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Hillsong rolls up its sleeves

NEWS | Kaley Payne

September 2015

For 13 years, Glenn Olney has been knocking on the same doors on Perigee Close in Doonside in Sydney’s western suburbs. Today, almost everyone answers. Many are waiting for him when we arrive on the circular street early on a Saturday morning in June. But it wasn’t always that way.

“If you didn’t take rejection very well, it wasn’t easy,” Glenn says as we pull up along the curb. “When we first started visiting it was pretty much ‘doors in faces’ for weeks on end.”

As we get out of the car, I can see green shirts. A green shirt pulls a lawn mower across the road. Another green shirt is digging around the boot of her car, fishing out cleaning supplies. Another two green shirts are walking up the footpath of a house on the corner. Visiting has begun.

The green shirts have become a symbol on this street. That’s the street team. You’ll see them every second Saturday. They’re from Hillsong. They’ll mow your lawn.

Before we arrive on Perigee Close on this cold and foggy winter morning, about 50 green shirts have already gathered at Hillsong’s Baulkham Hills campus. They sipped hot coffee and ate crumpets while listening to one of the leaders exhorting them to remember that “individual people make the biggest difference” and that God has given them the power to be “a light in someone’s darkness.”

Glenn Olney, the leader of the Doonside street team from Hillsong has been visiting people like Rosemary (left) for 13 years.

Glenn Olney, the leader of the Doonside street team from Hillsong has been visiting people like Rosemary (left) for 13 years.

“People didn’t know each other. You can never underestimate the importance of just talking to people.”

They pray and then they go out. From the Hills Campus, groups head to Bidwell, Doonside, Riverstone, Wentworthville, Blacktown and Telopea: mostly to areas of public housing. But across Sydney and now Brisbane too, over a hundred other green shirts will spread across the cities to some of the most disadvantaged areas.

“It’s not a high profile ministry within Hillsong,” says Glenn. “We’re not flash, it’s not glamorous, but it’s very effective.”

Back on Perigee Close, we’re ready to go. Before we’ve unloaded our mowers and some meals prepared by the team’s family members to give to some of the residents, Brenda is already upon us. She’s been waiting for Glenn. She wants to tell him about some problems she’s been having at work. And she’s keen to let the team know that there’s a new family on the street.

Glenn says this is just an example of how the street has changed in the 13 years he’s been visiting. “People didn’t know each other. You can never underestimate the importance of just talking to people,” says Glenn. “We’re here to do two things. We do jobs around the street – washing dogs, gardening, cleaning – but more importantly we spend time with lonely people.”

Further down the street, another lady is waiting on the path.

“Rosemary is the heart of the street,” Glenn tells me as we walk to meet her. “It took a few weeks, but she was the first person who opened her door when we started. She was the turning point.”

Rosemary has lived here for 33 years. She’s got a list of chores for the street team to do. A no-nonsense person, the organiser, she sends a few of our group next door to start mowing their lawn. A resident next door hasn’t been well, “So why don’t you go say hello?” she tells Glenn. And off he goes. Two others on the street team get to work weeding part of Rosemary’s garden. She laughs at one of their jokes and invites me on to her porch, where we sit in the glorious sun and watch the work being done around us. “Sometimes people around here can be shy to ask the team to help out, so I keep a list of what needs to be done,” she tells me. “There are a lot of very ill people on this street. Lots of people don’t have enough money, there’s a lot of social problems.”

When Glenn and his team first arrived on Perigee Street, Rosemary says she was suspicious. The view of “The Church” from this street in Doonside is not a sunny one. “No one’s particularly religious here and we don’t trust churches,” she says resolutely. Rosemary grew up in a Catholic orphanage where she was abused. She hates nuns and priests and says that most Christians she’s known haven’t lived as though they believed in God.

Hillsong's Street Teams at work, moving lawns, weeding and doing other odd jobs for residents in Doonside, in western Sydney.

Hillsong’s Street Teams at work, moving lawns, weeding and doing other odd jobs for residents in Doonside, in western Sydney.

“Churches always put their hand out for money … But these people weren’t asking for anything. They didn’t even ask to be treated with respect. It got me thinking: it’s so strange that they’ll do this for free. So I let them in the next week too.”

“When these guys first started coming here, I didn’t think they were honest. I’d never seen church work the way it should. But now people look forward to Hillsong coming here. They’re normal, normal people.”

Down the road, Charlie and Des are waiting for us to visit. Charlie’s sitting on the porch steps, Des squats on the grass. They shout a “G’day” to Glenn and I as we approach. Charlie’s lived on the street since 1984. Des has lived next door since 1999. They take great pride in the difficult time they gave Glenn and the team when they first visited. The pair used to shout out their windows at the green shirts walking down the drive. “We don’t want your religion here!’ we used to shout,” said Charlie cheekily.

Des nods in agreement. “We used to tell them in very colourful language to ‘get lost’,” he says. “But they were back again the following Saturday saying they just wanted to see if I needed help with anything. I thought the quickest way to get them to leave was to test them. So I told them I’ve got a pile of ironing they could do. They actually took me up on it! They did my ironing and expected nothing in return. Churches always put their hand out for money,” says Des. “But these people weren’t asking for anything. They didn’t even ask to be treated with respect. It got me thinking: it’s so strange that they’ll do this for free. So I let them in the next week too.”

Des, an Aboriginal man from the Darug tribe, tells me he and Glenn have been arguing about the truths of the Bible versus the Dreamtime for years. He often offers the street team some of his bush tucker when he’s been out hunting. 

“Des goes hunting for snakes and grubs,” says Glenn. “We’ve eaten carpet snakes on a visit before.” He taunts Des about snakes in the Bible. Des grins. “Now, don’t start that again. I really should read that Bible one day.”

Charlie was harder to crack, says Glenn. For years, he wouldn’t talk to them, even once Des had opened up next door. “He has to know you for a very long time,” Glenn says. Turning to Charlie, he says “I’ve prayed for you a lot over the years.”

“He’s a good fella,” says Charlie. “We get on real good now. But geez, he’s put some weight on! We look forward to one another, just to see how we all are.”

Des, Charlie and Glenn chat like they’re old friends. “It’s strange to think how many people I love spending time with now who told me to p**s off the first time we met,” Glenn laughs.

There’s no gardening or domestic work being done by the team at Des and Charlie’s place this weekend. But there’s plenty of conversation. And Glenn’s got another meal for Charlie, trading a full plastic container for a bag of empty ones. There’s been many meals offered and gratefully received. While we talk, the sounds of lawn movers and whipper-snippers echo around the street – other green-shirters hard at work.

“If you come here and preach at us, we won’t listen … But come here and live your religion, we’ll take notice.”

This Saturday morning the street team from Perigee Close mowed five lawns, weeded or cleared three garden beds and made contact with 17 people from the street. We’ve been here just three hours.

“You can’t do it all in one morning,” says Glenn. Consistency and stability is important in this type of ministry. It took someone like Charlie almost two years to open up. Most people on the team – all from different parts of the Hillsong world – are committed for at least a year. And most turn up every week. “I’m stunned at what God has provided us with. There’s a lot of experience in this team. We’ve been very blessed.” So blessed, in fact, that Glenn wants to expand the ministry into the next street over later this year.

Rosemary says the street is much better off since the street teams have been visiting. 

“A lot of children – and adults, for that matter – around here have never seen people do good things for no reason. They’ve helped me believe there are decent Christian people out there. I didn’t really know there were. When people have been kicked in the teeth, and then kicked again, they lose heart.”

Glenn and his team, she says, have been welcomed in to their community because they “just kept coming back.”

“If you come here and preach at us, we won’t listen,” she says. “But come here and live your religion, we’ll take notice.” 

Since writing this article, Charlie has very sadly passed away after a long illness. Glenn and the street team conducted a memorial service for Charlie on Rosemary’s front lawn, with most of the street in attendance.

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