Ministry Corner: Interview with Anne and Alister Irwin.

Stimulus joined with Anne and Alister Irwin via zoom during Auckland’s level 3.2 lockdown in November 2021.

Anne and Alister are Corps Officers at the Auckland City Salvation Army Corps, which is based in Mt Wellington. While the original Corps was based in Auckland’s CBD, the catchment area is vast for who that Corps serves.

Stimulus: Can you tell us a bit about yourselves?

Anne: I was born into a Salvation Army family and raised in Dunedin, where I lived until Alister and I went to Upper Hutt to train for ministry. We have been married for thirty-eight years and we have two adult sons. One son is a Salvation Army Centre Leader along with his wife, and the other works in the entertainment industry as an actor in Wellington.

Alister: My parents were Salvation Army officers. I was born in Balclutha, but as a child of Salvation Army officers, we did move quite a lot. When I was a teenager, we moved to Dunedin, where I met Anne. We lived in Dunedin until we received the call to go to train for ministry. We had two years of training in Upper Hutt before our first appointment in Pukekohe. We then went to Levin for four years, back to Dunedin and then to Christchurch. We were in Christchurch when the earthquakes were happening. This time was informative for us. Then the Salvation Army felt we needed a break from the earthquakes, so sent us to Napier for four years before receiving the call to go to Fiji for two years, and then to Auckland. The call to Auckland came just before the March 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.

Apart from our time in Fiji, we have been Corps officers, which means that we have been responsible for the spiritual side of things, but also the social side. These two things, while separate in focus do dovetail together. We are responsible for the Monday-Friday community-focussed activities, and then the Sunday activity when people gather together to worship.

Stimulus: Can you tell us about the context for which you find yourself now?

Alister: After two years in Fiji we came back to New Zealand. The reason was that there weren’t many “experienced” officers that would be able to lead bigger corps or expressions of the Army. At the time, there were about three big corps that needed leadership, and so we said yes to be appointed to Auckland City. We started in the first week of February as we needed to hand things over back in Fiji, and so we only had a month to find our feet before the March 2020 Level 4 lockdown came into effect. We had six weeks with our corps before we had to say, “see you later, we won’t be seeing you for a while!” Of course, coming out of the lockdowns, it’s been really cool to connect with people. We felt that this year momentum was building, we were starting to tackle a few of the bigger issues and good support was happening. We had the honour of enrolling some new members. Then, of course, the August lockdown happened.

Stimulus: How did you connect with your people during that first lockdown in March 2020 and what were the challenges there for you?

Anne: We had a phone directory of the people in the corps. We went through the whole directory ringing everyone, and we had found a few that had said that they hadn’t been attending for years, but with that connection, some of them came back. Others were very pleased to hear from us. Then following that on a Sunday we would prepare a service as normal. Alister would prepare a message and he would email the transcript of that, along with links to Youtube songs.

Alister: At that stage, everything was just “paper,” but we did do one or two pre-recorded services – one was on Mother’s Day, otherwise we just stuck with emails. It seemed that most people were ok with that. The Salvation Army did offer some services that people could watch, and of course, there are other churches around that people could Zoom in on or watch. They enjoyed getting something from us. I checked in and tested some people to see if they were actually reading it, and it seemed that some were at least skim reading it!

Anne: This time we’ve communicated fortnightly via emails, and the other week we pre-record. We’ve had a bit of fun with that. We just want to bring a bit of life and not do the same old thing every week. We have a Pastoral Care Team, and they have been keeping in touch with their groups.

Alister: We now have people in place to be ringing and checking in with our people, rather than just messaging and texting people. This seems to be received really well. It’s a good reminder of the priesthood of all believers rather than expecting everything just to come from us. The corps leadership and pastoral care council are very supportive, and we appreciate that. We don’t need to micromanage the situation.

Anne: We needed to come home and just “blob” after we had been in Christchurch for five years during the earthquakes. A lot of the way that we are feeling now was the same as after the earthquakes. You can’t plan ahead because you don’t know if it will happen or not. I think recognising that has been helpful for ourselves, but we’ve also shared that with others. It’s ok to acknowledge the space that we are in, and that it will get better

Stimulus: You’ve talked about the Sunday part of your job, which has the spiritual focus, but also you have weekday set of responsibilities. What does that look like for you? And what have you noticed has changed pre-Covid and now in the midst of the pandemic?

Alister: We would hope that the service part that we offer our community is spiritual as well as practical. We spend the day in our centre starting at about 8.30 where we get things ready for the day, then the team has devotions. Early in this Auckland 2021 lockdown, we used a devotional book prepared by the Levin Salvation Army that they had done during the March 2020 lockdown, so what we were sharing in devotions was very relevant, and then we would pray. It kind of set the tone. This is a shared responsibility with the team. 

If people are requesting service from the Salvation Army, they’ll either leave a message on our phone or ring our 0800 number. For the first three weeks or so we were receiving at least forty food parcel requests a day, whereas our average is about six a day. Then after that, it went down to about thirty a day, and we wondered why it was so quiet, and as the lockdown has gone on, the numbers have gotten smaller and smaller.

A lot of our work is to help the team to help where there was a shortage, such as for a while, I was the only one on the team who could do heavy lifting. We generally give two banana boxes to each person who needs help, one for perishables and one for fresh/frozen. We are really blessed to receive food from what is called “Food Rescue” from some of the supermarkets. If we received orders before 12.30, they would receive a package, after that would be for the following day. We could then take our lunchbreak and have a bit of a rest; this is the time where we can have a bit of a laugh and try to bring a bit of lightness to the day. Then after lunch, we’ll be preparing for the next day.

Our jobs presently are more physical as we have needed to be on hand to do more physical things than beforehand because we can’t have so many people on site. It is emotionally exhausting too. We had a big catchment area and included clients from Otāhuhu, and that added extra work. There was one day where we processed as many parcels as our centre in Royal Oak, and they were operating with three times the staff. Although it seems like the days are repetitive, they never are.

Anne: One thing we have noticed is that before Covid, our clients were people in need, and we helped them. But during Covid, we have had people from “middle class” come to us who would never ordinarily need foodbank assistance, but because of loss of jobs and incomes, they would come in with their heads down, feeling so ashamed. But we would welcome them and assure them that it’s ok, that they’ve done the right thing.

Stimulus: How do you see yourselves participating in Jesus’ mission in the work that you do?

Anne: The Salvation Army has a motto, which is, “Heart to God, Hand to Man.” I strongly believe in it. Every morning when the team gathers together, we pray that we will be Jesus to those who come to us for help. It might seem a bit simple, but this is the basis to do what we do, and we continue to do it.

Alister: Yes, it is treating people with respect. We listen, and it is important that we value them, and that there is hope.

Anne: Recently we had a request from a person who wanted Bibles for their children. I was able to find some children’s Bibles in our stores. She sent me a message yesterday expressing her gratitude. While it was an easy thing to do, it was so important for that lady, and we were pleased to be able to help with this request. We want to help with more than feeding their tummies!

Alister: Although a lot of our work is Monday-Friday, there’s still Sunday, and one of the things we’ve been trying to do with our email messages is to keep reminding people that God is with us, that this is not a surprise to him, and that we will get through it together. We must continue to love each other and not let our difference of opinions around vaccinations and mandates divide us, but together, we will get through it. We have been very strong to encourage people to get vaccinated; that it is a public health issue, it’s not political, nor is it religious. When people have challenged me about my stance around the vaccine I’ve responded by saying that I’m reasonably fit, if I get Covid, there’s a good chance that I will survive, but if I do get Covid, and passed it on to someone who doesn’t survive, I can’t live with that, so that is why I’ve chosen to take the vaccination, in an act of care towards others. I’ve noticed that there seems to be a sense of entitlement and individualism, and that’s not what the Christian message is about. The Christian message is humility and community.

Stimulus: You’re both very busy people. What sustains you – apart from each other?

Anne: I live by the “Twelve Steps Spiritual Journey” that I did years ago. The first three steps: “I can’t do this, God can and I have to let him.” So, by doing that, it takes a weight off me. My morning devotions are important; I listen to my music and just enjoy being involved with other like-minded people. I’m very much a people person, I like to have fun and to talk. I love playfulness.

Alister: Anne and I have been in this together for a long time, so we know each other well. We are good at supporting one another. I am an introvert, but I have really enjoyed being around people. When we come home, it’s just Anne and me, and that’s my “blob” time. I like to listen to stuff on YouTube and podcasts. Music as well. One of the things we have done previously but haven’t been able to do it in Auckland yet is to have a “planning and reflection day.” This is a workday, but it’s not spent in the office. We have then some uninterrupted planning or reflection time, which is really valuable to what we do. We are hoping that 2022 is the year that we can do that again! Saturday is our day off, and we protect that as much as we can. When we can gather together, I really enjoy Sunday. For me, Sunday is not a burden, nor is it a drain. For some people, if they are involved in a service, they need a couple of days to recover. I don’t. I love the opportunity, the privilege, and honour, of actually encouraging people, and to be challenged by them to move forward together.

What do you hope for with your time with the Auckland Corps?

Anne: We are not sure whether this will be our last posting as I am closer to retirement than Alister. But we are strongly committed to the Corps.

Alister: I am loyal to the context for which I am serving. Wherever I am, I want the very best. We came into a situation that needed love, grace, and some hope. We are building that. We had some families that were thinking of leaving, but when they came to know us, they stayed. We’ve been able to enrol some new members, which has been really cool. As far as the Auckland City Corps is concerned, though it’s no longer situated in the central city, we do have people travelling from all around Auckland, but we are planted locally. The people that have been recently coming to us have been from the local Mt Wellington area.

I believe that the ideal for us is when we do move on, either through retirement or a new appointment, people will be ok to release us and there will be a strength that they can sustain themselves so that when those new people come in, they can just pick up and carry on and continue to build on the work that we’ve managed to begin. At the end of the day, though, we have a hope that each person will come to know Jesus, to know him as Saviour and Lord, and that they desire to live their lives to be more and more like Christ.

Anne: Whenever we go into a new appointment, we don’t think it’ll be short term, and so the way we work does have sustainability and long term goals for that community.

Alister: We get asked what our vision is, I try to turn that around and ask what their vision is because they’ll be there for longer than us. Our role is to hear those visions, and then discern what we think God is doing and then work together in that.

Thank you for your time Anne and Alister. We wish you well for your continued important work.