A Tale of Two Cities

17 November 2014 Reverend Alistair Macrae

A Tale of Two Cities

A big chunk of my waking life is spent in Melbourne’s CBD. My workplace is in a very old building, on a site full of other ageing buildings. At the centre of the site is the grand neo-Gothic church, built in 1858. The Methodists were previously in a more prosperous part of town. But I believe they moved here, to the grungy part of the city, partly to be closer to where there was greater human need. 

At first glance, the old church looks okay but, as they say, she needs work. The Big Issue occupies the old manse, where generations of ministers and their families lived. The manse carries its own sad stories: a previous minister lost three of his children there, due to cold-related illnesses, I suspect. The old building next door has been boarded up for decades.

The term ‘shabby-chic’ could have been invented for this site, but these days it’s more shabby than chic. This probably accounts for some of my neighbours. If you’re down on your luck, you won’t feel too out of place here. On my daily stroll around the site the other day, I counted six people sleeping rough – in covered doorways, under some bushes, and in an old building with a crack just big enough to enable access to its murky interior.

A slightly longer walk takes me to a parallel universe of affluence. I can peer into a restaurant full of prosperous-looking people wining and dining; a place where the cost of lunch wouldn’t be met by a week’s unemployment payments.

My wife and I were once taken to dinner by a relative and her new husband. He tried to persuade us that poor people needed the rich to be highly visible so they had something to aspire to. When African children saw Bill Gates fly overhead in his Learjet, he said, they would be motivated to achieve success. I offered a different view. The evening didn’t end well. 

We’ve long known that one result of our economic and political system is the rich get richer and the poor struggle. The tax system is supposed to equalise things a tad, and there are some safety nets. But it’s incontestable that the gap between rich and poor is getting wider. And the Federal Government’s budget suggests that trend won’t change any time soon.

Frankly, I’m sick of hearing that I live in the world’s most liveable city. It generates a smugness and complacency among those who benefit from the way things are set up – and resentment among those who don’t. Most liveable for whom? 

Life has taught me two things: where we stand determines what we see, and who we listen to determines what we hear. When next I’m wandering around my workplace, perhaps I’ll ask my resident neighbours about their lives in the world’s most liveable city. What does it look like from their temporary home on the doorstep? 

The old Jewish prophets knew this stuff long ago. They have helped me learn where to stand and who to listen to. They suggested that if you want to know the real health of a community, don’t look at executive salaries, GDP or share prices. Ask how this community responds to those who are struggling.

» Reverend Alistair Macrae is Minister of the Wesley Uniting Church on Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.

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