Geelong, Australia

Andrew Gardener’s relationship with The Justice Conference started with a Google search.

Gardener, a co-founder of The Justice Conference Asia and senior pastor of multi-cutural and multi-generational international church, The Vine Church, in Hong Kong, was at the time transitioning into the role of senior pastor and looking for a place to go on a retreat in order to spend some quality time with one of the church’s then-pastors.

“We both had this growing passion for justice and so he said, ‘Well, why don’t we go a justice conference?’, and I said ‘That sounds fantastic’. So we literally went to Google, [and] typed in ‘justice conference’.”

Andrew Gardener JCA

Andrew Gardener at the recent Justice Conference Asia in Singapore.

That lead them to the website of The Justice Conference, a US-birthed gathering which in 2011 was then just in its second year. On arriving in Portland where it was being hosted, they were immediately impressed by what they found.

“We literally didn’t know anything about it, we just showed up and over the two days were literally blown away by the quality of the teaching, the theology, the marriage of the…NGO [non-government organisation] movement and church together,” Gardener says. “But the one thing that really struck us was that, particularly at that conference because they were talking a lot about trafficking issues, a lot of those issues, we felt like, had their roots in our part of the world but there wasn’t really any Asian representation at the conference.”

AndrewGardener1

Andrew Gardener

 

“We literally didn’t know anything about it, we just showed up and over the two days were literally blown away by the quality of the teaching, the theology, the marriage of the…NGO movement and church together."

- Andrew Gardener on attending his first Justice Conference in the US before going on to co-found the Justice Conference Asia.

Following the conference, they approached the US founder Ken Wytsma about the possibility of holding such a gathering in Hong Kong and, following some in-depth discussions, held their first conference several months later. That was the first Justice Conference to be held outside the US (there are now Justice Conferences in several different parts of the world including, as well as the US, UK, Hong Kong and Australia, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Cape Town in South Africa and Auckland in New Zealand).

The Vine Church – which Gardener points out is the only church to host a Justice Conference (the rest are hosted by NGOs - the Norwegian conference, for example, is hosted by Mission Alliance, that in London by Tearfund and Australia's conference by TEAR Australia) - has since gone on to host six Justice Conferences, attracting about 800 people each year from more than 30 countries across Asia. 

But this year it was held in Singapore for the first time.

“Our goal from year one was to have it in other countries eventually…” notes Gardener. “This was kind of our first experiment…and it was really good.”

Gardener, who is among the speakers attending the Australian version of The Justice Conference in Melbourne later this week, has his own interesting backstory.

Born in the UK, he moved to Hong Kong when he was 11 after first spending four years in the US – the moves due to his father’s work with Barclays Bank.

Gardener says while he had been raised in a Christian home he had “rebelled much against the faith in my teenage years”. By the time he went to university in Durham in the UK in the early to mid 90s, he had “stepped away from my family’s faith tradition”.

“I was studying philosophy [so] I kind of went the other way...I want[ed] to learn about the atheistic side, the humanistic side, the sociology side…"

That changed when about halfway through his degree, his father quit banking and joined a local Christian charity in Hong Kong that was running an orphanage (he ended up working as a fulltime volunteer for them for 17 years).

It proved an important moment in Andrew’s own faith journey, prompting him to question what it was about his Christian faith that led his father to give up a well-paid job and work as a volunteer at an orphanage. That question led him into what Gardener describes as a “rational adventure” and he started attending an Alpha course at a local church in Durham.

“I was the one guy that you did not want in your [Alpha] group, the one annoying student that asks all the really hard questions," he recalls. "But I had an amazing small group leader and actually came to faith through Alpha – or at least came to my own personal decision of faith through that.”

Andrew Gardener

Andrew Gardener

Moving back to Hong Kong after he graduated, Gardener started attending a Baptist church with his family but soon after, in 1996, the church, acknowledging differences among the congregation in the direction they wanted to go, closed its doors and instead planted two churches – one more traditional and the other more at the charismatic end of the spectrum.

The latter was the Vine Church and Gardener was just 19 when he was among the 40 or so people who were involved in planting it. Working as an investment banker with Morgan Stanley during the week – a job in which he would spend the next 10 years – he also started working as a volunteer in the church, soon moving into eldership and preaching.

“So I kind of had this kind of pastoral life on the weekends and this banking life during the week and after a while it felt like it wasn’t sustainable and I kind of had to decide which of the two I was going to do and really dedicate my time and energy to,” he says.

“[I] felt like God was challenging my to maximise the use of my gifts for His Kingdom. And He sort of said to me, ‘If that’s at Morgan Stanley, it’s at Morgan Stanley, if that's at the Vine, it’s at the Vine, if it’s doing something else, whatever. It’s just I want you to pour your life into the gifts I have given you for my Kingdom.”

- Andrew Gardener, speaking about his decision to leave investment banking and become a church pastor.

“And it wasn’t one of those classic 'one is good and the other is evil' [moments]…instead it was this beautiful idea that I felt like God was challenging me to maximise the use of my gifts for His Kingdom. And He sort of said to me, ‘If that’s at Morgan Stanley, it’s at Morgan Stanley, if that's at the Vine, it’s at the Vine, if it’s doing something else, whatever. It’s just I want you to pour your life into the gifts I have given you for my Kingdom.”

Gardener says that epiphany took him on a journey of reaffirming where his gifts lay – and not just spiritual ones. Yet, while he wanted to start working for the church immediately, following some advice he should study first, in 2006 he quit the bank and moved with his wife Christine to New Zealand (Christine’s birth nation) where they both spent four years in Auckland at what was then the Bible College of New Zealand.

He returned to Hong Kong several years later, now armed with a Masters of Theology, and went on staff at The Vine in 2010. About six years ago, he became senior pastor.

The church, which is located in Wan Chai on Hong King Island, has about 2,500 people attend its four Sunday services with another 500 to 600 people who are associated with the church. 

The area has a mix of business and residential as well as people from across the socio-economic spectrum. Hong Kong’s largest red light district is also located nearby.

“It’s a very fascinating kind of neighbourhood that we’re in,” notes Gardener (the church also lies close to government buildings which have, at times, been the target of recent protests but, having spoken to Sight on the day of his return from a four month sabbatical, he was unable to comment on them).

The church's location has provided a fertile field for them to operate in and it's now involved in activities aimed at addressing human trafficking as well as working to support those who have been rescued from forced labour migration and to support asylum seekers and refugees in a range of ways, including providing educational-related services.

Wan Chai

The Wan Chai district in Hong Kong where The Vine Church is based. PICTURE: Airam Dato-on/Unsplash

The origins of the connection with asylum seekers goes back some 15 years when a Sri Lankan couple, asylum seekers who were in prison for having overstayed their visas, wrote to the church and asked for someone to come to the prison where they were being held and read the Bible and provide some teaching.

A couple of pastors did so and, following their release a couple of months later, the Sri Lankan couple showed up at the church with nothing to their name.

“We, of course, responded, started to serve this couple, helped to provide some accommodation for them – just met their felt needs – and, unsurprisingly, they began to speak to their asylum seeker friends who began to come to the church as well,” says Gardener. 

“And very quickly we had a ministry that we needed to respond to – God was doing something beautiful that we needed to respond to as a church. So that really started us on a journey of ‘What does it mean to care for asylum seekers and refugees? What other issues are there in the city?”

Today the church  works with about 400 asylum seekers each week in a wide range of ways including advocacy and social work, providing financial aid to help them with housing and food costs, offering counselling services, and helping them to prepare and attend court as well as running church services and discipleship programs for them.

"God was doing something beautiful that we needed to respond to as a church. So that really started us on a journey of ‘What does it mean to care for asylum seekers and refugees? What other issues are there in the city?'”

- Andrew Gardener, speaking of his church's justice journey.

“Obviously that group of people have radically changed our church…” Gardener says, noting that a church survey from a couple of years ago revealed some 55 different languages were spoken among the congregation (English being the main language of the church). 

“That’s a beautiful thing but that’s a hugely challenging discipleship problem for us as a church. But it’s been a beautiful…taste of Heaven, in a way, to see all those beautiful tribes and tongues come together to praise Jesus.”

Gardener notes that the church never really started out with the idea that they would be a “justice-centred church”.

 “I think God brought us this whole thing and we’ve been on this journey and I would hate for anyone to think we are this perfect justice-centred church. We are still on this journey and I think God is leading us and we’re making a huge amount of mistakes along the way.”

Gardener, who will be speaking about the side-by-side relationship of "worship and weeping" at the Australian conference, is a strong believer in strengthening connections between the church and NGOs. He observes that while the concept of a shared mission is becoming stronger in much of the world, there’s still work to be done in building those links. 

“I think in my part of the world, it’s still a bit of a struggle...” he says. “I would say in Asia, without trying to paint our church with too much of a broad paintbrush across the continent, but I would say in general, the idea is still ‘Let’s outsource mission and justice to the NGOs and that our role as the church is to fund, which can become that 'great saviour complex' which we want to try to avoid'. 

“So I think there is still a need in Asia in particular to bring [forward] this idea of that...that NGOs do things local churches cannot do but equally churches should be out there embedded in their communities, partnering with NGOs and working together to be a justice voice in their communities. That is a message that I feel is still needed in our space in particular.”

The Justice Conference is held in Melbourne, Australia, on 15th and 16th November.

Update: Due to circumstances in Hong Kong, Andrew Gardener won't be attending The Justice Conference in Melbourne as he had planned to at the time of reporting.