On Sunday 17 September, we mark Social Services Sunday within the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. On this day we are invited to give thanks and pray for all who provide care and support to those who are marginalised and vulnerable within our community. One of these people is Dr Julie Edwards OAM, chief executive officer of Jesuit Social Services, who was recognised during this year’s King’s birthday honours for services to the community through social welfare organisations. Julie shares with us what is at the heart of her many years of service among those who are often ‘the least’ among us.

Dr Julie Edwards OAM is no stranger to being among some of society’s most vulnerable people. At the age of 19, having just completed a year at the University of Melbourne studying social work, she travelled to India to spend time with Mother Teresa of Kolkata and her sisters. She’d left university because she ‘felt discontent’ with what she saw as ‘the professionalisation of care’.

‘I was probably taking a more critical look at society in general and its structural injustice, and at the time I wasn’t finding life in the church,’ she explained. And so, wanting to explore her own spirituality more deeply, with a desire to find greater meaning and purpose, she volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity. It was an experience that made a deep and lasting impact.

Through that experience, seeing poverty in the way that I saw it there in India and then seeing the generous response of the sisters, made me think about the difference between how we live in Australia and how they were living.’

‘I had two things going on there—a personal spiritual inner-life developing and at the same time, a stronger social analysis of injustice and a challenge then about what it means to live as a Christian. What does it really mean, practically, in the day-to-day, living as a Christian, seeing the reality of poverty and disadvantage and injustice? That was something that was really fostered when I was in India.’

Having taken a year off, Julie returned to university to complete her studies in social work. At the same time, she started living in a community with others in the inner-city suburb of Richmond. Called ‘HESED’, meaning ‘steadfast love of God’, the community was committed to simplicity, prayer and spirituality, and hospitality.

Always exploring what is at the heart of their actions and response, the community opened their home to those in need. From the beginning, although they hadn’t initially planned it, hospitality expressed itself in terms of opening their home to people who were homeless or who had come out of prison or psychiatric facilities.

‘The community started in 1976 and it was a time of deinstitutionalisation,’ explained Julie, ‘and so, in those first years, people were moving out into the community often without supports—they often didn’t know where to live. So, we welcomed a number of those people to make their home with us.’

It was a very vibrant place where we were exploring how you live out your Christian values and beliefs in contemporary society in a way that we wanted to affect all areas of our lives. We prayed together, we did simple work, mostly work with our hands, and were very influenced by people like Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker and Gandhi.’

The community was connected to ‘a few Jesuits’ who modelled the values of hospitality and living simply. ‘It’s interesting now with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si and the interconnection between social and environmental justice—that’s what we were trying to live at that time.

‘We wanted to live a life that was ethical across various domains, taking responsibility for our own food (trying to grow as much as we could), our clothes (where did they come from?), living lightly on the earth and offering hospitality if we heard people didn’t have somewhere to live. It was all interconnected.’

Julie explained that the years living in community were formative and served as the foundation for what came later in life. She now has over 40 years’ experience engaging with marginalised people and families experiencing breakdown and trauma and is a qualified social worker, family therapist, and a grief and loss counsellor. She also has a Master of Social Work and has completed a PhD in organisational identity.

Julie has both lived and worked in a way that her Christian values have remained core. She joined Jesuit Social Services in 2001 as a Program Director and was appointed as CEO in June 2004. As she moved into the professional space and into leadership roles, she was always interested in the question, how do we ensure that the professional context is a genuine expression of our deep values and beliefs?

How do we as an organisation respond to Jesus’ call to feed the hungry and thirsty? It’s hard enough in a sense for an individual to follow the gospel call, but how do you get a whole organisation to work from those deep values?’

Julie sees her role as one that ensures the conditions and processes at Jesuit Social Services allow people to ‘work from the space of their vocational heart’. ‘Because I believe you come and do this work because you have a vocational heart,’ she said.

‘How can we make sure that as an organisation, we foster that and protect it because it’s a very precious thing to have a vocational heart that wants to love and serve. We have a big focus here on what we call our “human spirit”.’ She explained that there is a deliberate focus on people, practice and processes. ‘Given our Jesuit heritage and identity, we’re striving to accompany staff and help them to be “contemplatives in action”,’ she said, ‘so they really understand their own internal strengths, challenges, and motivations, and can bring that to their work, refine it and reflect on that.

‘The practice is also grounded in our Jesuit identity and heritage, and in Catholic Social Teaching, which reflects and reinforces the inherent human dignity of each person and the notion that everyone seeks meaning and purpose in their life. In a broader sense, it’s practice that understands that the source of injustice will often come more from the systems and structures rather than because this person is inherently bad or behaving badly.’

Julie recognises that she and her staff often work ‘at the very hard end of social justice in lots of ways,’ but they remain motivated by the broader vision about building a fair and just society. ‘We understand that we are all held and nurtured and sustained in a web of relationships—with the air, with water, with our mother, with the school—and that sometimes those relationships get damaged or broken. We understand our purpose is not about a transactional delivery of a service, but about nurturing and strengthening those bonds, and healing those relationships.’

‘It’s an opportunity to integrate our Christian beliefs and values into a daily practice of things, considering the bigger picture and how can we really try to build a more just and loving world. We have an opportunity to be part of that. I actually believe in the power and strength of institutions because I know that in my role here—in fact, all of us—can achieve a lot, which would be harder to do just at a personal level.’

Despite the many challenges, Julie ‘absolutely loves’ what she does. She loves the people she works with, and the people she serves. ‘I have a really strong belief about the interconnectedness of everything, and that love is at the heart of the universe and is holding it all together,’ she said.

‘And it doesn’t just have to be in Jesuit Social Services, but in any part of our life: how are we acting, or what are we doing to be in that flow of love? How are we healing and strengthening relationships and understanding our interconnectedness? I think when we’re in that flow of love and when we understand the gift of everything, then it helps us to be generous. There’s a mutuality about that, too. It’s not just, I’m giving and doing, but I am also receiving all the time through this web of relationships. There is always this interdependence and interconnectedness.’

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Dr Julie Edwards OAM Photo supplied.

Dr Julie Edwards OAM was officially awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia at Government House, Melbourne, on 13 September 2023.