Every day, over 400 of Wellington’s most vulnerable people interact with the staff and volunteers of the Wellington City Mission. At their Newtown offices, people from all walks of life come to the drop-in centre for a hearty meal, and find a warm smile and a welcoming face. Through the double doors is the foodbank, and down the corridor is the shower where people can come in off the street and refresh themselves.
Upstairs, Murray Edridge sits in his office overlooking the microcosm of society that is Newtown, a month into his new role as the Wellington City Missioner. After a 20-year period where the organisation’s spiritual leadership and commercial leadership have been split into two roles, Murray’s appointment represents the Mission’s declaration that both go hand in hand. He states categorically: “Are we a faith-based organisation? Absolutely!”
In its 114-year history, Murray is the first lay City Missioner – opting for a branded black shirt in place of a clerical collar – and the first to come from a commercial background into the role of spiritual leader, and not the other way around. A committed Christian, Murray was a deputy chief executive at the Ministry of Social Development prior to this role. A school camp in 2000 where he noticed over half the students had no dads in their lives led to a cathartic life change: he left his commercial career and joined Barnardos, eventually taking the role of chief executive, before joining the government ministry.
He says that many social service agencies have drifted from their Christian heritage, but that’s not the future for the Mission. “Our activities must be Christ-centred – for our guests in the drop in centre or for our clients who need our services, we have to ask ourselves: ‘are we demonstrating the love of God? What does the presence of God look like in Wellington?”
For a start, its services are about supporting the whole person – not just providing a handout. “Our drop-in centre operates on the basis of offering dignity and respect to our guests,” Murray says. As a former public servant, he knows full well how impersonal and excluding an experience with our social welfare agencies can be.
With strong relationships in Government, Murray wants to work with them to help broker solutions for people in need. “Social welfare acts as arms-length transactions – there are many legislative hoops for clients to jump through.” As a result, he says, advocacy organisations can be forced to be combative in their dealings with Government, and a person’s needs then become subsumed by a fight for entitlements. “Maybe we can step into that space – a Christian organisation that can bring back into focus the dignity of the person,” he shares.
There is certainly no shortage of need for that, with housing becoming one of the major struggles for clients of the Mission. Murray shares an example of a client, a mother of three with a tertiary-qualified profession, earning $800 a week. Her partner left, and suddenly her $500-a-week rent fell to her – as well as $300 on childcare so she could maintain her full-time job. “We’re seeing the growth of a class of people who are working in good jobs, but who are still unable to make ends meet. They can’t save, they can’t even survive day to day,” Murray says. Despite offering services to help people get on top of their budgets, in some cases, there is no money left to budget with.
“We have to become more vocal,” Murray says, acknowledging that the Mission’s history gives it a great deal of credibility. But realising that there is only so much money available, Murray is keen to work with other agencies and other churches to get things done. “Right throughout the church we have thousands of people with ideas, resources and capacity – so we have to think of more creative ways to respond.” The Mission was established as a vehicle of the Anglican church. As he asks rhetorically, “do we represent the aspiration of the church?” it’s fair to say that Murray wants the relationship with the diocese to grow in strength.
Murray’s motivation is palpable. “I’m really excited to be here,” he says. Hailing from Wainuiomata, he’s always wanted to make a difference. “Everything I’ve done contributes to this moment. It’s been a God-led pathway.” Like the Biblical Esther, Murray feels prepared for such a time as this – but not in his own strength, he says, but with God’s strength. As he reflects on the unique contributions of City Missioners-past, he knows the magnitude of what he’s taken on – “I’m living in big footsteps!”
But with the latest book he’s reading, Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle, it’s obvious he’s there to take the Mission forward in its new season. He reads from page 67: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it.”
Photos: courtesy Woolf Photography