Tuesday, December 8, 2015

David Mills 1948-2012

A force for good in a troubled world

In 1987 Dave Mills took Tony Abbott, then a journalist with The Bulletin – to Broken Hill, for one of a series of meetings hosted by the mayor to bring ‘consultation, not confrontation’ after a crippling strike in the mines. Abbott, in his two page story, described David and the team from MRA (now Initiatives of Change) who facilitated the meetings with their belief that ‘only at the deeper level of the human spirit is lasting change effected’.

A couple of decades later, Dave invited Abbott — by then a Government Minister -- to a community forum in suburban Sydney, soon after the 2006 Cronulla riots. Sharing the platform was the Mufti of Australia, Sheikh Taj Din Al Hilaly, and Cardinal Edward Cassidy. The Christian/ Muslim dialogues Dave and his colleagues organized gave rise to a string of interfaith groups, still bridge-building across Sydney.

In August, hearing of David Mills’ death after a two and a half year struggle with myeloma, Abbott described him as ‘one of those fragrant individuals who tried as hard as he humanly could to understand others and to be a force for good in a troubled world’.

On the other side of politics, Kim Beazley (now Australia’s Ambassador in Washington) remembers facing David’s ‘horrendously’ fast bowling during a cricket match 40 years ago in India, where both of them had gone as students to volunteer service with MRA. ‘David was an athletic, good-looking Australian (who) loved his country and loved people. He was also a citizen of the world,’ wrote Beazley. ‘His commitment was to the idea that everyone he met should experience the full potential God’s grace could instil in them.’

On a cold windy night in Sydney, 2002, Dave followed that inner impulse to go for a Christmas Bowl fundraiser to hear a speaker from the Solomon Islands, still then emerging from bloody ethnic tensions. The speaker, Matthew Wale, is now an Opposition MP in Honiara. ‘The first thing that struck me was that here was a very authentic man, passionate in his love for Christ… filled with a great compassion for humanity,’ said Wale, who flew to speak at Dave’s funeral on 8 September. During their 10-year friendship Matthew Wale and David, with his wife Jane, set up two major reconciliation conferences in Honiara, the second of which coincided with the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa. ‘It is not an overstatement to say that Dave has had a disproportionate impact on the reconciliation process in the Solomon Islands,’ Wale summed up.

Just weeks before he died, drained by months of treatment, Dave emailed his IofC colleagues urging them to work towards ‘getting our parliamentary leaders in Australia to find a regional bi-partisan approach to the asylum-seekers… one of the great human tragedies of our time.’ Like with the 1967 Referendum for Aboriginal citizenship-rights and repealing the White Australia Policy, couldn’t we help ‘take the political heat out of it and produce clear, compassionate thinking’?

Of course, David wasn’t just concerned with the big issues, the movers and shakers. ‘My Dad, hey, what a fantastic bloke,’ said his younger son, Antony, at the funeral. ‘No matter how busy he was, Dad would always have time for me and Keith. When I was at a crossroads or facing a challenge, all it took was a chat with Dad and whatever problem I was having seemed manageable.’ Keith told how, when the family gathered around his bed for the last Communion, someone managed to blurt out, ‘We will miss you, David.’ And David, with a final one-liner, replied, ‘I’m going to miss me too!’ As Keith commented: ‘Even though his health had left him, his sense of humour and his courageous spirit were alive and well.’

Among the 270 who crammed an overflowing church just down the road from where Jane and David lived were many of the musicians David had coached over years. Danielle Morley, producer of Bless These Seeds, a CD of David’s songs, spoke on behalf of Bardwell Park singers: ‘David taught me a lot about music, but he taught me much more about God... he was the most Jesus-like person I have ever known.‘

At the front of the church were his cricket bat, tennis racket and 12-string guitar. ‘The strings of my old guitar have travelled long, have travelled far,’ was one of David’s many compositions. His songs described the rich diversity of people, places and causes he served: from ‘the Rock at the heart of this land’ to ‘village shacks’ in Ethiopia, from racially-divided Richmond, Virginia, to working-class Liverpool in the UK; and many more.

One of his songs asks: ‘In the years that lie ahead in time, when we have gone our way, what will future generations say of us today?’ Will we be remembered for fast cars and tall buildings, he asked? ‘Or could our children say of us what mattered most of all: “They knew how to serve and share… they just lived the way they wanted the world to live, not demanding to get what they could, but only to give. And the millions flocked to their door, wanting to know, wanting to learn, wanting to buy, but it was free.

Dave Mills’ life, freely given, still speaks to us.