Our Central Australian Oasis of Alice Springs was under siege. We’d been in the grip of the worst wave of street crime in 30 years. Police, government, businesses and locals were mystified as to what could be done and the crime stats were rising.
Whole sections of town were ‘no go zones’ after dark for fear of being robbed or assaulted by the gangs of youth roaming the streets. It was heartbreaking to see these disenchanted young people – 150 to 300 at a time – engaged in destruction, violence, risk taking behaviours and sheer vandalism. Arterial roads in and out of town would often be off limits as they claimed their turf and threw rocks or bottles at any passers by.
The town was at boiling point for weeks. Law enforcement seemed powerless to curb the onslaught as services were overwhelmed, businesses were closing, the streets were deserted and anger was rising. Overnight carnage was turning Alice into a ghost town and fears were looming that tourism would drop, assaulting the economy even more. Local retailers were unable to keep up the repair and replacement bills for damage, theft, broken glass and graffitied signage. Shopfronts were emptying out and the family friendly nightspots lost patrons and dollars.
Then the biggest blow of all; the local Toyota dealer – a stalwart of Alice commerce, community and history – had all the vehicles on their lot vandalised overnight. Windows all smashed, panels kicked in. Devastating and wanton destruction. The car yard had to close its doors and remove all of it’s stock to a private storage facility. The staff suffered and the future of the business was in doubt. Likewise the local Yamaha motorbike dealer – after months of repeated loss and vandalism; it grew beyond their capacity to keep the doors open.
Locals were fed up. The tone of public dialogue held a smattering of anger and vigilantism – “someone should teach these little punks a lesson.” People mused about gangs of blokes with baseball bats, flogging anyone party to the crimewave. A historical town racial divide opened up even further pitting ethnic groups against each other. The community dialogue devolved to the lowest common denominator; hate, anger, vitriol and violence. Threats were looming and a pocket of public opinion seemed to sanction some payback.
It was a challenge for our Church and the many community groups of Alice. How to bring peace into this situation? How to see unity and a solution to the issue? How could our little Church of 500-600 get up off our knees, or leave our prayer meetings and see the Shalom of Christ the Prince of Peace affect our town at its deepest levels?
The prophet Jeremiah schools us, in the face of our culture, the ‘seek the shalom of the city’ we’ve been called to. Peace. Prosperity. The magnificent flourishing intended by God as Creator and Sovereign. But how to apply it beyond prayer meetings and prophecies? We were all disturbed, all grieving, all frustrated. NONE of us wanted to see violence of any type, injuries grow or divisions widen.
I was in my office when the phone rang. Its was Wayne, a local business owner, key church member and good friend. We’d often chatted and mused on our church’s kingdom role in being part of God’s plan for the needs in Alice Springs. He’d had an idea. “Positive loitering.” According to Wayne’s research, crime hotspots around the world had benefitted from this peaceful, gracious grass roots initiative. Adults of all types – the more the merrier – gather on street corners and in street crime hot spots. They smile, chat, act friendly and ask questions. They create a peacemaking atmosphere by simply being present. No threats, no intimidation, no violence, no verbal accosting. No bullying or grandiosity. They simply wade into the issue through humble, conversational, smiling, loving personal, corporate engagement. It seemed crazy enough to work. The internet was full of examples of local communities and law enforcement collaborating together to see street crime wane.
We began to give it a go. Word was spread in town through local word of mouth, phone chats, a town meeting of stake-holders and good old Facebook. Between 9pm and 3am – spearheaded by our Church families, leaders and everyday Joe’s and Joanne’s, and ethnic groups of all backgrounds – people gathered in worst spots. We smiled in droves. We chatted in swarms. We laughed and joked and greeted street gangs with friendly hello’s and awkward attempts at conversation.
A local journalist summed it up well after reporting on the initiative:
WE, half a dozen whitefellers, were huddling on the footpath outside Hungry Jack’s. It was 9:30pm. THEY were on the other side of Schwarz Crescent, on the carpark of the Beaurepaires tyre shop – about 100 Aboriginal kids aged from around six to 16, girls and boys in roughly equal numbers. They were milling around, small groups going this way and that, some crossing the highway to the car yard where 52 cars had been trashed in the early hours of Wednesday, and now was just an expanse of empty display areas, brightly lit. It was the classical US and THEM. The US group soon grew to about a dozen. Should we go over and have a chat? I told the local town counsellor this wasn’t working. The boys were whooping, chatting, shouting: This is our patch, seemed to be the message. At this point a big group from the Desert Life Church (in Alice for 40 years, 600 members) joined US and some serious mingling with THEM started. The Desert Life Church group was swelled by 25 young members (interns from its Brisbane sister church). Church member Wayne Tregea gave the event a label for the US side: “Positive loitering”.
The atmosphere began to change. Night after night we showed up for three weeks straight. We began to make a splash. With all the people hanging around the Territory government boosted police patrols, and underfunded youth engagement programs suddenly reopened their doors. Community spirit galvanised and a festive atmosphere took the streets back. BBQ’s appeared and men, women and children mingled peacefully. A local watch house officer mentioned that arrests had gone down and that crime stats were dropping. The mayor called to chat and the journo’s wrote it all up. The car yard moved back in, the cinema regained patrons and the streets were safe at night again. Not one fight. Not one bully tactic. No violence or threats. The streets became quiet and empty – pretty soon we’d done ourselves out of a job.
In that one stormy season; in that outback outbreak of chaos: We got a glimpse of shalom. And we learned – a loving, gracious presence of God’s people beats ALL the programs and pleasures of the world. Who knew positive loitering was so very effective, that everyday people were so very potent and that peace in the City was in the grasp of a Kingdom community!?!?!
Ben Teefy is the Lead Pastor of Desert Life Church in Alice Springs along with his wife Danielle.