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Torch lights up conflict over injecting room

The Torch ProjectIn 2000, it was revealed that Wesley Mission has spent up to half a million dollars on a plan to trial a safe injecting room on its site without consent from either local residents nor the Uniting Church congregation with which it shared its property. The congregation and local residents were irate. The safe injecting room was later shelved and the Wesley Mission and Wesley Uniting Church split.

Alistair Macrae is head of the Uniting Church's theological college and a Wesley Mission board member. He was installed as Uniting Church moderator after the controversy began and was part of what he called the 'mop up' process.

'The Synod intervened and separated the congregation from the Mission in a way that it hadn't been historically allowed for,' said Macrae. 'There was a lot of ill feeling around the place and it hadn't been properly addressed.'

It was clear healing was needed, but no one knew how to deal with what had become known as 'the troubles'. That prompted the theatrical production Faith, in which Macrae also acted. The Torch Project was born.

The Torch ProjectIn 2004, the Mission received a substantial bequest from a member of the congregation. Of course, given the split, the congregation was disappointed that one of its own had pledged big money to the Mission. As a way of deflecting further heat, the Mission decided it would put the money into a project that benefited both the Mission and the congregation.

The Torch Project was employed. The Torch Project is a Melbourne-based theatre company that uses both professional actors and community members to create plays aiming to reconcile groups in conflict. Mari Lourey, co-writer of Faith, said she, like Anne Phelan who once played Myra Desmond in Prisoner, was surprised at the level of acrimony.

'When such a traumatic event has occurred a lot of people don't feel heard and don't feel listened to. We felt caught in the crossfire of incredibly dangerous emotions.'

During the research process, Lourey was told not to talk about the troubles as no-one would want to revisit them. However, she found they were all anybody wanted to talk about. The production that emerged in early 2006 looked at Wesley's long history, encompassing the interests of residents, car park attendants, the Mission, Big Issue vendors, Lifeline, the congregation and its linked Chinese members, and the many people Wesley mission serves.

The play's central character, Faith, was an amalgam of two teenage girls whose lives had deeply moved those at Wesley. One was found burning her clothes in the car park after being raped. Another, who came regularly to the Mission for assistance, was found dead of an overdose in the toilets.

The Torch ProjectThe play closes with Faith's father placing flowers where his daughter died. This enacted the father's annual ritual for his daughter who had overdosed. Community members and professional actors gathered around him and sang a blessing, the audience was reminded that the safe injecting controversy was caused by a well-meaning attempt to save young lives.

'It's a high-risk strategy, but sometimes where there has been profound dysfunction in a relationship you need to intensify conflict in order to get through to a new place. The Torch methodology does that,' Macrae said, adding, however, that the play had merely stoked the anger of some stakeholders.

But Anne Phelan was confident the play and its processes would foster long-term healing at Wesley.

'So many people who saw it came up to me and said, 'I can move on now, thank you', she said, adding, 'The biggest trouble in the whole issue was secrecy. You can't play one group off another, you can't do that with human beings.'



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