Our National Office is being turned inside-out at the moment. For those of you who haven’t been here we are in a small two-storey building next door to Lifeline in Deakin, ACT. It’s an excellent spot, very close to parliament house and not far from most of the other national secretariats in Canberra. Some even like to call this area “Lobby Valley”. We’re literally topsy-turvy at the moment though because we are having an air-conditioning system installed in the building. There was air-conditioning of sorts here when we moved in back in 2005 but it usually gets consistent criticism from nearly all who meet here as being either impossibly hot or impossibly cold.

So we’ve taken the bold step of replacing the old bits and pieces that were scattered throughout the roof cavity. At the moment we are all camped downstairs in makeshift offices of sorts.

So you can understand why I have this on my mind at the moment.

And it has gotten me thinking.

We have done this in the National Office in an effort to make sure that everyone who works here or meets here is reasonably comfortable. We want to make visitors feel welcome and it is not always easy to cater for people with such diverse expectations and experiences of climate. It’s not the first time we’ve had Northern Territorians and tropical Queenslanders shivering under blankets in our boardroom alongside Victorians and Tasmanians who are literally feeling the heat. There might be some in the community who think that it is an unwarranted extravagance to try to create an atmosphere in which people can work comfortably. Others will say that it is a minimum requirement in any modern place of meeting and work.

What about the Society as a whole in Australia? Does it need “air-conditioning”? Do we need to do something radical to make sure that people are comfortable in the Society across Australia? What do we do to make people of diverse cultures and backgrounds feel welcome and comfortable? Are we, in many Conferences, mono-, rather than multi- cultural? What about diversity of age groups? How are we going with making sure that we have not developed a culture that is so old that it has hardened, not just failing to welcome but actually excluding huge cohorts of the Australian community? How are we going with welcoming members of the First Peoples into the life of the Society? Or recently arrived asylum seekers? Or people with disabilities? Or people who are considered by some of us to be just plain “different”? People from all sorts of religious backgrounds, for example? Or people in all different kinds of relationships?

When Blessed Frederic and his early companions formed the Society there was not a great deal of diversity in the first group of Vincentians. But if you look across the globe today there is incredible diversity.  But the question remains: do we need to invest in some “air-conditioning” that really works for the Society in Australia? Do we need to do something radical to really open our doors and our hearts so that we make ourselves a place of genuine welcome for people of all ages, classes, cultures, sub-cultures and cohorts to join us in our sacred mission of building a more just and compassionate Australia?

And for those who think that this call for change is unhealthy, let us not forget that it was only a relatively short time ago that the Society made the radical move of allowing women to be members!

For anyone who feels that by “air-conditioning” the Society we might “watering down” what we stand for, let’s reflect on the fine words from the First Letter of St John (4:7-8)

“... let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

For what it’s worth I can’t help thinking that an injection of fresh air into any organisation has got to be something that gives it a boost in fulfilling its mission.

Anthony Thornton, National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society

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  • The Record Winter 2013

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