Rachel Neary - who works in Community Development and Training at Alice Springs Women's Shelter and is a key member of Common Grace's Domestic and Family Violence Justice Team - writes about being present in the mess of life this Advent.

I arrived as the sun was setting for my night shift at the women’s shelter, puffing from riding my bike across Alice Springs. I smelled like ceremonial smoking eucalyptus leaves. There was a small grass fire in some bushland on the way and the smell of the smoke from those fires permeates your hair for days. Red dust was similarly clinging to my bike tires, legs and my shoes. I’m told that same red dust seeps into your skin after a few years in Alice.

 A colleague ran up to me at the gate as I wheeled my bike inside our shelter fortress.

“Hey Rachel! A new client in room 6 wants someone to pray with her, she’s been asking all afternoon, you’re a Christian or something right? Can you go to her first thing?”

At the Shelter where I have worked for nearly five years, some women will often ask not long after they arrive if there is someone that could pray with them. We are a secular organisation but both our previous and current CEO have said that if we share a faith with a client  and they ask for prayer, we should feel free to pray with them. 

I found the woman in her shared room sitting on her bed with her few belongings laid out in front of her methodically  in a way that managed to show so clearly what was lost and also what was won by seeking shelter and safety. Shoes but not enough socks, clothes but no jacket and a collection of basic toiletries we give women on arrival. Most importantly her son was sleeping deeply on this bed too. Normally I would have had a staff handover, but tonight was just about being present and listening to her story.

This woman’s story has burrowed its way into my memory for life. But it’s not my story to tell so I won’t retell it in detail. But the gist of her story was that she and her son had been subject to horrendous violence perpetrated by her ex-partner. They had miraculously survived, a horrific accident as part of that abuse, but not without injuries. She went on to tell me that she was convinced following this miracle that what her aunty had told her whole life about God and Jesus was true, as she believed that she had been saved from death, for life. She told me her story, and how this was why she needed me to pray. She was also terrified.

I’m not a huge public prayer- but have often found myself in similar situations where someone asks me to pray for them. This time I didn’t know if I had the right words. It didn’t feel like there were words that could make it all ok, much less comfort. But the thing about sitting in the presence of someone who is vulnerable and hurting is that God will work miracles in those sacred moments. And words fell clumsily from my mouth and we laughed and even cried while we prayed together.  God very often makes his presence known in these moments, and of course he gives us the words when we sit as his feet. Even in those dark moments of truth, where fear feels louder than faith.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind

The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it

One day I sat down at church next to a big group of indigenous women. We had a muddled (on my part) conversation. At one point I drew a genogram on the inside of my bible as we discussed their family, who was related to who, and where everyone lived, and was from. At the end of that conversation one of the elderly ladies asked for my number. She said she was heading back on the bush bus the next day and she’d like to call now and then. I gave her my number and then for the next year she would call me regularly, often at strange unexpected times. With a terrible crackly phone line and some difficulties understanding one another, we’d try and have a conversation, but usually the main parts of the conversation I’d pick up were ‘please pray for the sick little girl’. And we together prayed for that sick little girl for a year. I never met this sick girl, nor hear her name, nor did I ever see again the woman who was calling me. But I was relying on this woman’s faith. Her big beautiful faith that if we prayed together with our messy communication and terrible phone lines God would hear.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

Christmas is a hard time for the vulnerable and the hurting. It can be a cumbersome reminder of what you don’t have in our materialistic, fast-paced society. Whether what you don’t have is possessions and money for gifts or mental health and social connections or even loved ones who are far away or who have passed on. Christmas seems to highlight all this as well as those who are missing.  The Women’s Shelter where I work is often at its busiest over this period, as are most other shelters and refuges across Australia. Women and children far from home, often injured and traumatised, thrown together with other women and children facing the same situation with an unknown future.

Being present during advent doesn’t look like an American Christmas Disney movie. I often wonder if those kinds of Christmas’s are the kind that often shut God out with the focus on everything and everyone being perfect. Being present during advent is often in the mess of life, it is often about placing yourself in places where you can point towards God’s luminous shining light. Or maybe so that someone can shine that light for you, just as the women and children in these stories did for me.


Rachel Neary works in Community Development and Training at Alice Springs Women's Shelter and is a key member of Common Grace's Domestic and Family Violence Justice Team. Image credit: Rachel Neary

Daily Reading John 1:1-5

The Word Became Flesh

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

An Advent series on "Being Present"