Looking at cultural differences and similarities in worldwide youth work, we continue with our ‘Around The Globe’ series with Dave Fagg, in Australia. Check out the first in our series, on Hungary, here.
1. Where are you based?
Bendigo, Australia. I live in the suburb of Long Gully, which has a high percent-age of public housing (‘council housing’ I think the UK calls it).
2. What unique challenges do you face?
How do I spark hope in young people whose parents and role models are living in despair? Long Gully struggles with inequality: many people are jobless, ill, poor, isolated and struggling with the stigma that all of these things bring.
In the bigger picture, Australia is divided between ‘youth ministry’ (done in and by churches) and ‘youth work’ (done in and by secular organisations). There is suspicion on both sides.
3. What shape and format do your youth work projects most often take?
I train youth workers with Praxis, an experiential diploma course which emphasises getting practically involved in young people’s lives. More than a course; it’s a learning community. I know most educators would say that, but it’s true!
My youth work morphs with time: I’ve led church youth groups, done high school outreach and teenage foster care, and spent a year overseas in the US and South Africa, learning from youth workers who served young people in gangs, and in poor communities. Until recently I coordinated a leadership program. At the start of 2016, I began volunteering as a youth worker at my local high school.
4. What do you enjoy most and what are you most proud of?
I love teaching! My greatest joy is seeing young people and youth workers gain new insights, and then go beyond what I could ever have taught.
5. What is your most valuable local resource?
My local state high school opens its arms to outside groups. Some Christians find ‘getting access’ to high schools difficult. But ‘getting access’ is the wrong way to think about it; it implies that the students are ‘materials’ for your ‘real’ program, which takes place elsewhere. When Christians talk to schools about the real needs of the young people, and then offer to help out, then schools are usually welcoming.
6. How often do you meet up with other youth workers? How easy or difficult is that and how valuable do you find it?
I would not have lasted 20 years in the youth sector without encouragement, discussion, and questioning from other youth workers. Praxis values connecting youth workers together, so I have a coffee budget! I frequently buy a coffee for someone, and chew the fat about our work, but also our dreams and struggles.
7. Tell us a story about something significant that has happened.
This morning I had a coffee with a young youth worker that I coach. Four years ago he started Praxis and knew everything there was to know. He was convinced that by knowing all the theories he would be a good youth worker. Our holistic approach to education struck him as ‘soft’. He left the course one year in, still dissatisfied but with some good questions stirring his pot. This morning, I asked him what I could pray for. He said he needed to have his heart broken; that he had realised, on their own, the theories weren’t enabling him to genuinely help people.
I was punching the air inside!
8. What gets you through difficult or stressful times in your ministry?
A few years ago I led a team from two organisations. The team was unpaid, apart from myself, and we didn’t have much time to communicate and build trust: we ran the weekly program, had a hurried chat about next week, and then left. I didn’t make sure we were communicating properly and inevitably, the team fell apart. It was difficult time; I lost a friendship which is only now recovering. I take failure to heart, and often ‘process’ things completely internally. This time, I spoke openly with trusted mentors about my failings, and then sought reconciliation with the people I’d hurt. It was so helpful to ‘get out of my head’.
9. Any final thoughts that you would like to share?
About 3 years, child protection agencies removed all the children from two related families in our neighbourhood who were connected to our church. My wife and I advocated with the family to the child protection agencies, but the children were removed nonetheless. One of the teenage children is now fostered by a family in our church, which has been fantastic for her, and them. The other children live all over the state. It’s complicated.
Youth work is often complicated, murky and we encounter all kinds of injustice and sadness. God makes no guarantees that things will fall into place in our time-frame. I take heart from the story of the crestfallen disciples, walking along the road to Emmaus. Their revolution in ashes, their Messiah executed, they pour out their heart to the strange companion on the road, who turns out to be the very one they mourn. When things don’t make sense, maybe we need to be open about it with others; we never know what might happen.