Bubble guns, busting moves: Isolated foreign students join a Movement


Young adults far from home explore new ways to combat solitude.

Pink crocs, black slacks and a cotton T-shirt complimented by a tiny pink purse. For a time there were Barbie fanatics and atomic nerds waiting outside the Hoyts Theatre in Moore Park’s Entertainment Quarter, Sydney. Separate to the resurrection of moviegoers brought in by Barbie and Oppenheimer last year, one auditorium in this multiplex always enjoys a crowd on Sundays. A crowd of fresh young foreign students who love Jesus.

Right outside the auditorium you are greeted with welcoming faces ecstatic to see strangers. You walk into the darkness, up the carpeted ramp, as hard bass sounds buzz through the walls courtesy of a Christian rock band bringing the house down. A crowd of young foreigners dances to grooves that praise the Lord. One short stocky fella has climbed up a divider, dancing like "the sensitive one" in a boy band. They have bubble guns shooting bubbles in the air, people busting moves. The smoke and lighting make it feel like a theatre piece.

Lights, smoke, music, bubbles, plush leather seats, free coffee in the cup holder with a QR code to make donations. The Movement Church has become a haven for foreign students who have found Jesus in Sydney, a city where finding friends can be tough.

"It’s a good place to make friends in a foreign land because booze buddies won’t fill all the voids in your life," Pastor Chris Lee said. He has noticed a hefty influx of young foreign students over the past few years and is glad the youngsters are finding solace and camaraderie away from home.

A post-COVID Time Out survey identified Sydney as one of the toughest places to make new friends, listing it third last among 53 world cities. The same index ranked Sydney as having the second-worst nightlife of those cities – is this starting to make sense?

The Christian rock band features a Roland V-synth, a bass guitar, two Gibson Les Paul rhythm guitars and a drum set as well as a lead singer on acoustic guitar and four backup vocalists. They use professional video equipment and a mixing station to create a live feed through the Hoyts projector onto the auditorium's big screen behind them.

The stocky man on that divider is Michael De Vera from the Philippines. By his own account he's a "gangster" and a "prince". The gold chain he’s wearing is a giveaway. He says he was engulfed by the ghetto as a child, abandoned by his parents, then saved by the mentorship of a pastor who adopted him. Now he’s in Sydney on a student visa and a scholarship. He also has a wife and a kid, all of which he attributes as a gift from Jesus. The tough guy wells up for a quick second as he says he’s "a prince because his father, Jesus, is king".

"Gangster and prince" Michael De Vera climbs up on a divider to

Aayan*, not his real name, is a new member of the group from South Asia. He requested permission from the hospital to come to the church, as he’s being treated for severe anxiety. What brings him to Sydney is his PhD study. He lives in solitude with no one to talk to. "I need to make more friends."

As the band finishes its set, people take their seats, only for the pastor to immediately instruct them to stand up, look around and greet whoever they’re standing next to. There’s a sea of shuffling faces and a whiff of salutatory chitter chatter in the theatre. It's something that helps foreigners in a strange land revisit belongingness.

Vinnie Cho, from Singapore, arrived in Australia in 2007 to work in a PR firm and joined the church when it started in 2019. She recalls how different The Movement was back then, "just Indonesians and Filipinos". Now Vietnamese, Chinese, Indians, Malaysians and Pakistanis also attend the church.

'The atmosphere is so welcoming and it really felt like home. I want ... whoever arrives in Australia to experience the love and welcoming spirit I have experienced.'

The Sydney Movement Church was founded in 2019 byPastors Roy Marcellus and Jessica Leonardo. Pastor Lee joined the church in 2021. The Movement Church’s website points to other branches of church it has planted in Seoul, South Korea; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Muntilupa, Metro Manila, The Philippines.

While delivering his sermon, Pastor Lee tries to hit home the idea of soldiering through adversities and brings up the story of a fellow church member, Bhavin Minhas*, who asked his real name be withheld because of the sensitivity of his situation. He left India after he lost custody of his daughter. The court initially ruled in favour of his wife and the plea to challenge that decision dragged on for more than two years before it was finally settled in Minhas' favour this month.

"If this is what it took for me to have a relationship with Jesus then it was all worth it," he told the meeting. The place echoed with "amens", something you hear whenever anything even slightly profound is said.

As the pastor nears the end of his sermon, the keyboardist slips into position and presses down on a chord – a signal for everyone to stand. Most people immediately raise their arms, ready to receive what their Lord has to serve this morning. Willing members are invited on stage for a personal blessing to get rid of their fears – I'm not a member of the church but I go to the stage to be blessed along with about 10 others – followed by another rock performance in the name of Christ.

Pastor Lee dates his relationship with Jesus to 1999. Back then he was a young man imbued with the delusion of invincibility, who hung out with what he called "city gangsters", terrorising George Street, in central Sydney. He said he fell into that life while working at a Macca’s in George Street. He lived in Canterbury and the trains had finished running by the time he finished his shift, "so, I’d just hang around". He made friends with some tough people but never himself got into a brawl. On Christmas morning 1999, when plans were already made to party all night, he woke up earlier than the rest of his friends and, on a whim, decided to go to church.

He came back to an empty house, having no idea of anyone’s whereabouts. He later learned a rival Vietnamese gang called 5T had attacked his friends as part of a turf war between city gangs. Many of them were severely injured, one lost his speech after being stabbed in the chest and another one was hit by a car and killed as he tried to flee the attack.

It was a turning point for Lee. From then, he nurtured a relationship with Jesus. He thanks the Lord for saving his life. He now works as a youth counsellor and believes he’s been chosen for this life, to serve as many lost souls as he can. He has extended a helping hand to Aayan and offers his counselling services for free.

The Movement Church seems full of foreigners finding joy and solace in a foreign land. This month, Lee said Michael De Vera, an energetic member of the congregation was connecting students to the church and helping people find friendship. On a recent Sunday, he invited 20 Spanish students to the church and a picnic afterwards.”

Being a part of the church has offered De Vera friendships and also helped him develop his English language skills. "Someone who is not fluent in a foreign language might only express certain aspects of his/her personality. Your comfort with a language affects how much of yourself you allow to be heard or seen," he said.

“When I first went there the atmosphere is so welcoming and it really felt like home," he said. "So I want everyone to experience that, whoever arrives in Australia to experience the love and welcoming spirit I have experienced.”


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