AL Andrew Leigh
BC Bill Crews
BC And it was like time stood still. And it must have been a millisecond, but it’s eternal. And there was like a voice, but there wasn’t, there was just a knowing. And it said, you’ve got to leave your job, you’ve got to come and work here, you’ve got to work with the poorest of the poor.
AL My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to the Good Life. A politics free podcast about living a happy, healthy, and ethical life. In this podcast we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full with humour, pleasure, meaning, and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life.
If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends, or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.
Bill Crews is one of Australia’s great social justice churchmen. Uniting church minister in Ashfield, he established the Exodus Foundation which provides meals, healthcare, and education. And operates an outreach fan that helps the homeless.
Bill’s been involved in drug rehabilitation, education, and prevention programmes. Created the First Life Education Centre with Ted Noffs. And is active in public debates around refugees, poverty, institutional child abuse, poker machines, and homelessness. Bill, thanks for joining the Good Life podcast.
BC Thanks Andrew.
AL So, you were born in England during World War II. A pretty tough time to come into the world.
BC Yes, it was… My mum and my grandma used to stand each side of my cot with a sheet over the top, so that if a bomb fell, none of the glass would get onto me. So, you can’t have much more of a vulnerable birth than that. And I think of that, and I think of, in a way, the bravery, just standing there with a sheet. Hoping if the roof fell in, it wouldn’t crush on top of me.
AL Was your dad serving in the military?
BC My dad was in the Royal Airforce. And he, towards the end of the war, when I was born sort of thing, he went over to Germany with them. And so I spent the early part of my life, the first nearly a year of my life with my mum and my grandma. So my dad then came home.
AL What was it like, your relationship with your father?
BC It’s always been fraught. It’s only in the last six months of my life that I’ve actually been able to look outside of myself and at him and see another side.
AL Because he had an extraordinarily tough upbringing, didn’t he?
BC Very tough. His father came back from World War I with PTSD now. And he ended up somewhere being the town clerk of Hackney, all of that sort of stuff, or deputy town clerk. And through depression and all of that, cut his throat in a park. So that my grandma was left with two little boys, six and eight. There was very little social help those days. And the two little boys used to walk the streets of East London collecting all the horse dung, and selling it for a penny farthing a bag, and giving the money to their mum. And my dad would tell me those stories and cry.
So, he went from that, from that upbringing through to becoming an officer in the Airforce, through to becoming chief engineer of one of the major companies in Australia. He really pulled himself up. That’s a real determination.
AL Yes, you think, the way you describe it, it’s the level of poverty you think of as a street urchin living in a developing country.
BC Yes, it was exactly the same.
AL Collecting manure is almost a caricature of poverty. It’s so brutal.
BC That’s right. And it was just this year, I walked the streets where they walked, him and his brother used to walk. And it was quite sobering because you suddenly get the feeling of what it was like.
AL And you weren’t an only child, you had a brother…
BC I had a brother. My dad, I think my dad came home from the war expecting to be the centre of attention and found that I was. Which meant there was a great disappointment. And it meant I’d spent a lot of my life feeling I was a disappointment. And my brother, of course, because he was born with my dad coming and all that, became the centre of family life. And then when my brother was accidentally killed in a car smash, I always thought it should have been me. So there’s all of that sort of stuff going on.
AL That must have been incredibly tough on you. How old were you when your brother died?
BC My brother died when I was 20. But he was 18, and he’d been the hero of the whole family, and all of that. So it was terrible. It was a sad thing. And it’s only now I’m starting to be able to come to terms with all of that.
AL What tuned you into poverty and social justice through your childhood? Is this something that you thought you wanted to have an impact on as a kid?
BC No, I was always a loner. I was always a loner. Always. I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney where all the refugees from all over the world came. So I grew up with kids called Afanas, and God knows what other names. And we were all mates. All at BFE. Had a great time. Used to climb all the trees, wander through the bush, all of that. That’s why I have a great love for western Sydney.
But I was always a bit of a loner, always. And never quite fitted in. So that if somebody had come to me and said, Bill, you’re adopted. I’d have said, why didn’t you tell me earlier? Just the way it was.
Yes, I’d always felt a bit on the outside of things. And so I didn’t fit in too good when my parents shifted, and ended up… I went to Townsville Grammar School and was hideously bullied there. Terrible. They came to me one day and said, would I give the end of year speech? And I said, no. I said I was too bullied there.
AL You could have given a cracking speech.
BC Well they came and they apologised and all of that.
AL Did you give the speech after that?
AL Did you talk about the bullying and that stuff?
BC Yes. I suppose through the western suburbs I had a natural fit with refugee people and people on the outside, and people with the ass out of their pants. So people I grew up. So I had that, and also not feeling I fitted in, it was natural I suppose in the end that I would gravitate to something like that.
AL But in the meantime you specialised in ultrapure single-crystal silicon as an electrical engineer with the AWA.
BC Yes, well my dad was an electrical engineer. And I suppose trying to keep up with him, I tried to emulate him. Ended up doing all this research in single-crystal silicon. And it was really funny because you had to put all these impurities in it like arsine and phosphene, and all these gasses where the symptoms of poisoning was trembling and dry mouth. Well I had that anyway because I was so shit scared of itwith the things. It was interesting. But it taught me to think linearly, and to think from first principles.
AL And you still use those skills today?
BC Oh yes. I still read New Scientist every week.
AL Interesting. So you began volunteering at the Wayside Chapel in 1969.
BC Yes, 1969, 70, around that time.
AL And then Ted Noffs had only founded it about five years earlier in Kings Cross.
BC Five years before, yes.
AL What I find interesting about Wayside is it’s not just a spiritual place, but it’s also very activist. It’s involved in the anti-Vietnam rallies, and Charlie Perkins Freedom Rides, and conversation seems to be a really big part of what it does.
BC You actually do it. You do it. You don’t just talk, you do it. And Ted always used to say, it’s the doing the doing that gives you the authority to speak the speak. And it’s true. It’s true. The people listen because you’re out there doing things.
AL And how important was the conversational side of things? Because you’re also involved at this stage in the Speakers’ Corner in the domain, an institution that’s largely lapsed in the age of Twitter but was incredibly important.
BC Yes, well I still speak in Speakers’ Corner in London. I go and do all that. Because it keeps you alive. And you see questioning…
AL Tell me more about that before you move to the next thing.
AL What is it about Speakers’ Corner that keeps you alive?
BC Well I went there to speak in Webster’s memory, who was the big speaker’s thing. And it’s actually where the rubber hits the road. Because at the moment, Speakers’ Corner in London is full of die hard Christians and die hard Muslims shouting at one another. And you’re there on the front line.
So I get up and I kind of say a pox on both of you. And this guy comes along and he says, what was the Apostle Paul’s surname? And I say, I don’t know. And we had this big debate with the Christians and the Muslims, and we come up it’d have to be something like Goldberg.
And you actually in the language, in the arguing, you actually see one another’s humanity. And you actually, in a funny way, like one another. So you might have this right wing, God forsaken Christian going at this Muslim telling women to keep themselves covered up and all that. But in that toing and froing you actually get to see a bit of their soul. And it’s good, it’s good.
AL Tell me more about Webster’s style? How would he begin his deliveries? Because he’s the master of the soapbox, isn’t he?
BC He was the master. He’d get up and he’d say, any workers here? And they’d put their hands up, he’d say, go to work. Any Christians? Go to hell. Any Muslims? Go to somewhere else. And he would…
AL So he’s taunting his audience from the beginning.
BC Yes, taunting all the time. He’d say, shout the name of the pope, and I’ll tell you the scandal. And all the stuff like that. But I found… He was one of 12, and they were all fantastically brilliant. All of them. And so in his family he had everyone from Trotsky-ists to Salvationists. And it must have been a tumultuous household to keep all that talent. And of course dad was a drunk, and dad got chucked out. And the mum looked after them all.
And he was just a total misfit. But he loved Oscar Wilde. Loved Oscar Wilde. So that he turned me onto things that he… Of all the people, he was the intellectual of all of them. He used to go around with a truckload of books. And they’d all be scribbled and written on. And he’d spent a lot of his time in the London Library.
In those days, there were lots of people like that who would start at page one of a encyclopaedia, and read, learn it all that way. And you don’t find those people today. So they’d know so much.
AL I remember there’s a character in Sartre’s Nausea who knows everything about books which have been written from authors starting from A to K, but nothing beyond that. And it turns out he’s got a library of 3 000 books which he’s decided he can read in his life, and he’s only halfway through at this point. This sounds a bit like this kind of autodidact character that you’re describing.
BC A hunger for knowledge. A hunger. A hunger. I was at a talk the other day by this Jewish guy. And he was saying how the Jewish people in their hunger, they valued education from the beginning of time. And that’s really true.
AL How did that shape your preaching then? Did you hanker for interjections when it came time to stand up and give a sermon?
BC Oh yes. Well I’m a scientist as well. So, I’m not going to be impressed with somebody who believes Adam and Eve was real.
AL How can you say that? You’re a minister. Isn’t that part of the job to believe that Adam and Eve were real?
BC No. No. That’s why I bridled a bit at some of the stuff you said, because there are many ways to work through the spiritual side of life. And what I’ve learned… What I think is what you see out there, or what you experience out there is a product of what’s in here. Total feedback all the time. So that there are as many ways of interpreting the Bible as there are peoples’ eyes reading it. And probably many, many different valid ways of looking at it. So, I just try and work it out my way.
AL But the moment at which you decide to make a break from being an electrical engineer with AWA to being a minister is a more classically spiritual moment isn’t it? It’s a real epiphany. Can you tell us about that?
BC Yes. It came from outside. I’d been volunteering a lot, doing stuff at the Wayside Chapel a lot. And Ted had gotten me to be involved in the church services as well. And I wasn’t terribly… I was searching, but I got really moved by the Psalms, the Christian Psalms, or the Jewish Psalms. And I was walking up the stairs one day to go to run the coffee shop. And I got to the landing, and you had to get on the landing, and then go up.
And it was like time stood still. And it must have been a millisecond, but it’s eternal. And there was like a voice, but there wasn’t. There was just a knowing. And it said you’ve got to leave your job, you’ve got to come and work here, you’ve got to work with the poorest of the poor, you’ve got to… You’ll become well known, but don’t worry about that. The work will be hard, long, all of that stuff. Hard, blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah. Hard work, long… Become well known. Oh and by the way, your personal life won’t be that happy. And it was just bang.
And what do you do? You can’t ignore something like that. You can’t. You can’t! So I went to AWA, and I said I’ve got to go. And they got really pissed off. And I left and my family freaked out. And, oh Jesus, they freaked out. And they said you won’t have a future, all of that stuff. And I just had to go. I just had to go.
And I went and saw Ted. And I said, Ted, I’ve got to come and work for you. And he looks at me honestly, and he says, what’s the least amount of money I can pay you? And there was a commune starting up in Woolloomooloo for ten bucks a week. So I said $11 a week. So I went and worked for him for ages for $11 a week.
AL So about $2.50 a day was your first wage.
BC Whatever, whatever, whatever.
BC But I didn’t have a choice. If you read Paul’s writings, he calls himself Doulos, which is like a slave slash servant. And that’s me. You can walk away at any time, but you can’t.
AL And then 1983 you entered ministry studies.
BC Yes. Yes well things got a bit tense at the chapel. And I knew it was time to go. And the only theological college that had pay was the Uniting Church. So I went there. And I got finished… I did it in a couple of years, because they gave me some credits. And so I finished in April. But the Uniting Church placed its ministers in January. So I said what am I going to do until January? And they said, go on the dole. And I thought, what?
So I went and saw the moderator, and I said, I’m not going to sit around. He said, do you want to go somewhere easy or hard? And I said hard. And he said, there’s problems at Ashfield. So I just knew I had to go there, so I went there.
AL What was it like at the beginning? Do you remember those first days of settling into the parish?
BC Yes. Well I went and talked with all the elders, and all of that. And they talked about money, and bringing in more people, and money and people. Nothing about religion. And I had boned up because Ted was quite a heretic. And I said, you haven’t asked me anything religious. And the oldest guy there looked at me, honestly, broke out in a sweat and said, you believe in God, don’t you? I said yes. He said, that’s all we want to know. And there were basically ten old ladies, and a really super strict Christian family running and controlling them.
So, I had to confront the Christian family, ultimately. And the ten old ladies and I had an amazing time. They became like my aunts. I kept saying, you don’t know what you’re getting. And they said, that doesn’t matter. And everything happened. And the next thing there’s homeless people, and homeless kids. Because the police started bringing all the homeless kids, you see? Because they knew I was there.
We had nothing, so we slept them all on the pews of the church, they were just sleeping there. And the old gals used to come up and bring the morning tea. All this Edwardian stuff. And it was lovely. It was lovely.
AL So you’re there, and you’ve just arrived. You’re in your early 40s. And you started the Exodus Foundation pretty much straight off the bat when you got to Ashfield.
BC Well it took two or three years.
AL But did you always know that you wanted…
BC No, I had no idea. I knew I had to get well known, because it was the only protection I had. I kept opening the doors of the church and seeing who came in and working with them. I was caught up in a whole lot of different stuff, like Barlow and Chambers, and all that stuff was going on in those days.
So, I knew I’d be doing things on the edge that people wouldn’t get on too well. And also bringing in homeless kids. The first groups I started with really lonely people. I started a thing for lonely people. I just experimented around until I found out what was really needed.
AL What did you take and discard from the Wayside model? Because I guess an outside observer would see you as setting up Child of Wayside in some sense.
BC They kept saying to me, you can’t recreate the Cross here.
AL The Cross meaning King’s Cross?
BC King’s Cross. I went out with the ambulance for a good while at night. And got the picture of the Inner West after dark. And it was a pretty gruesome place. So that gave me a good insight into what was needed. And my thing was always just to open the doors, see what came in, and then react to the need.
We used to look after all the… There was a lot of prostitution on Canterbury Road. So we used to be all the needles and condom exchange for the girls on the road. And all of that sort of stuff.
AL And you began to feed large numbers of people. You now feed hundreds of people a day.
AL How did that evolve?
BC It just happened. We were opening the doors for the church, and we found a lot of people coming in were simply hungry. And we’d throw together any money we could, and on a Monday night cook a leg of lamb and things. And before long, 90 people were turning up. And we were just doing that Monday nights.
And then one Saturday Singo turned up, John Singleton. And he said I’ve just won all this money on the horses. What would you do if I gave it to you? I said I’d open a soup kitchen. He said, call it Loaves and Fishes, and here’s the money. Bang. And we started the next day. The council gave us the pots and pans, the mayor came, and off it went. We started with 80 people, and it just built up from that.
AL It’s an extraordinary enterprise that you’ve created there. And you also worked a lot with drug addicts as well.
AL Which has been an ongoing controversy in Sydney. I think Sydney was the heroin capital of the world by the late 1990s.
BC Oh yes.
AL How has that work evolved?
BC I started a group called Uniting Families. Which was for families of kids who had died. And we really never got beyond day one, because every week there’d be somebody coming in whose kids had died that week. And it was heart breaking. Heart breaking. And they weren’t criminals or whatever. They were just ordinary kids. Oh, it was heart breaking, just the stories, just the pain of it all. And we’d have sometimes 300 families.
Like the number of deaths from heroin in those days from kids, and that was equalling the number of kids killed in car smashes. Or people killed in cars. People don’t realise how big it was. Like one of the things I realised is I deal in death all the time. That’s something that’s slowly come upon me that most of the people I really value have died early. And that’s quite sad, really sad.
AL What do you say at the beginning to parents who’ve lost a child?
BC You just ache with them, just sit with them. You just cry with them, that’s all you can do. Cry with them. I think that’s the big thing, that you can’t take the pain away. But you can provide a safe environment for it to be expressed. Oh, it’s awful. I’ve been with parents, taking them to the morgue to recognise their children. And they’re beating on the glass, trying to wake them up. Awful. Awful. The pain of it is just awful, awful.
AL Does it help to have those groups where parents who’ve suffered the same loss are able to be in the same room with one another?
BC Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. What I’ve learned about great tragedy is it either breaks you or it breaks you open. And what I try and do is help people to be broken open. Otherwise they get bitter and twisted, and… Like my dad when my brother was killed. He took down all the photos off the walls. Locked them away. And almost wouldn’t allow his name to be mentioned. And my poor mum had to suffer that all those years. And, yes, it’s important that great pain breaks you open.
AL What is it to be broken open, Bill?
BC To be sensitive to the feelings of others. What I found is in times of really great pain and suffering, people start talking about love. And to allow the lovingness to come out. You’d be surprised the numbers of times people just start talking about love. So that’s when it gets open. Now the Buddha says a broken heart is a beautiful thing, because it knows what other broken hearts are feeling. And it’s true. That’s why you try and open it out.
AL You also saw a lot of the suffering that was inflicted by institutions, and you were talking about this well before anyone was talking about it, a Royal Commission. Tell us about some of the children you saw through that, people like Blue, and Mary Farrell [?].
BC There were hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of kids. You’ve got to remember that in those days, to have an illegitimate child was a terrible thing. So those kids were put in institutions or adopted out, or whatever. And you tend to think that the people who would run those institutions would be loving, caring people. And they’re exactly the opposite, a lot of them. And they would exploit these kids. And they’d sexually abuse them, so the kids would run away. And they’d run away to King’s Cross, and they’d tell me all these stories.
I remember, I was with one boy who was about 11, 12, and he had… His adopted parents had given him back. And he would escape from the institution, and run into my office, and ring them up, and beg them to take him back. And they’d say, no, no, no, you steal, and you do this, and you lie, and we don’t want you anymore, and all of this stuff. And he would wreck my office. And he ended up one day killing a taxi driver and stuffing his body in the boot.
And there were stories after stories like that where little Mary, who I met who was 12, I think, first of all, and she was a little Aboriginal girl. And she used to get raped a lot in the places. And she would rub her skin against the wall hoping it would go white because maybe if she was white she wouldn’t be raped so much.
AL No, it’s horrendous.
BC The police, they came and took her. One day they rung me up and they said, we’ve got to take her. Three police came, took her, locked her in the van, raped her on the way to the institution. It just happened. That happened day after day after day after day for kids. And I was put on this committee to look at the Child Welfare Act, which was run by a Catholic priest. It was awful, awful. I went along… Because in those days, girls exposed to moral danger used to have virginity tests done by the authorities.
AL That’s bizarre.
BC I know. I know. And it consisted of inserting a finger. And I’d got Professor Ian Webster, who you might know, he wrote this treatise on, they don’t have to do that anymore. And the priest at the head of the thing said, ah, but you’d only need one of these girls to get through that, and she’d infect everybody. And we know how promiscuous they are, so we’re not going to… So I thought it’s a waste of time, just a waste of time being involved. So I didn’t go back.
AL What lessons do we learn as a society from that institutional [overtalking]?
BC If there’s a house on the hill with blinking lights which says, we care about people, chances are they don’t. And that the one place where people are really vulnerable today is nursing homes. So, I would expect the same things to be going on in nursing homes that used to go on in the orphanages. And it means we have to watch them all the time, all the time.
AL That’s a harsh view given how many wonderful community organisations there are helping the vulnerable, including your own.
BC I wrote to Princess Diana begging her not to become whatever she was at Barnardo’s because of the paedophiles in it. No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just because an organisation says it’s good doesn’t mean it is.
AL But at the same time, we don’t want to snuff out the altruism, and the caring, and the goodness.
BC No, no, no, no, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that in the thing that it’s up to everybody in that organisation to keep it up to what it’s supposed to do. I’m not decrying it, I’m just saying, don’t believe the bulldust.
AL Yes. How much do you think your father’s upbringing, and that extreme poverty we spoke about beforehand shaped what you do and the way in which you think about the most vulnerable?
BC I really don’t know. I really don’t know. I think probably it came from my mother as well, probably. I remember when his mother died, and he’d done all this stuff for her, and he was crying, and he was saying, I was a terrible son. What do you say to that? What do you say to that? When he’d given everything.
AL You collected horse manure in the streets of London to feed the family.
BC Yes. But I was a terrible son. Like life is…
AL So much guilt on his shoulders then despite the success.
BC So much, so much. So much, yes.
AL And you’ve also been active in public communications since 2002. You’ve had a programme on 2GB on Sunday nights. How is that public communication side important for you in what you do? Because it’s very unusual for a church man to have a radio show, in a way it wasn’t a couple of generations ago.
BC Well Singo rung me and asked if I’d do it because there’d been trouble on the station, which there always is. And I found I was good at it. And it just grew. And I get amazed at the number of people, because basically it’s a talkback show, a secular talkback show run by a reverend. And yet so many people think of it as their church service. So many. I don’t even play hymns.
It’s very special. Like the other week, this woman rung, oh God, we were talking about who’s had a big influence on your life. And she said, my dad. She said he was one of 12, and blah, blah, blah. And she’s talking about her dad and all of that.
Then gradually as she keeps talking, she starts talking about her marriage, and her kids. And you find out gradually the girl had mental problems, and the boy had this. And then as it goes on you hear the boy came to the mum and said, dad gets into bed with Jane. And it goes all this way. And she’s telling these terrible things that had gone on in her life as if it’s just me. And there’s 100 000 people listening. And you realise there’s a holiness to it. And so I try and honour that.
AL And you’ve also been active in a succession of causes over the years. You’ve been active on Pokies Reform, and refugees. You were saying earlier…
BC Anything that takes peoples’ freedom away. Anything that binds people up.
AL That’s common thread.
BC People get bound up. They either get bound up by family stuff, or community stuff, or legal stuff, or stuff that binds them up.
AL And you were saying to me before that you now think of your life as pre 2015 and post 2015. What was that transition?
BC Lady rung me on the radio, because I’ve learnt to say yes to everything, because most stuff falls away, and you end up with interesting stuff you never even believed you can get caught up in. She rung up and she said, I’ve got this film to show, and no one will show it. It’s called The Anonymous People. And I said, okay. And it’s about people who were in the 12 step movement, AA, NA, and who were coming out and talking about how they’d been addicted, and how they got off to encourage other people.
So we showed it, and 100 people turned up. And at the end of the film, the whole thing kind of became an NA meeting. Narcotics Anonymous. And it kind of got with this girl who was talking about she’d come from this really well off home, and she found herself one day injecting heroin into herself from water that she’d syringed up from the public toilet. And I learned from that that when your secrets become a story, they lose their power over you. And I thought that’s a pretty good way to live.
And at the same time Hugh Mackay had got his book out saying that the one thing on the death bed people regret most is the loving things they haven’t said. And those two things struck me, and I began to clean my life out a bit. Because your life is just a story, just another story. And you’ve got all these secrets in it, and you think, nobody knows your secrets. But everybody knows your secrets, because they’re written all over your face.
And the other thing I found, and I found this, I found… I was with this street guy, and I really care about him, I really love him. And we were talking away, and I said, I really love you, you know. And it changed his life.
And what I mean by that is that there’s so much we bottle in ourselves that is liberating to get out. And when you do that, you’ve just got to look at St. Paul, or Martin Luther, or anybody like that. When they realise that they are free human beings, the greatest thing they can do is celebrate their freedom. And in celebrating the freedom, you change the world. And that opened me up.
And I ended up in… It’s a long story, but I spent a good bit of time in the jungle, which was the big refugee camp there.
AL In Calais, in France.
BC In Calais, in France. All the refugees from all over Europe, or all over the Middle East, and Africa, and that. And I saw a sign, and it said, NA meeting today. And I thought I will go to that. I’m no addict. And sitting on a carpet like this, probably like this, on the snow, on all the mud and everything were maybe 15 people, men and women. There was black people, Middle Eastern people, women, men, all different, Iranians, Iraqis, all telling their story.
And they were all speaking in their own language, and it was being translated into French. And I couldn’t understand one word. But it was all on their faces, you could see it. You didn’t need to know the language. You could see it on their faces. And it got to me. And I thought, what am I going to say? I’m not an addict, what am I going to say? And I said, oh, I’m Bill from Australia.
And they went, English, English, English. I said, no, I can’t get you to England. That’s what really gets me, all this stuff about democracy and British values, and all of that stops at… It’s only for certain people. Only for certain people. The rest of you, keep out. I said, I can’t get you to England. Oh.
And then it all poured out, and I said, I’m Bill from Australia, and I’ve been married twice, and it’s been really hard. And my kids have suffered because of that. And I feel bad about all of that, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And they all got up, and they held me, and I came in from the cold. It was just like… And when you think about it, they were Muslims, they were refugees, they were people here we would drive to Manus Island. And they gave me my life back.
And it was… I thought, how do I honour all of that? Because you have to do something. And I threw out all my clothes, and only wear black to remember that. Because it was the day I came in from being that lonely, isolated little boy to realising the world wasn’t the scary place.
AL So to clean your life up, as you put it, it was about truth telling, about being honest about the past. There’s a bit of public psychotherapy going on there.
BC I do a lot of psychotherapy, a lot. Because I try and work it all out. And I was only talking with my shrink the other day. And I was saying, why me? Why did that voice or whatever it was come to me? And he said, because the source of it knew you’d do it. I don’t know. It’s remarkable. I find my life is just opening up. All these old buggers on 2GB, they ring me and they say, oh, I’m 72 and I’m blah, blah, blah. And I think well I’m 75, and the world’s just opening up.
AL And your dividing line is in your early 70s there.
BC Well yes. And I’ve realised that I get more and more and more… Probably one of the most fascinating people I’ve met was this Buddhist Monk in Thailand who had been a lawyer, a well known lawyer in New York, Thai. Gave it all up to go back. Went right into the rain forests in Thailand. Found this old monastery, and stone by stone rebuilt it.
He can have one meal a day, which he has to beg for. So he goes out with his bowl, begs it. Has any food leftover, he has to give it away. He’s got one piece of clothing, and that’s it. And he can’t go anywhere without being invited. And he gets invited all around the world. And he is so still, it’s just amazing.
And why I’m getting into that is because I realise that there are limitations in Christianity itself, and I’ve got really interested in the here and the now. And that it’s the here and now that’s really important. And you can only, only… I don’t know. If you clean yourself up, the here and now opens up to you. And the other thing I’ve learned is that we are only the reflection we see in the eyes of the other. So that if you look for a core Bill, a diamond Bill, there’s nothing.
A core bill is like a twisted rope of fibre, of little fibres which are of environment, and memories, and dreams, and hopes, all of that. That’s core Bill. Which is found in the company of others. But also we can only have about a gigabyte of memory so that our memory is collective as well. So that if you want to say, what is the core Bill? We don’t know.
But where you find yourself is when you look into the eyes of the other, and you vanish. And then you come back and you think, where have I gone? And that space that you vanish into is now in a way surrounded by love I’ve noticed. So that what Jesus was talking about in lots of ways is more the here and now than in the future.
AL And it does sound very similar to that Buddhist notion of accepting everything and rejecting nothing. Taking what comes to you, what lands on your doorstep, and accepting that that is what is rather than railing against what the world has given you.
BC Yes. Yes.
AL So I have to ask you apropos of nothing to tell us the story of the $1 000 000 donation that pulled you out of a very tight tale. Tell us about how this donation came about.
BC I really believe out there is a projection of in here. But there really is something somewhere out there. We’d borrowed all this money from the church, $500 000. And we’d spent $499 970. And I was shitting myself, honestly, thinking how are we going to go on. And the phone rung, and I couldn’t believe it. This guy was a lawyer in Melbourne. And he said, where do you want me to deposit the $1 000 000?
So anyway, I said put it in the [unclear]. We fixed it up. And I thought, well if there’s one, there might be two. So I went down to see him. And I said, thank you very much for the money. Will you thank the person, blah, blah, blah. Is there any chance of getting anymore? And he said, no. So I left it. I thought that’s the end of it. And then that year I had to have my knees replaced, because I’d had an accident.
So they gave me these… Put all these metal knees in, and I… The operation went on, it was all done. But they couldn’t get my waterworks working properly. So, they never knew what rehab facility I could go into, because they couldn’t get me fixed up. So they’d say, oh, you’re going there, and then no, and then you’re going there, no. We got to keep you another day. Over there, no. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then one lunchtime they finally said you can go.
So I had to ring around, and we found a place I could go to, totally random. So I get in there. And I get friendly with the head nurse, you see. And he’s coming in and out, dropping in and out. Because my waterworks were still playing up. Then at the end of his shift, which was eight hours later, he thought, oh, I’ll just drop in and check on Bill.
So he comes in to check on me, and it’s not working properly. So while he’s fiddling and doing all this he said, what did you do with the $1 000 000, honestly? And I go, what? And I said, how did you know about that? He said, well, last year, we went through severe economic times, and we had to cut the staff. And there was two cleaners, the man and his wife. And we had to take the man to half time and put the wife off. So they went from two salaries to half a salary.
And then finally they had to put the man off. And they were worried because he was quite disabled, and all of that. They were just cleaners. And the man had taken the last pay, and he'd gone with his wife to do the shopping, and they’d got $4 left and they said, we have a cup of tea or buy a lottery ticket. And they bought a lottery ticket. And they won $19 000 000.
And because they were disabled, they got a financial planner who got them an apartment block, and all of that stuff. And they got a house for them and their kids, and all of that sort of stuff. And he said, I want to give $1 000 000 to Bill because he teaches kids to read, and I could never read. And when you think of all the triumphs through that. And we checked it all, it was true.
AL It’s astonishing, astonishing.
BC It is, isn’t it? And yet things like that have often happened. That’s why I know there’s something out there, although my brain tells me it’s all a function of once in a year.
AL That electrical engineer brain of yours.
AL Bill, a couple of final questions. What advice would you give to your teenage self?
BC Never give up. Never give up. You can always circle back. Never give up. Because I would have never thought what happened to me, what I’m doing now would have… Never give up. You never know what’s around the corner.
AL What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?
BC I used to believe I was powerless. Now I know I’m not.
AL When did that view change?
BC Just now. I think, yes, so many people blame everything else, and some of it’s true. But it’s also how you deal with it. I’ve just learned that we actually need to spend a bit of time each day hearing another voice than our own. Because it can then change… Because your own voice goes round, and round, and round, and round, and round, and round, and round, and round. And it drives all your emotions and all of that. But another voice can come in and intersect with that, and change the whole pattern in your… And it can start you again.
AL When are you most happy?
BC I was going to say when I’ve done a good job. I think I am most happy now when I’m relating with my kids. Because it’s been a long, hard journey building all that up. So, yes.
AL What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?
BC I walk every day. I meditate every day. And I do psychotherapy.
AL How long do you meditate for?
BC Half an hour, 40 minutes.
AL Do you use an app, or is there a practice that you use?
BC No. Actually I use the Ananda Marga meditation technique. But at the moment I’ve also found one on the internet. So I do that.
AL Do you have any guilty pleasures?
BC I tend to eat too much, so I have to watch my diet all the time.
AL And finally, Bill, what person or what experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
BC Probably the Dalai Lama, probably. I don’t know. I often feel he’d be the loneliest man on the planet. And he bears the pain of his people so well. And he’s still able to function. I sometimes wonder how he can function. And he actually gave up all his power. He’s the only one I know who gave up political power. I just love the ground he walks on.
AL Bill Crews, Reverend, talk show host, and social justice campaigner, thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom on the Good Life podcast.
BC Thank you. Thank you.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of the Good Life. If you’ve listened this far, I’m guessing you’re a fan of the show. So please take a moment to fill out our two minute survey. You can find the link to it in the show notes for episode 100 with Jonathan Haidt.
And if you enjoyed this conversation, I reckon you’ll love past interviews with Kate Latimer, Bob Maguire, Tim Costello, and Brad Chilcott.
Next week we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier, and more ethical life.
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