Reverend Jerome Francis vividly remembers a protest in his home town in South Africa, marching down the street alongside fellow university students, all of them scared for their lives. His friend threw a stone and was bundled off into a police van. At any moment, he knew he could have been arrested or killed. That was many years ago during apartheid, a world away from where he is today.
Two months ago, Reverend Francis arrived from Cape Town with his wife and two children after a recommendation from a friend.
“I think Shepparton has a wonderful community who are young and full of excitement,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful place.”
Aside from his faith, Reverend Jerome firmly believes in what he calls “courageous conversations”. He said it was a concept based on the South African philosophy of Ubuntu, where people are bound by a universal bond connecting all of humanity.
“It’s about realising that every moment could be a chance to have a conversation that could make a difference,” he said. “Someone might be demoralised about life, or lonely — it’s about understanding people aren’t perfect.”
Reverend Francis has been a priest since 1996, heavily involved with the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. He was conferred to one of the highest positions there, Honorary Provincial Canon, by the bishops of South Africa.
Four days before leaving South Africa, Reverend Francis was speaking with his good friend Desmond Tutu, a world-renowned South African cleric and human rights activist. “He told me ‘we’re going to get the South Africans to beat Australia in rugby so you come home’,” he said.
Reverend Francis also used to coach cricket alongside former South Africa coach Bob Woolmer, whose death shook the cricketing world in 2007. “He and I were good friends,” he said. “My sermon at his funeral was broadcast all over the world.”
For Reverend Francis, being a decent person comes before religion. “I want anyone to come to my door,” he said. “I want people to know that I’m not here to convert them, I just want to be a friend and redirect people to necessary services.”
Reverend Jerome understands the need for close community ties, as was the case back in the days of apartheid in South Africa. “It’s important to be present in the community as well as church,” he said. “I want to be someone people can turn and speak to no matter what.”
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