5. The Rappville Christians
Their first encounter with the media was to announce that they would work for free for any family or business in Sydney, as their way of demonstrating Christian love and faith in action. The media loved it. Here was a group of people who, in the words of Mike Willesee, "were not prepared to play the game as we know it. For them, being a Christian is much more than just going to church on Sundays."
An article in the Daily Telegraph about their free work offer resulted in over 80 phone calls in one day, with people asking them to do everything from weeding gardens and painting houses to addressing envelopes and acting as charity collectors. The free work offer was limited to six people working for one employer for one day. So when the list of people asking for assistance was nearly finished, the Rappville Christians looked for other ways to spread their faith. They discovered a graffiti covered railway tunnel near Central Railway Station. The tunnel was the center of a dispute between city police and railway police over who was responsible for it. Neither side wanted it, so it became the haunt of druggies and graffitists.
The Rappville Christians decided to do their bit to brighten up the tunnel. They started by painting over huge areas of the graffiti with white paint; and then they returned when the paint was dry, to fill in the white background with huge Christian slogans, so that thousands of commuters walking through the tunnel each day would have something positive to think about on their way to and from work.
A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald stumbled upon them while they were painting. A photo and report appeared in the paper the next morning. When the Rappville Christians returned to paint over some more graffiti the next day, they were arrested and charged with vandalism. Suddenly the city police and the railway police were tripping over each other in a rush to claim jurisdiction for the territory that they didn't want to know about a day earlier!
It was nearly Christmas, so the radical young group decided to do something special for the holiday season. They drew up plans for a huge mural, and broke it up into sections, for each person to work on simultaneously. They assumed that police would be fully occupied with holiday traffic or be home with their families for the holidays. That was the ideal time to set up camp in the tunnel. By working around the clock, they believed that they could have the mural completed by the end of Boxing Day. Because the tunnel was more than 200 metres long, and because they were doing their mural in the middle of it, they were able to post a lookout at either end (posing as a busker). The lookout would simply start playing a recorder or other musical instrument if an officer of the law could be seen approaching. By the time the policeman had entered the tunnel, the Christians would have stashed all their paints behind a rubbish bin, and been out the other end of the tunnel. This went on right through the night on Christmas Eve, and all day Christmas.
When the general public returned to work after the holiday, they found a colourful mural gracing one wall of the tunnel. The media noticed it too, and gave it suitable coverage. Police made further arrests when people signed a petition, painted on the wall of the tunnel, to have charges dropped against the young artists. Although the offenders all pleaded guilty, no conviction was recorded against them on the grounds that the offences were trivial. The mural stayed on the wall for a number of years before the tunnel was completely redecorated.
This honeymoon with the media came to an end in 1984, when the group decided to express their faith in a less popular way. They were saying that people needed a new motivation, and that blind faith in money had caused all the problems in the world. In an effort to demonstrate their lack of faith in money, they announced that they were going to burn $100 in two-dollar notes, outside the Reserve Bank in Martin Place. This was broadcast on national television, by Mike Willesee.
Consequently, a huge crowd turned up and a near riot broke out. Plainclothes police tackled members of the group each time they pulled a dollar out of their pockets, and TV cameras were not able to get a good picture because of the unruly crowd. (One camerman was pushed into the water in a fountain near the scene.) Half a dozen Rappville Christians were arrested for conspiring to deface an Australian banknote. In court, the group pleaded guilty, but asked that they be given the same leniency that they had received over the tunnel mural, on the grounds that they each had a previous good record; that no harm had been done by their action; that their reasons for staging the demonstration were based on sincere Christian beliefs; and that, because of their simple lifestyle, they could not afford to pay a fine. The maximum penalty for defacing an Australian banknote was, at that time, $100.
Rather than extend leniency, the magistrate took the opposite approach. He gave them the maximum possible penalty, ten times over. (Some of them had two-dollar notes in their pockets with writing on them, and they were fined $100 for each of those as well!) The media too swung against the group. What had been seen as harmless fun when they were painting the mural was considered genuinely subversive when they threatened to put a match to a dollar note. Media reports on the incident portrayed them as recklessly extravagant, and callous toward the needs of the poor. "When I saw how people reacted," said one of them after the incident, "I could see how right we had been in our original statement, that people literally worship money, and that they become irrational when they see it being threatened."
This marked the end of the friendly relationship between the Rappville Christians and the Sydney media. The group decided to go to jail rather than pay their fines; to put up posters all over the city expressing their anger at the way people had reacted to their message; and to shift their free work program out of Australia and into a Third World country where it might be more appreciated.
The media, in turn,apparently decided to ban further coverage of The Rappville Christians. News of the ban came to the group through hearsay. However, they had already decided to leave Sydney, so that it did not matter to them at the time whether the hearsay was true or not.
Even in Newcastle, 100km north of Sydney, a stunned journalist reported in 1987 that his chief of staff was not interested in a report which he had submitted on the group. "Mark my word. There will be a scandal about that group before too long," the editor had promised the reporter.
"And that is the only sort of news the media will now even consider covering," said a spokesperson for the Rappville Christians. "If it's not putting us down, they don't want to hear about it."
Over the next 17 years, the group was to learn how slow the Sydney media is to forget. Even today, the Rappville Christians cannot get Sydney media coverage of anything that they do or say. Unless, like Bernard Judd, they "mellow" sufficiently in their religious beliefs, they have been permanently "excommunicated".
Obviously there must have been something in the teachings of the Rappville Christians that, in the eyes of the media, went past the point of being "novel", or even mildly controversial. They had somehow landed themselves in the "subversive" category*, and for this, the media felt justified in taking such a strong stand against them.
*Thousands of two dollar notes started appearing around Sydney just before Christmas, 1985, with the words "Santa grows fat while the Third World starves" printed on them, along with the group's postal address. As a result, federal police stopped all mail going to that address, until the Council for Civil Liberties made representations on behalf of the Rappville Christians to Australia Post, the Federal Police, the Federal Ombudsman, the Minister for Communication, and the Federal Attorney General. Certainly the police had begun to see the group as being dangerously subversive by this time as well.