“I was the mayor of a city down here, St. Kilda. It’s a catchment area for mentally ill, homeless, street prostitutes, drugs. I remember standing up for them [the sex workers] and asking a question: Should we decriminalize street prostitution to at least give these women protection? I suffered a torrent of abuse from Christians saying how dare I lower community standards and compromise God’s holiness, Christian faith. And I remember thinking, the church is just full of judgment. My reading of the Gospels is that Jesus met, mixed, even celebrated with women like that in his time. And I had at that time an offer to go into the Australian Senate which meant that I could break away from being a Baptist minister and that institutional church. And I remember thinking, ‘great, I am going to cut these ties. I’m out of here!’
“I spoke at one Easter rally, reluctantly. It was a Christian march through the city. And I was thinking, ‘these are fine people but they still belong to this institution, the Church, that’s full of judgment and I’m over it. And I remember this Easter rally being introduced generously: ‘you stood up for sex workers, the Church gave you a hammering. We, Christians here, applaud you. This is actually what the Gospel is about. You’re one of us; you speak for us. And suddenly this sense of ‘these people are still my mob and their commitment, their courage, their faith to stand against the things that I had experienced as judgmental I can work with and I belong here.’ I chose not to go into the Senate. I chose to go back to ministry. That was a real cross-roads there. And it was probably faith crisis mixed up with great anger with the Church, the institution.”
Tim Costello is CEO of World Vision Australia but his background tells more who he really is: He is a Baptist minister, a lawyer, and he has even been the mayor of a town. We met in Melbourne when I was there for the Parliament of World Religions presenting Portraits In Faith. I was drawn to his commanding style and the seeming paradox of his several identities. I was moved by the story of his faith crisis when he was condemned by many in the church for standing up for rights of sex workers in St. Kildare where he was mayor. Costello proposed to decriminalize prostitution in order for the sex workers to have equal rights and protection under the law. He considered leaving the church but in the end felt reinforced in his ideas that God is a God of action and must be present where people are most in need. I love people who defy labels and Tim Costello is surely one. His interview reminds me that the only life of faith that matters is a life of service to others.