It’s a Wednesday morning and the Salvos’ Thornbury Corps is rocking.
There are nine buses outside in the car park and on the street. Inside, funky dance moves and hugs occur under laser lights, shrouded by smoke machines.
Everywhere you look and listen there is happiness. Congas and drums are beaten, tambourines and maracas are shaken, rock gods sing, air guitarists thrash the ether and wheelchair dancers put their able-bodied friends to shame.
On this particular day, 110 people (dancers, carers and volunteers) have come to celebrate life, from 10 different centres. It’s near capacity, and there is palpable relief that the folks from the five other affiliated centres haven’t turned up also.
There aren’t too many Salvation Army buildings that double as dance clubs or discos. If you are at Thornbury on a Monday, you’d see senior citizens, disabled clients, members of the general public and residents of the Salvos’ James Barker aged care facility all sitting and singing along to middle of the road hits and country songs.
On Fridays you’d be rubbing shoulders with the kids of Mainly Music and their parents and carers.
Thornbury is a place where you find laughter and fun and God and grace; through and in music, and you hum along. Thornbury is the embodiment of acceptance and community.
‘The music, the time spent with others on these Wednesdays, it lifts their mood, and puts them on a natural high for the week,’ explains Music Access Programme (MAP) director, Stuart Lees, who also serves as the bandmaster at Preston Corps.
‘This all started 17 years ago in Brunswick,’ he adds. ‘This is very empowering for the people who come to us. These guys wouldn’t be able to access a club or music venue; they’d be discriminated against.
‘We have people who have been with us for most of their lives; they started coming to us when they were 12. They’ve grown up with us. They know they’re safe here; they know they’re in a church. This is their worship.’
Each week, Thornbury Salvos are open to whomsoever, regardless of disabilities or abilities; diagnoses or dilemmas. They embrace folks of different ethnicities, faiths and creeds, including several Muslim Australians.
As Stuart explains, this is not limited magically to a Thornbury. There is the possibility for duplication of the MAP concept – it is not expensive, as he explains; all it takes is expertise, patience, inclusiveness and hard work.
Stuart Less, at 61, has spent his life as a professional musician. He left the life of a military musician in 1979 and taught and toured. ‘God has trained me to set this up,’ he says. ‘All we need are lights, mikes, rock ‘n’ roll, props – we have no rules but to be safe and do what you want. The carers see that their charges are safe and happy, and we make sure they have food and drinks’.
It is truly a joy to behold. It is also different from most things you may have ever seen, or concerts you may have participated in, or attended.
JustBrass coordinator John Collinson draws some parallels between that work and the MAP experience. ‘Therapy lies in providing consistency, stability, joy,’ he suggests. John notes that Stuart, who is inclined to downplay his role, is a highly skilled musician who also does outreach in some day care centres.
‘They tell me it helps,’ acknowledges Stuart. ‘The people who come out at the centres don’t do anti-social stuff anymore, and the residents look forward to it. It has a redemptive quality to it – it’s creative and it gives them a routine and a relationship.
‘This program,’ he says adamantly, ‘is The Salvation Army actively choosing to be a part of the community, doing what the Army should be doing – loving people in the name of God.’
The CO, Captain Lilian Platts, is firmly onboard. ‘These guys who come along, if we don’t do this with them and for them, then what is there in The Salvation Army for them?’
Now in her third year at Thornbury, Lilian notes that ‘I had to find my feet, working out what my role was. It’s turned into a pastoral care role, where I find the carers come and confide in me and gain support, ask for prayer. James Barker residents chat to me at the morning melodies on Mondays, and often the “non-verbals” will come up and hug me, and smile at me.’
MAP can be a powerful and intense experience. Lilian says sometimes officer cadets have broken down at the level of emotion generated by the music and the people who love it. She has had volunteers who have been daunted, unable to make it through a whole session.
Life for Lilian, pre-officership, was lived as a dental nurse who worked with people with severe disabilities. It has helped prepare her for this as ‘it is not completely foreign to me…For some people this is very confronting.. but we love them; we are very comfortable with these folk and they are our people.’
‘I don’t see the disabilities anymore,’ Stuart adds.
As for the Wednesday crowd?
They’ve danced and sang, met friends, played music and shared their lives.
They’ve met God.