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Son of a Preacher Man

“I want my feet standing in the mud.”
An intimate conversation with Rev. Graham Long from The Wayside Chapel
Excerpt from Issue 1 of YOKE on love / loss

He wears two watches. One is his regular timepiece. The second watch belonged to his son, James. It stopped at one minute to midnight during the first year of James’ death – a constant reminder of the fleeting nature of life. Graham Long is pastor of the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross, but he is no ordinary pastor, and no ordinary man. At a time when we are becoming fragmented by the technology that we think connects us, but is only making us more lonely, he preaches that all humanity belongs to one another.

Your book is a reminder that life is not all about us, but about being part of something bigger. Is it important for everyone to share the same philosophy?

It’s not about what you’re thinking. What matters is that we’re born hardwired as social beings, and most of our systems exist to undo that fact. Our education system puts people in at one end, and spits individuals out at the other. Everyone’s your competitor, and you need to do better than your neighbour in order to do well in life. This manufactures loneliness. Same with most of our activities, which constantly dig the hole deeper – even the way we try and help people.

Because your humanity has been undermined and you feel like this needs to be filled by something, most of the ways we try and fill it actually make the problem worse. If you seek help for that, and you go and see a doctor and he gives you a pill, and you walk out of the room with a pill, you’ve just dug the hole deeper. I’m saying there’s no such thing as a single human being. The fundamental human unit contains at least two. If you catch that, you’re on your way to a healthier life.

How do you find comfort in death, particularly one so great as the loss of a child?

We really do live in a death-denying culture. We plan and invest as if we’re going to live forever. We say we accept death, but only when it’s not real. To really know your mortality can set you free; to live each day as if it’s your last. The death of James is the worst wrenching, the worst tearing, the worst pain I know. But it has delivered liberation in one sense. It’s loosened my grip on lots of things that I used to hang onto too tightly. It used to be very important to me whether you thought I was doing a good job or not. Now I really don’t care.

I still do the best that I can do, the best job I can do, but I don’t need the applause. I used to care a lot about what I drove, where I lived, how I looked. None of that means a thing to me now. So there is great liberation in knowing your own mortality. It sounds depressing, but it’s actually the opposite. This is his watch, and it stopped at one minute to midnight all on its own, and I left it there because it’s always accurate. The overwhelming sense after his death was, you only live for 5 minutes, and I’ve only got 1 minute left.

I find the older I get the faster life goes. The last 10 years just went like that – we seem to be celebrating Christmas every three months. The older I get the faster this goes, and the more ludicrous this goes. I’m pretty convinced I’ve got a minute left. It’s just a minute. The gift in James’ death is that I only want my feet to take me where I’d like to be found in my last minute.

Do you think you’re a spiritual being, and most importantly, do you believe in karma?

I don’t know. I think everybody does believe in karma. I think at one level, it’s a load of trash because innocent people get shat upon from a great height all the time. And, babies die and four year olds get run over. There’s no higher principle at work. At another level I get it. I would say nobody really gets away with anything. If I steal $5 off you, I’m 5 up, and you’re 5 down. I’ve constituted myself as a thief, so I’ve emptied myself. If that’s karma I’ll give it a sideways vote. I think we are embodied spirits, and I like the idea that our bodies are sacred sites. I think spiritual is probably the right word for that. If it is, then I’m a spiritual person. I don’t like to think I’m a spiritual person in a way that’s disembodied. I don’t want to be off with the fairies. I want my feet standing in the mud.

Your thoughts on mental illness being a social phenomenon are interesting. You’ve said, ‘autonomy feeds damaged people with a sense of entitlement which blinds them to the possibly of receiving a gift’.

Ever since we stopped hanging over the fence talking to our neighbours, our list of mental illnesses has mushroomed. A primary school teacher told me that 60 or 70 percent of her class were medicated – in primary school. Do we wait until 100 percent of our kids are medicated in order to get through the system?

Because we’re hardwired as social, to live your life in a bubble is to be unwell. You can only distract yourself, or entertain yourself. Masturbation is such a poor substitute for the mystery that happens between two people. But, in a sense we are masturbating ourselves to death. We’ve missed the whole point and we’re filling our lives with stuff. And no amount of stuff is going to do it. Me having experiences is not me meeting you. If I say I’m experiencing you you’ll say that’s nice. No it’s not. If I say I use you, you’ll have better insight into what I’m saying. If I experience you, I use you for my benefit. Experience and using are nothing like meeting.

You believe that to name ‘the self’ as the source is misleading. That when artists believe the source of inspiration to be from within, they either deliver dreadful work, or, sometimes, brilliant work that reveals a tragic example of non-life?

Love comes at you from without; always. Inspiration comes to you from without. Life comes to you from without. For you to believe that you are the cause of your own genius is to live with your head up your bum. An artist is captured by something that is beyond and greater, and they seek to embody that in their art. They seek that which captures them and that they want to express in some way. When they finish that and put their signature on that, the creative act is over.

The seed of what captured the artist is in there, and you can maybe look at that work of art and be maybe captured by that which captured the artist in the first place. So the creative act can be reborn. But to think of the thing that’s been produced as the creative – no way. I think the principle is knowing that life comes to you from without.

Reverend Graham Long is the pastor and CEO of The Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s Kings Cross, a Christian ministry and drop-in centre specialising in homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. His latest book, Love Over Hate: Finding life by the Wayside, is a memoir of his life and work with some of society’s most troubled souls and of the characters he’s met along the way.

Graham has been married to his wife Robyn for 40 years. They have an adopted daughter, Mandy. Their adopted son James died in 2009. Graham lives and works in Sydney. He has four granddaughters, Paityn (16), Georgie (8), Mahlee (6), and Harper (11 months).
Photos and interview by Cynthia Sciberras


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