Sydney, Australia

When Dr Armen Gakavian was hunting for stories on urban mission for a journal he edits for Ethos: The EA Centre for Christianity and Society several years ago, he did what most editors do and turned to the web. His search led him to a blog by Dr Karina Kreminski, an urban mission expert who, like him, lived in inner Sydney.

Having made contact, he commissioned her to write a piece on the need to care for people in inner city neighbourhoods for an upcoming edition of the Ethos publication, Equip, and they kept in contact by Facebook Messenger. Over the course of their ongoing conversation, however, the story's focus changed from simply highlighting a need to passing on their decades of experience in how to go about addressing it.

Monthly contact became weekly and, eventually, daily. By then, Gakavian and Kreminski were brainstorming a training project together in a place where Kreminski was already at work, Sydney’s Surry Hills - an historic neighbourhood on the eastern side of Central Station. 

Then Armen met Karina. 

Armen and Karina Neighbourhood Matters

Dr Armen Gakavian and Dr Karina Kreminski, founder of Neighbourhood Matters. PICTURE: Supplied.

As he recounts the story of their meeting, and looks at her across the table where we're seated in Sydney, his eyes explain better what his words are about to say.

“It’s 10 months to the day since we were married,” Armen announces over his cup of tea. 

“It came about because we have very similar values. I think we both really connect with those who are vulnerable in society and we both think that Christianity isn’t primarily about words but about action.”

- Karina Kreminski, speaking about Neighbourhood Matters.

Their joint passion for urban mission is leading them to reduce their part-time positions while working more and more as freelancers to enable them to put all their energy into an urban mission consultancy that they call Neighbourhood Matters. It has, they say, been among the most challenging times in their journeys as followers of Jesus. 

“It came about because we have very similar values,” says Kreminski.  “I think we both really connect with those who are vulnerable in society and we both think that Christianity isn’t primarily about words but about action.” 

While both she and Gakavian are academically inclined, their theology comes from people doing things in an actual place and time, rather than a theology arising from theory.

“We also really love people and really love stories and love places, so we talk a lot about theology of place. It’s something we feel that the church hasn’t looked at very closely, although it’s beginning to change now, the concept of placemaking coming through.”   

Gakavian had previously spent 30 years working with international Christian evangelistic and discipleship ministry The Navigators on “Mission at the Margins", getting to know, understand, and walk alongside the urban poor. His doctoral work has led to many research projects including one he founded at Macquarie University on the Armenian genocide, a task which saw him visiting Armenia, the land of his family origin. 

Kreminski, meanwhile, had spent 12 years as a pastor at Cherry Hills Baptist Church in Sydney’s north-west, before she left to pursue her call in urban mission. Working as a part-time lecturer at Morling College in urban missiology, she’s spent the past three years getting to know her neighbours in Surry Hills. In May last year, she published her book about her experiences, Urban Spirituality: Embodying God's Mission in the Neighborhood, and was recently featured for her work on on ABC’s Compass in a program entitled Love Your Neighbour.

Under the umbrella of Neighbourhood Matters, the couple are now looking to work with church agencies, like Hope Street, a ministry of Baptist Care, which plans to send workers for training at the start of 2020. Assuming they "get the numbers", they'll be the first internships offered under the Neighbourhood Matters umbrella. Gakavian and Kreminski are also looking to partner with others in local projects and offer courses and workshops around place-making and community engagement. 

Devonshire St Sydney

Devonshire Street in Sydney's Surry Hills where Neighbourhood Matters is based. PICTURE: Christopher Gilbert.

Creating a course for students that is spiritually formative is very different ground for a pair of academics familiar with the rigidities of institutions that have to rely on federal accreditation for funding. 

“We thought about accrediting the internships, so that it’d be accredited toward a course, but it will diminish it I feel,” Kreminski explains, reflecting on her previous experience designing a course for accreditation at a Christian college that became less than it might have been for having to satisfy hierarchies of committees all the way back to secular government offices.

The course Armen and Karina have designed will include people who don’t see themselves as academically inclined. They call it an action-reflection model, which certainly requires reading and theology, Gakavian says even as he notes that head knowledge isn’t the priority. Engagement with people of the neighbourhood is key, along with thoughtful reflection on the meaning of encounters, and issues that the neighbourhood actually deals with.

Surry Hills Beautification

A local in Sydney's Surry Hills engages in a beautification project. PICTURE: Christopher Gilbert.


“With Neighbourhood Matters, we’re just enjoying being able to shape something that’s coming out of who we are."

- Karina Kreminski.

Gakavian sees some connections between his role at Ethos: The EA Center for Christianity and Society and with Neighbourhood Matters.

While Ethos "is about helping Christians engage with current issues in a Christianly way as we call it" and Neighbourhood Matters "is looking at what it means to be missional in your neighbourhood", he says both are about engaging with “God’s scattered people” outside the walls of the church, and helping people to live in a Christian way wherever they are.

Kreminski, who is also working on designing a Bible study around her book for a church cell group that meets through the Christmas period, says the couple are heartened that Christians are realising they can have an interest outside the church where even values like the beauty of the neighbourhood are important. And since both she and Gakavian value community and hospitality, they have felt confident in the call to work together on Neighbourhood Matters. 

“It really encapsulates our past in the neighbourhoods of particular places and encouraging Christians to love their place,” she says.  

There is a lot of encouragement for Karina and Armen in the path they have chosen.  

“With Neighbourhood Matters, we’re just enjoying being able to shape something that’s coming out of who we are,” says Kreminski. 

She wants to work with people who will reflect and be grounded in a theology to love, prioritising a neighbourhood instead of just their church.  

“At this time in our lives we’ve been shaped and formed in a certain way and we want to give back out of that,” says Kreminski. “That’s what I get to enjoy, ultimately.”  

Neighbourhood Matters discussion

Armen Gakavian and Karina Kreminski at a meeting to discuss the vision for Neighbourhood Matters. PICTURE: Supplied.

For Kreminski, getting to know the neighbours puts her on “sacred ground.”  

“Even though the church might look at people in the community and say, ‘Where is God in their lives?’ whenever I have conversations with people in my community, God is very present in their lives and I’m always having spiritual conversations and I very often feel I am on spiritual ground. And that for me is a privilege.” 

But these neighbours she finds are people who have no interest in walking into a church and many harbour a deep mistrust of Christianity.

“Sometimes I do feel a little bit like a pastor to the community rather than a pastor of a church,” Kreminski offers.

Gakavian agrees.   

“I will also add this feels right,” he says. “We’ve tasted God’s Kingdom in so many ways in what people do and who they are.” 

He’s making reference to people like those on the board of the Neighbourhood Centre who demonstrate an active concern for local justice, and compassion for their neighbours. They also elected Kreminski to chair their meetings.

“It’s a great privilege to come along side of that and say, ‘You know what? That’s actually God,’” says Gakavian. “What Jesus says [in John 3:21] about those who do good works, they want to come to the light. It’s true. They’re drawn to it because they’re doing good and you show them that what they’re doing is God like and they go, ‘Wow!’ They’re happy to hear that.” 

As they approach what they hope will be the launch of Neighbourhood Matters in 2020, Kreminski has volunteered as guest editor for the next edition of Zadok Perspectives from Ethos, which is devoted to perspectives on urban mission. 

In the meantime, while they wait for news of a successful recruitment of interns for 2020, wondering who will join them, the newly married urban missionaries continue in their creative care for the future of Surry Hills.