Baptist Minister Karina Kreminski is well known in the neighbourhood for her blog “Surry Hills and Valleys” which features stories of Surry Hills Residents. Compass explores Karina’s theology, life story and her views about the life and times of Surry Hills locals – all to illustrate what she calls her “Urban Mission.”
Producer & Researcher: Noel James Debien
Editor: Anna Craney
Series Producer: Jessica Douglas-Henry
KUMI TAGUCHI: Just over 16,000 people live in the inner-city suburb of Surry Hills. Baptist Minister Karina Kreminski moved here three years ago, to become a missionary. But no ordinary missionary. Karina calls it Urban Mission. It’s voluntary. And it’s more about listening, not so much about preaching.
KARINA: I’ve always been drawn to the city, and I knew that in the second half of my life, that’s where I would move. I just had a gut feeling. And as I was walking around and I was sort of reflecting and doing some discernment… ..uh, discerning where I felt the Spirit was moving or active or saying something to me, uh, I…I settled on Surry Hills.
One of the first people she connected with was Astra Howard. She’s an artist.
She created this ever-changing piece for showing local stories.
ASTRA: So, I guess, over time the idea is that you would have a whole range of voices heard. Uh, so, of course, I’m going to a lot of the crisis services ’cause a lot of people in those services don’t have the opportunity for their text to be presented publicly,
but also any individual is able to come and submit an idea. Almost. There. That’s it.
So, this was the text that Astra put up on this laneway wall. I wrote, “I was afraid of making eye contact. “This city can amplify loneliness.
“Character runs far deeper. “A gaze that starts a conversation. “I wanted to be a local.” ‘Cause in Surry Hills, when you’re walking down the streets there’s this tension where you want to make eye contact with somebody – ’cause it’s a friendly place, it’s got this villagey feel – but at the same time it’s the city. So you’re not sure if you actually want to make eye contact with that person,
because they could go crazy or… You know, you’re not quite sure. So, one of the things that we were thinking about is, who’s telling the story of Surry Hills? We found that it was going in a particular direction. You know, Surry Hills is a place where you get good coffee and, you know, it’s… it’s a hipster hangout and all that kind of thing.
And we just thought, but what about… What’s actually really going on here? What are the stories that aren’t being told? And so we’re trying… It’s not always easy, but we’re trying to hear the stories from people who live here that you don’t really hear about.
..representing the gay community.
So, the reason they moved here was because it was…
Yeah. Oh, yeah.
Karina created the website Surry Hills & Valleys as a way of listening to people and connecting with them.
So I said, “Stare into the mirror.”
So, do you remember Hannah?
Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
We interview the locals of Surry Hills, no matter who they are, and we just ask them what they love about Surry Hills, what they fear about some of the changes that are going on in Surry Hills, and also we ask them to get a bit personal. So, we ask them, what have been some of the difficulties
that they’ve had in their life, and how have they overcome those difficulties? It’s a little bit like a Humans of New York thing. And so I’ve been getting to know a lot of people in the community because of that.
Photographer Tim Ritchie has lived in Surry Hills for more than 30 years. He’s part of the website team,
and shares Karina’s interest in the local community.
We talk about belief and faith, ’cause we walk around Surry Hills to meet the people that she’s going to interview and I’m going to photograph, and she thinks, I think, that inside me there is a person of faith waiting to come out. And I’m too polite to say there is no chance
of someone of faith coming out, um, and if it did come out, it would probably be of a faith that’s certainly, well, not Christian – it would probably be Jewish. But I don’t think that person is there waiting, and I think she almost sees it as a very polite challenge.
James O’Brien is originally from Lismore.
He moved to Surry Hills more than 20 years ago. In his day job, he works for ABC radio, but moonlights as the website’s sound guy.
JAMES: Karina and I were having dinner at a restaurant and we were talking about the light rail, and other things which have basically, geographically, split the area in two.
So we once had Surry Hills as a very cohesive kind of neighbourhood, and then suddenly it was this side of Devonshire Street, and that side of Devonshire Street and, you know, we were talking about how that had a psychological impact on our sense of community.
Surry Hills began as farmland on the edge of old Sydney town.
But by the 1840s, workers’ cottages were everywhere. The area became overcrowded.
REPORTER: Wherever houses and factories and railway systems are gathered together in a confined space, there you’ll find a slum.
(BAND PLAYS UP-BEAT MUSIC)
In old Surry Hills, missionaries were the more traditional sort.
In the 1960s, the New South Wales Housing Commission began rebuilding. More recently, gentrification accelerated change. Now Surry Hills residents have higher than average incomes. But the suburb remains diverse. Paddy O’Dowd works at Mission Australia,
which offers crisis accommodation. He told his story to Karina for the website.
I’ve been with the Mission 25 years, I think. And I’m the facilities manager. I basically look after the maintenance of the building. When I first started here, we had 380 residents,
so it was quite hectic in those days. Surry Hills is forever changing. The old alcoholics that used to be around and are no longer around, they were quite… characters in their day. What happened in my situation was, I had…
In 12 months, I had five members… five members of my family pass away. And my wife was the last to pass away, and I…I started drinking… ..quite heavily. And I collapsed in Port Macquarie, and they rushed me to hospital.
And, um… I don’t actually remember, but when I did come to, the nurses said I had passed away when they got me to hospital, but they managed to get me back, as you can see.
But I’ve done one similar to this and gave it to a friend of mine.
Oh, yes. Yeah.
And I was here recovering for about six months. The matron at the time sort of said, “You know, you’ll have to get off your backside and do something”.
These days, Mission Australia gives intensive assistance to 32 residential clients, and runs youth programs and day programs.
Which is no longer… It’s through the body, but it’s… ..on a different… different surface.
Astra used to work here, actually, as program coordinator. I met Karina through Astra, and I didn’t even know that she was a Baptist minister, to be quite honest. Oh, yeah.
Four-year-old loved it, eh.
I think, traditionally, Christianity has moved away from urban spaces and moved more towards the suburbs. We’ve become a very middle-class, suburban kind of religion. And so we need to get back into the cities.
(MUSICIANS PLAY SLOW SONG)
(CONGREGATION SINGS INDISTINCTLY)
Once a full-time Baptist minister, Karina has given up that security for a new direction – Urban Mission. These days, Karina and her husband Armen often worship at the inner-city Newtown Uniting Church.
(ALL SING INDISTINCTLY)
The church I led was in suburban Sydney. It was a congregation of around about 150 or 200. And I really loved that church.
I left that church because I felt that I wasn’t being true to my calling.
His body broken for us…
The institutional church has some issues, in my opinion. We’re worried because our numbers are declining. We’re concerned because people aren’t coming to church every week. We put up big signs in front of the church,
saying, “This week we’re gonna preach a great sermon “on how to live out a great marriage,” and we expect that people are gonna wake up in the morning on a Sunday and say, “Oh, I think that’s really interesting. “I might pop into church this morning.” They’re not gonna do that. They’re just not interested at all. And so, you know, we don’t just need some tweaking in the church,
we need some radical change.
Karina’s partner in life is also her partner in mission.
I was married only three months ago, and I met my husband, Armen, really, through Facebook. He’s an editor of an online spirituality and ethics magazine
and he started reading some of my blogs.
ARMEN: I contacted her to ask her if she’d like to write for us. And that was the beginning of our story, actually. We got talking on Messenger the following year, and the rest is history.
I was born in Argentina. Uh, we moved here when I was only four years old. But my background is all Ukrainian. My grandfather left the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, and he moved over to Argentina, to the very north of Argentina, and he became a farmer there. And he was actually an atheist,
but he was converted by a group of Baptists in the very north of Argentina. And that’s actually how we became religious, or spiritual. It was through him becoming a Baptist. And we decided to move from Argentina just purely because we thought we’d do better here economically.
So, that was during the 1970s. We first of all landed in Wollongong, and then we moved to Villawood Migration Centre back then, and I still remember living in those tin sheds and going to the hostel and getting my hot food every day. Now, of course, you know, it’s a detention centre. Then we moved to Fairfield.
Fairfield is where all good South American people lived. And then, eventually, we moved on. I grew up in quite a religious family. Uh, so we went to church every week.
And for me, there was a faith there, but I think now I would describe it as quite a legalistic faith. So, if I did all the right things, God was happy with me. And if I did some wrong things, God would be very upset with me. So it was always a matter of trying to earn God’s attention or favour in some way.
And then, um, one day I was sitting in the food court of Westfield’s in Parramatta, and I had been reading around Romans in the Bible, and that talked a lot about God’s grace. I can’t remember the passage exactly, but it was talking about God’s grace.
And all of a sudden, the only way I can describe it is I just had a flash of insight, where my view of religion and God was flipped. And I just saw, instead of me trying to reach up to God, I saw God reaching down to me, without me having to do anything. And that picture, when I saw it,
I just felt as though I’d been given a gift. And it felt exactly the way that you would if you were given a gift. When you’re a beautiful gift, you get this feeling of joy, of… You feel special. You feel sort of unique. And that’s how I felt. And nothing tangible was happening in the food court of Westfield’s Parramatta.
But I felt joy.
When Karina moved to her new inner-city community, she volunteered at the Surry Hills Neighbourhood Centre.
We have snacks!
Snacks! We got lots of snacks tonight. This is excellent. We’ve got everything.
This is better than a board meeting!
One of the first things I did at the neighbourhood centre is started running a program there that’s called The Happiness Lab. And it’s just six-week course on helping people think about what it looks like to live a meaningful life or a life that is flourishing.
And, um, let’s look at kindness. What do you think? What I want you to think about is think about the kindest person that you know. Alright? Or somebody that you know who is really, really kind. KARINA: I think more and more Christians are beginning to… ..ask the question, “How can I see God more at work in my neighbourhood
“and through my neighbours? “How can I even get to know my neighbours, “to get to know their names?” And I thought, “Oh, that’s a really good point. “I hadn’t thought that through.”
Back walking the streets of Surry Hills, Karina and Armen meet another local artist and gallery owner, Irena.
IRENA: I met Karina when she popped into the art gallery, and she really liked a particular painting, and asked me if I would do a little talk about it up at her Happiness Lab. It’s sort of a water buffalo that is surviving in a flood, and that resonated with Karina, yeah.
In The Happiness Lab, we talk about resilience.
And Irena’s been through a lot of ups and downs in her life. We actually featured her for Surry Hills & Valleys…
Yes, that’s right. (LAUGHS)
..where she told a bit of her story. And so, yeah, she’s had ups and downs.
Yeah. I had the misfortune of going through a murder trial. I was charged with murder. And that’s the second book there, that you were looking at. I was acquitted. It was all over… I repossessed a Harley-Davidson motorbike
from a jilted boyfriend and, anyway, he went to the police and claimed that I’d confessed to him that I murdered my husband, which I didn’t, but I had to prove I didn’t. So that was quite a traumatic time for me. Yeah, so…
What I love about you, Irena, is your resilience.
And, you know, like, I read all of your Facebook posts,
and, you know, you’re just always creative and you’re just always moving forward and you just love life.
And just walking around this inner-city neighbourhood can be inspiring.
How you doing?
Craig is the one who does all the flowers.
Ah! It’s nice that you’ve got quite a community here, as well. As in, people seem to get along and doing things together and…
MAN: It’s very friendly. It always has been.
This is another neighbour.
MAN: Hi! How you doing?
He works for the SBS. He works for SBS
It’s all withdrawn now. We’ve got frangipani. Petunias.
And this one too.
KUMI: These old workers’ cottages are in McElhone Place, known locally as “Cat Alley”. They were here in the 1900 bubonic plague outbreak, and they’ve survived demolition plans in the 1930s,
and the slum-clearance policies of the 1970s
Not too sure when, but it looks like the ’40s, by the clothes.
Yeah. They’re friends. They sit together. (CHUCKLES)
French Canadian Claudette and her neighbour Dennis are two of the locals who cultivate the garden.
If you look at the difference now, you can see just how many plants we’ve put in.
This is when we started. People give us washing… You know the old washing tubs?
Washing tubs, yeah.
To support her voluntary inner-city ministry, Karina returns to the suburbs to teach at the Baptist theological College.
How are you all going? So, just to kick things off, tell me about a few things that you’ve been learning about.
These ministers and postgraduate students
are learning about Karina’s speciality, Urban Spirituality – the subject of her recent book. It’s the opposite of bible bashing.
Amazing what happens when you do just listen and observe and watch. It can actually be quite, um… unravelling, in a lot of ways. Your theology can change, your practices can change.
I’ve changed quite a lot in the last three years. You know, we’re supposed to be listening first of all before we engage in any kind of activity. And I think too often as Christians we’ve jumped towards judging, haven’t we? Or trying to fix, or trying to change, or trying to lead a culture. That’s all fine, but you’ve gotta do the work first of listening.
That’s really respecting and really loving a culture, I think.
(DANCE MUSIC PLAYS)
Christian theologians listening carefully to local culture can make for strange bedfellows. The Surry Hills postcode, 2010,
has been a heartland for clubbing and the gay scene, and a lightning rod for conservatives.
_ Marching on… _
God made male and female, Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.
We don’t have to listen to the rubbish and the bullshit and the condemnation that Fred Nile puts out. The Gospel is very clear. He seems to ignore it, and whatever he uses, he warps.
And someone who warps the Gospel message, well, truly, I think they’ll go straight to hell.
This is Hi Spots, 1980 – Michael Matou, myself, Theresa Green, Boom Boom la Burn, Simon Reptile, Simone, Cigarette, Dakron McGillicuddy, Zero, Peter and Peter.
Elizabeth Burton – self-described as an “old tart” – is one of the great dames of Surry Hills.
I did my hairdressing apprenticeship between ’64 and ’68. During that period of time, I was working as a go-go dancer. Started at Redfern RSL, worked at Romano’s.
Then I went to Vietnam as a go-go dancer with the Rainbow Show. We did an interview with Mike Willesee once, and my mother goes, “Oh, she left Australia a hairdressing Catholic “and came back a Buddhist stripper.” When I first started stripping
at the Psychedelic Funhouse in New York City, I was Miss Modesty, and they used to call me “The Immodest Miss Modesty”. And this costume – which has a dress connected to it – actually is in the Powerhouse Museum. I came here in 1985. This is Housing Commission.
My daughter was three years old and I was desperate for accommodation, and I’ve been very grateful and very happy to be here.
Elizabeth’s balcony happens to look right over the latest Surry Hills development – Groundhog Day. The local trams had been shut down in 1961.
Now they’re on their way back. Nothing much fazes Elizabeth.
Right. What would we like today?
She gave free haircuts during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Now she does haircuts at the Surry Hills Neighbourhood Centre.
It was here she met Karina.
Well, Karina’s a beautiful goddess. She approaches you, you know, just in a normal way and she’s never treated me with anything but respect. You know, who hasn’t had a colourful past, darling? Everybody’s got their little skeletons in their closet. And you know that thing from the Bible? He who is without sin, throw the first stone.
So, that’s where I’m living. Thanks, darling.
Just saying hello.
WOMAN: Oh, hello, guys! How you going?
Well, we were thinking of going up and having a bit of a look. There’s usually more up that way.
Yeah! Yeah, there’s heaps.
See ya! See you later.
Anyway, see you later. Bye!
See you later. See you later. CHRISTOPHER: I think Karina is really clever in how she’s getting a really broad group of people that would normally not be connected together through the platform that is the blog and the website she does.
So, there’s lot’s of people who would never really come across each other, but through that sort of blog and website, it’s given us a way of connecting.
How you going?
First Saturday of the month is market day in Surry Hills. The neighbourhood centre hosts a pop-up cafe where volunteers can hone their hospitality skills.
We’ve got the vegan hummus, guacamole, salsa, kalamata olives.
Garden salad – comes with tomatoes and cucumber, not like the other salads. As I always say, of course we’ve got a beautiful building, of course we’ve got beautiful food, but it’s you beautiful people who actually make this cafe special.
MAN: Aww. That’s so sweet.
So just look after each other and have a nice day, alright? Thank you. Alright? Great.
How did you get the dots on? Did you, um, like, have to stamp it? Yeah.
WOMAN: Tell the lady why you’re making them.
GIRL: We’re making these to save endangered animals.
I was sitting down having coffee with a good friend of mine, who’s in the neighbourhood, and she’d read my book. She is an atheist. And she said, “So, if you’re a missionary,
“you’re out to convert people. “Do you get upset that you don’t have many conversions? “Or do you get upset when you don’t have any conversions?” And that made me think through, what am I doing here in the neighbourhood? Am I actually trying to convert people? And I thought, “No, I’m not.” I’m just trying to be the love of God,
and then when I exhibit that and I’m the light for people, people will see God in me and they will be drawn to that light. So, my view of mission is that it’s not primarily about what you do, it’s primarily about who you are.
Hello, guys! Hello, hello.
How are you?
Good to see you.
How are you?
How you going?
We’re not out to change the world. We’re connecting with what God is doing in the world. And what God is doing in the world, I believe, is renewing, restoring, bringing about a holistic society full of beauty and justice and truth and compassion. That’s God’s mission. And that’s what we have to join.
All we need to do is love the people who are in our neighbourhoods.
KUMI: Next time on Compass…
I thought I would like to work with the people with HIV. I considered HIV patients the most disadvantaged in this country.
MAN: We have to invest in higher education. This is phase one. Phase one is 6,000 students.
MAN: We have trust in him. He’s a man of God, and he’ll work faithfully with us,
unlike other foreigners who come in here, rip us off and take off.
The Polish Missionaries, next time on Compass. Captions by Red Bee Media Copyright Australian Broadcasting Corporation