World Vision's Tim Costello: A focused life - Hope 103.2

World Vision’s Tim Costello: A focused life

I love sitting down with folks to discover how they tick. I love delving into their backgrounds to find out how they’ve become who they’ve become. How was their character built? What forces shaped them? How did their childhood help or hinder the development of their life’s work? Those are the questions I asked of […]

By Sheridan VoyseyFriday 3 May 2013Open House InterviewsInspirational StoriesReading Time: 10 minutes

I love sitting down with folks to discover how they tick. I love delving into their backgrounds to find out how they’ve become who they’ve become. How was their character built? What forces shaped them? How did their childhood help or hinder the development of their life’s work? Those are the questions I asked of social campaigner, church leader and World Vision CEO Tim Costello—a man who has done significant things with his energy and talents. The result was an enlightening discussion of faith, justice and discovering one’s calling in life.

Audio – Listen to Tim Costello’s life story and vision Listen to Tim Costello’s life story and vision

The name Tim Costello and the phrase ‘social justice’ go hand in glove. How did that passion for justice develop in you?

Look, it’s a funny thing to try and answer that question because what happens to you in family, school and elsewhere is dreadfully normal. You can’t necessarily unpick the threads.

I grew up in a family that had a Christian faith, a family that took church attendance and things like Christian Endeavour very, very seriously. I heard stories of missionaries speaking about things that challenged me—people who didn’t have what I took for granted, places in the world where they didn’t necessarily have the gospel and the good news, or clean water, or access to medicines. I think that missionary impulse really got me questioning, well, why is the world like this? All of us are made in the image of God. We are all children of God. Why are those of us who are thrown onto the stage of life here in Australia given opportunities, options and choices that others born in Bangladesh and Mozambique aren’t? Why even here in Australia are some able to embrace those choices and others end up with mental illness and drug abuse?

So it was, I guess, just the recognition that inequalities and great differences existed, and that forced me to ask those questions. And when you do that, I think a whole journey in social justice is born.

You studied law in university. Could that also be traced back to those early years, hearing those missionaries speak?

Hope 103.2 is proudly supported by

Look, that is a curious one. I did my best in the HSC as it was called then (VCE now), without any thought of becoming a lawyer. I must be absolutely frank: law mainly attracted me at that stage because it was a five-year course and I didn’t want to work! In fact, after I finished law I still didn’t want to work, and so I looked around to stay at university and did another course—a Diploma of Education. Six weeks of teacher training convinced me that law was a very good idea!

Once I got involved in law I saw there was this gap—the gap between what courts deliver and what real justice is; the gap between the rule of law and human rights that get abused. And though law is largely focused on the retributive side (criminal law) or the ordering of society (civil law), it also prompted me to think about the social dimensions of justice: redistributive justice. So like lots of lawyers at Monash I did a course called Poverty Law. Poverty Law back in the 1970s was asking, ‘Why is law mainly accessible to those who have got money, and other Australians miss out because they can’t pay a lawyer?’

So all of that shaped me too.

Your family is fascinating. Your parents produced a son who would become a church minister, social commentator and campaigner, and another who would become, for many years, the nation’s Federal Treasurer. That’s quite an accomplishment. What was growing up in that family like?

It was a family that took faith seriously and that took learning seriously. How could it not? Both parents were teachers: one in the private system and one in the state system. Family holidays were extended classrooms. The car drive to Sydney or Adelaide where we would go for holidays in some ways just turned into a private tutorial.

Family meals were always engaging. We’d discuss issues; we would debate what was said in church during the sermon. I remember once, when I was about twelve, one of my friends who came home for Sunday lunch saying, ‘Your family is weird. No other family sits and debates like that.’ Now, that was normal for us. It wasn’t weird. It was, I think, a family where our parents took a hands-on interest in our development and didn’t leave education simply to the like of schools and curriculum.

Tim, I’m fascinated with understanding people’s sense of call or vocation. And you can’t really have a call without a ‘Caller’. When did you have a sense that God might be calling you to do something? And has it changed over the years or has it been the one essential calling with different roles?

There have been various layers of call for me. At a young age there was the call to give my life to Christ. That was the fundamental plank. The notion that God made me was just a staggering notion, as it still is. In my work with Urban Seed, with homeless and drug-affected people, I would say to them, ‘Do you know that God made you?’ And you would see tears bubble up in their eyes. It’s just an astonishing thought.

Then there was for me a strong sense that I was going to do something in Christian ministry. During my first years of university I did a lot of outdoor preaching with a group called Open Air Campaigners. I loved that, and loved engaging evangelistically. I think my skills, and certainly my brother’s skills, were honed in some of that outdoor work. 

Then there was this sense of call I was talking about earlier, to justice. I became a lawyer; I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to defend those who didn’t have access to justice. I eventually set up a branch office of a firm I worked for in St Kilda: a street-front legal office for sex workers, people who had been thrown out of houses because they couldn’t afford the rent. For the next decade or more that was my legal practice. 

There was a call to building the kingdom of God. That took expression in me being ordained as a Baptist minister at St Kilda Baptist, a small church of about ten members when I started, and to really build that up.

There was a call at one stage to go into local politics. I ended up Mayor of St Kilda, and quoted at my inauguration the words from Isaiah 65: ‘They shall build houses and live in them. No longer shall they build houses and others live in them.’ So many yuppies had discovered St Kilda, forcing up the rents and forcing out the poor, that I ran on a platform of rate dollars going into affordable housing.

There was a call to found the Urban Seed ministry amongst the homeless and drug affected [of Melbourne]. And, of course, most recently there’s been a call to the global stage through World Vision. 

So I would have to talk of a number of calls where I have sensed God leading me, saying, ‘This is where I want you to be.’ And I hope there are more calls to come.

How have those calls come? Has it been through prayer? Have they been dramatic? Or have they been more of a growing ‘sense’ over a period of time?

They have been, at the time, most undramatic. It’s when you look back you actually see God’s fingerprints all over them. When I was studying theology in Switzerland we had a call from a number of larger Baptist churches to become the senior minister in the eastern suburbs—the ‘Bible Belt’ of Melbourne. In fact, Blackburn, where I grew up, was considered the buckle of the Bible Belt. It was known, familiar, safe. But something in me said no. We knew the good news ‘worked’, if I can put it crudely, in the eastern suburbs. Did the good news work in the inner city, where there was, in the early 1980s, much more poverty, ethnic mix and drug problems? Those urban issues saw churches mainly struggling in the inner city. Something in me just said, no, go for something tougher. And St Kilda eventually approached us when we let it be known we wanted to do something in a small struggling church that couldn’t even pay us a stipend, where I had to work to support myself, thus the legal practice.

Was it a call? Looking back, yes. At the time it seemed right to do as we thought about it and prayed. There was no fingerprint of lightning in the sky. Each of my calls I would describe in that way: A sense of niggling. Is this still the right thing to be doing; is this something that I should be open to; am I getting too comfortable? Those have been the ingredients.

What do you understand the ‘good news’ to be these days?

Well, Jesus is very clear. He laid it out in his first sermon in his hometown. He said, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, sight to be blind, liberty to captives . . .’ So the good news is social, material and spiritual. It’s the integration of all of those. 

Often we who look at the Bible and life through a Greek lens say the spirit and the soul is eternal. That is what gets saved and goes on. The body and history and all those things that are physical; that just decays and goes away. That’s actually not a Christian view, and it might surprise your listeners to hear me say that. That’s actually a heresy known as Manichaeism. 

The Christian view is the resurrection of the body. It’s the body of Jesus with nail prints in his hands and spear marks in his side. It says resurrection doesn’t obliterate the pain and historical struggle. What you did which was eternal in life and the body is resurrected. It says, ‘As you did it to the least of these, my brethren, you did to me’—fed, clothed, visited in prison. In other words, these social acts, these acts of earthly mercy, are eternal. They are as eternal as preaching the gospel and seeing someone confess their faith and saying their soul has been saved.

The good news is what Jesus said: it is good news for the poor. And I have to say, too often in our churches we hear preachers, unlike the great preachers of old, preaching prosperity for believers not justice for the poor. We cannot follow God and turn our hearts and eyes away from those who are poor. So the good news is integrated: social, political, economic and certainly spiritual.

What do you think are the greatest issues of justice and mercy for us today? 

Without doubt the greatest moral issue of justice is why 30,000 children will die by the end of the day from not having enough food, from dirty water, from not having access to the medicines you and I take for granted. Most of those kids will be below the age of five. This is the great scandal that cries out to the Lord, because these are loved by him, made by him, and carry his image. They are those whom Jesus died for.

September 11 was terrible. Three thousand people innocently died. But that day 30,000 kids also died and it wasn’t reported. And it happened the next day, and the next. So that is why World Vision exists; that’s why a number of other Christian humanitarian organisations exist. To say in a world where we have solved the problem of supply: How many mobile phones does a teenage girl need to choose from? How many digital wide-screen TVs does a family home need? We have solved the problem of supply, and yet 30,000 children still die.

From that there are a number of major justice issues that have to do with allowing people to live peacefully and within their borders without their own governments preying on them. I’m thinking of Sudan, I’m thinking of Zimbabwe. Having governments act justly, not corruptly. The fastest thing that ruins a nation is bad government. 

Then you cascade down to a range of issues that are much more local. What does it mean for Australians to be reconciled with the Indigenous? How do we deal with Third World conditions and find a way of dignity and responsibility for the Indigenous? That is our shadow and the scar on our soul. 

Those are the sorts of issues that I think are the big ones.

Any of those issues could take a whole lifetime’s worth of energy to work on. How do you even begin to select and focus your life on one?

I say to people pick three issues. Pick one that is global. It might be HIV/AIDS or how we beat malaria (and we could do that easily if we just had the will), or a particular country like East Timor given its proximity to us. Become informed about that issue. Study it, make it a matter of prayer, and maybe visit it.

Then pick a national issue. That might be Indigenous needs, or boat people, or asylum seekers. It might be a range of issues that you decide to be informed of and even write letters about.

Then thirdly pick a local issue. It might be youth homelessness in your municipality, the need to plant trees and do the green thing, or a school program that needs mentors. Here at World Vision we have a wonderful program called Kids Hope where Christians are invited to mentor, mainly in primary schools, just one student—usually a troubled student who teachers desperately need help with. It is a wonderful program having huge success.

So an international issue, a national issue and a local issue. Make them yours, make them personal and get connected around them.