Australian writer and poet Joel McKerrow is known for his impacting use of the creative artsHere, the 35-year-old father of two shares about his wrestles with what it means to be a Christian, where he finds inspiration and his role as a TEAR ambassador...

Performance poet, writer, TEDX speaker, community arts worker, photographer, film-maker, artist ambassador for TEAR Australia - the list goes on. When someone asks what you do with your time, how do you respond?
"It's all a bit mouthful isn’t it. I certainly wear a lot of hats. Normally, if someone asks I will tell them I’m a poet and a writer. That's my core vocation. Such an answer then inevitably leads to the question 'And you can do that and make enough money to live on?' And the answer I give to that question - ‘Absolutely’."

What led you to working in the arts? Was it always something in your life?
"My creative expression, as is the case for many people, was squashed by a few events in my young teenage years. I didn’t see myself as a creative person for a long time after someone laughed at something I had been working on. Isn’t it amazing how one comment can de-rail what could have been a very creative teenage life. Alas. "So years later my creative journey began on the border of Thailand and Burma. I was working in an orphanage there and experienced some really full on things and needed a way to process through it and I just began to write about what I was experiencing and this writing kinda looked like poetry. On the same trip I had taken a camera and fell in love with trying to take photos of beautiful things where other people may not see the beauty. So my photography and my writing, my creative expression, all began for me in the midst of poverty in a war-torn country. It helped me to gather myself again. To allow myself to feel again. And then as I began to share this with people they were moved in various ways. Like, really moved. And so I began to dedicate my life to this calling of artistry and creativity and the way that it can change people."

Joel McKerrow

 

JOEL MCKERROW - IN SHORT

 A poet I admire..."is the incredible Mary Oliver who would walk each day with a notebook in her hand observing the world around her."

Something creative I’ve been inspired by recently…"is the movie Loving Vincent where each every scene was oil painted in the style of Van Gogh. That is 65,000 frames all as paintings. The first of its kind."

A place I’d love to go…"is back to the highlands of Scotland where I feel most home, most earthed, most alive, most who I am."

Your Christian faith seems integral to what you do. Can you tell us a little about your personal faith journey? "My faith journey was a safe one for the majority of my childhood and teen years. I was passionate. On fire. Committed. Evangelical. Conservative. Then I experienced things like the above. Things that made me question and wrestle and struggle. How could there be a God who is loving and yet these atrocities happen in the world. I would look at the church of today and look at the Christ in the Bible and see such a separation. A domesticated and moralistic church. A safe Jesus.
     "So I began to deconstruct my faith and my understandings. One of my favourite sayings in the world is - ‘A fish in a bowl doesn’t know that it is wet’. Little fishes every one of us. So for many years I was angry at the church and tearing apart what I had been taught growing up and feeling isolated and maybe like I was a heretic or something. Then I found the Celtic Christian tradition. And so much of who I was and what I had come to believe and how I wanted to be in the world, it all found a place to belong, a tradition to belong to, a framework to reconstruct my faith upon. So this is what I have been doing. I have a faith that looks different to the conservative evangelical culture of my childhood. But it is alive and it comes out of the deepest parts of who I am."

In your many artistic pursuits, where do you find inspiration?
"Inspiration for me comes from slowing down to be present to the world around me. To the stories of people. To the stories of the earth. For a long time one of my spiritual and creative practices was to go for a walk with a magnifying glass once a week. To see the world differently. To slow down and come to attention and take notice. Beauty is always there. Everywhere. Inspiration is always waiting for us to stop our busyness and come to a place of wonder. I ask curious questions. I try to see things differently. I open my heart up to the pain and the beauty. This inspires everything I do."

You’ve previously said there’s no such thing as a “Christian artist”. What did you mean by that?
"For me, the term 'Christian artist’ implies a person who is a Christian who creates work that is “Christian” for Christians to engage with. Hence we end up with the ‘Christian music industry’ and with other such bubbles like Christian subcultures. We run from the world around us into insular, protected enclaves. This is not what I see the Christ doing at all. It is a disservice to who we should be in the world. So yes I am an artist. And yes I am a Christian (though the cultural baggage around the term makes me often want to reject it and just call myself a Jesus-follower). But I am not a 'Christian artist’ if that implies the restrictions of that particular cultural group. There are many artists who were a part of this culture that have articulated how they can no longer be a part of it. I am the same. That is what I was seeking to communicate in the interview where that quote of mine comes from. Maybe I have articulated it better here."

What are you most challenged by when you look around the world at the moment?
"Everything. The growing disparity between the rich and the poor. The growing animosity and fear of The Other. The way we treat the Earth that [the] Creator made. The way indigenous people are still oppressed. The way white privilege is ignored. How defensive people become when I even bring up something like white privilegeThe political situation in Australia and in the USA. The church's red-hot obsession with the hot button issues of something like same-sex marriage whilst at the same time their absolute apathy and lethargy when it comes to issues of inequality in the world. I think it was Tom Sine who said that most Western Christianity is just the Western dream with a thin overlay of Jesus. This is who we have become. We follow the gods of our Western dream culture and we do not question their impact upon the water of our Christianity, to reference my ‘Fishbowl’ quote from before. There is a lot of things I find challenging at the moment."

What does your role with TEAR entail and what attracted you to supporting the organisation? 
"TEAR is an aid and development organisation that works with the poorest of the poor around the world. And they do not do so through being the ‘white/Western saviours’. Rather their whole focus is on empowering the nationals on the ground to be bringing about the development in their own lands. This has what has always attracted me to them. They also spend a lot of time seeking to move the church in Australia beyond charity. This is where I come into things. I spend a lot of my time connecting with people in schools and churches and conferences and gatherings and seek to use my poetry to help people explore the idea that this world will not be changed by charity, by throwing money at people and problems, but by our active engagement in changing our lifestyles, by making poverty personal, by changing how we spend our money and our time and our energy.

"Any tours or new endeavours coming up that we should keep an eye out for?
"Over the last few months I have picked up a literary agent for a manuscript that I have been working on tentatively titled Woven: A Spirituality for the Dissatisfied. It is a creative non-fiction about the spiritual journey. So now comes the process of finding a publisher for that book. But I will also be releasing another book of my poetry at some point this year. So please go to www.joelmckerrow.com or find me on social media and you will hear more about that in the year."

And finally - can you give us a few lines of verse about something that’s stirring your heart at the moment?  

The Silent Spaces

Let us listen to the silence.

            The silence of a held back tongue.
            The silence of prayer.
            The silence of holding.
            The silence of hands gripped tight.

Let us listen to the silence.

            The silent slip of blade on wrist.
            The silent God.
            The silent scream when fear steals voice.
            The silent death.

Let us listen to the silence.

            The silence of looking away.
            The silence of blissful ignorance.
            The silence of the bombs of Aleppo.
            The silence of stubborn hope.

Let us listen to the silence. 

            The silent night.
            The silent memoir.
            The silent stranger.
            The silent kiss.

Let us listen to the loudness of the silence.