I am sitting on a couch, in a simple but beautifully-crafted strawbale home, set on 45 acres in the Kanimbla Valley. It’s not quite finished. I’m listening to Matt Anslow. Behind him on the wall are a set of framed works by Banksy – the notorious, but anonymous, British street artist, whose satirical and darkly humorous stencils are copied by graffiti artists around the world. In his stencils, a little girl is letting go of a heart-shaped balloon, while a little boys stands in a field of roughly sketched flowers and fires a machine gun.
Concern for the needs of children clearly permeates this home – from the artworks on the wall to the large bookcase filled with board games. Matt and his wife Ashlee have chosen to work part-time so that they can share the care of their young children on this permaculture farm, nestled into a hillside below the dramatic backdrop of the Blue Mountains. Ashlee is a registered nurse and midwife at Lithgow Hospital, who’s also studied International Public Health and Health Security. Matt has been a community educator in the Aid and Development sector, studied theology, has a PhD in Biblical Studies, and co-founded Love Makes a Way, the largest faith-based civil disobedience movement in Australia’s history. Its focus is on getting the kids off Nauru.
In 2014, the year before their daughter Evie was born, there were 1138 children in detention.
Two years earlier, Matt trained in non-violent direct action with Justin Whelan and Josh Dowton, and in 2013 was part of a group of 8 who sat and prayed in the Immigration Minister’s Office in protest against the government’s inhumane policies.
“We got a lot of media and we only decided on the hashtag #lovemakesaway in the 10 minutes before we walked in,” said Matt. Five of the group were arrested. A couple of weeks later they did an Easter vigil in the Minister’s Office.
Easter Saturday is the day between death and life; grief and joy; despair and hope. This time 125 people joined in.
That night, in response to the many asking how they could get involved, Matt started the Love Makes a Way Facebook group. Hundreds liked the Page in the first 24 hours. The hundreds turned to thousands and today there are over 22,000 who follow the Page. He and Justin Whelan began training groups around Australia in non-violent direct action.
In 2014 they held 22 actions with 200 people. Most were arrested. They were described by the police as “the nicest crims we’ve ever had in here”.
“Back then the churches were very quiet but since 2014 most major denominations have put out statements condemning the detention of children,” says Matt.
In 2015, a group of 40 priests, nuns, Christian leaders, pastors, ministers, and a former Catholic bishop, staged a protest in Parliament House, occupying the foyer and singing songs. The Moderator of the Uniting Church in Australia, and the former Uniting Church president have all taken part in these direct actions.
Matt points out that “non-violent direct action is about dramatization. It’s a way of unearthing the tension that exists but that people want to keep quiet. If you dramatize it people can’t ignore the tension”.
By 2016 there were 56 vigils in a week around Australia at the offices of MPs and Senators. When the Nauru files were leaked, volunteers did 10-hour public readings of the files. Some people chained themselves to Kirribilli House. Over 300 risked arrest and 250 people were arrested.
“People are outraged by what’s happened and rightly so – it’s a human rights disaster,” declares Matt. “Against my expectations I learnt that people are ready to take radical action very quickly if they believe the issue is urgent and if they trust who is alerting them to it. We expected a 50:50 split in the church, but it was more like 95:5. People are more open to non-violent direct action in Australia than we thought.”
We go for a walk around Matt and Ashlee’s farm and talk permaculture. When they lived 8 storeys up in a unit in Sydney they even grew greens and cherry tomatoes and raised chooks on their balcony. Here they have a proper chook run, goats, a dog and a large Banksy stencilled onto the side of the shed. It’s a masked protester, but he’s throwing a bunch of flowers instead of a bomb.
Matt is deeply inspired by the American Freedom Movement, Martin Luther King and essayist, poet and farmer Wendell Berry, who wrote: “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.” (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays)
“You can’t love what you don’t know,” says Matt. “We moved to the Kanimbla Valley to come to know a piece of land over time.” As we continue to walk around the farm, Matt reflects that after their years of travelling around Asia they’ve come to realise that what matters is connecting to community and learning to love a place.
“We’re learning that you can’t muscle the land to do what you want without damage to the source of our life, and embracing the mundane is an incredibly important part of the future we need. The choices we make every day, like what we buy, how we spend our time, how we bring up our kids to not be obsessed with consumerism … these are the mundane choices that affect future generations.”
“There’s dramatic action, and there’s the boring day-to-day of life. We’ve recognised the importance of slowing down and observing and carefully waiting.”
Prayer vigils continue around the country.
To find out more, visit lovemakesaway.org.au