.

Even a quick flick through those pages shows a commitment to justice and peace that is breathtaking in its depth, scope and compassion.

And it’s Elenie who has and personified that commitment in her ministry in the Uniting Church.

Her legacy is enormous and enduring.

Elenie thank you, God bless you.

We wish you and Nicole peace, happiness and fulfilment as the journey continues.