At 11am on a weekday morning this past week, hundreds of people queued up at the top end of Bourke Street in Melbourne’s busy CBD for an early Christmas lunch.
This wasn’t just any lunch though, this was the Salvation Army’s annual lunch for the homeless at its Bourke St shelter.
The cast of hundreds were full of Christmas cheer as they waited for the doors to open and the festivities to begin.
Once inside, a three-course meal was served by volunteer waiters from Crown, while singers Denis Walter and Laura Davidson, with guitarist Michael Cristiano, entertained the happily chattering clientele.
It’s a diverse crew of customers on any day at the Salvos on Bourke St. There are the people who sleep rough, people with disabilities, the old, the young. The sick, sad and the lonely, as they say, or just people down on their luck.
This year I spent some time at the lunch with young international students who were struggling to stay afloat far from home. They were at a table next to some much older Chinese and Vietnamese community members who attend every year. Whatever hardships people were facing, we all had a smile on our faces for one another.
As usual, I received a lot of free political advice and was left with no doubt what people’s opinions were.
But I witnessed by own Christmas miracle when I met a woman called Janette who had received her first pair of hearing aids from Hearing Australia.
Hearing Australia provides free hearing tests and hearing aids at the Salvos, alongside staff members from Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency as part of the Albanese Government’s Community Partnership Program.
Janette wept as she could hear for the first time in many years and danced, front and centre, to Denis and the band as they played Christmas classics.
This year has been a difficult one for our world and it can leave you feeling exhausted.
But spending time at the Salvos Christmas lunch always fills me with a warm feeling of hope. It has become on of my favourite days on the calendar.
Just last month I spoke at the conference marking 140 years of the Salvos’ commitment to providing social services in Australia.
But even before formally starting those services, Edward Saunders and John Gore held a street meeting in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens in 1880 – the start of the Australian chapter of the Salvation Army.
Gore sent out the invitation to those who hadn’t had a square meal to come to his home to be fed. A simple, powerful gesture.
This invitation has been made through the decades and around the world every day of the year, not just by the Salvos but by many groups who believe in the moral obligation to support our most vulnerable.
People making safe havens and providing shelter and food at Christmas is a special tradition.
Here in Australia, we see the great work of organisations like the Uniting Church’s Tranby Engagement Hub in Perth, the Wayside Chapel and Bill Crews Foundation in Sydney, and St Vinnies across the nation, which support the homeless, those with addictions, women and children leaving domestic violence, and the elderly and lonely.
At the height of the pandemic lockdowns, particularly in my hometown of Melbourne, it was modest community members who leapt into action. The community delivered groceries and meals to those locked down for six tough days, surrounded by 600 police officers, in the Flemington Towers, who were, with only one-hour’s notice, unable to work and worried about feeding their families.
Almsgiving is a tenet of almost all belief systems. Supporting the poor and vulnerable is not the sole domain of religion.
Many Australian charities are powered by the likes of the dedicated people at OzHarvest, while Foodbank is there for Australians whose wallets are feeling the strain.
As far back as Ancient Egypt it is believed people needed to show they had helped the hungry in order to have a good afterlife.
During the Industrial Revolution, British experienced new prosperity, but also terribly exacerbated the financial conditions of the poor. It was this environment that was thought to be the genesis of the modern day ‘soup kitchen’.
The concept again came to prominence in the Great Depression and, in more recent memory, the GFC in 2007 and, of course, Covid.
But putting food in a person’s stomach is merely one expression of a higher purpose.
This is about keeping true to the Aussie “fair go all round” that stops the poor, the lonely, the homeless, the marginalised from falling through the cracks in society.
It is about inclusion and understanding.
It is about our community saying we all have tough times, let us make yours a bit easier, because ‘there but for the grace of god go I’.
It is about truly creating a place of solace and sanctuary for people from all walks of life – without judgement.
It is about finding people to call ‘family’ for an hour, a day, a year – or more.
It is one of the purest forms of love to extend a hand to a stranger and give a sense of worth and belonging and expect nothing in return.
This Christmas, I will acknowledge the absolute privilege of not wanting for anything.
I am surrounded by those things that enrich a life – my wonderful wife, Chloe, my fantastic children Rupert, Georgette and Clementine, and extended family and many friends who understand that my job can mean our contact is intermittent but whose connection is always felt.
To you, the readers of my column in 2023, I thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts, my ideas and my vision for the future with you.
I wish everyone a peace-filled, relaxing and safe festive season.
(And don’t forget that today is ‘Gravy Day’.)
This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 21 December 2023.