AFTER driving through the bustling main street of Gosford with its takeaway outlets and two-dollar shops, you reach a leafy waterfront park lined with fig trees. Opposite is a charmless four-storey police station and the Anglican Parish of Gosford with its headline-grabbing, double-sided street sign.
In the driveway I run into John, the caretaker, holding a plastic tub filled with red and black letters. He is about to update the sign, a task that can be repeated a few times a week, depending on the issues that motivate the controversial rector, Father Rod Bower.
It has been a bleak few days: 157 asylum seekers are detained at sea on a customs ship, there is no end to the bloodshed in Gaza and the bereft parents of three Australian children killed in the MH17 disaster have issued a statement describing how they are living in a "hell beyond hell".
John has the new messages printed on a piece of paper:
YOU ALL THE
I meet the messenger inside the former rectory, a spacious heritage home which is now the parish office. Bower is dressed in a black suit, vest, gunmetal scarf and priest's collar. The formal, funereal outfit, most likely for the photographer's benefit, contrasts with the bright walls and colourful paintings in his office. An old-fashioned bar heater beams, but it is still a little chilly.
A year ago, Bower uploaded a photo to the parish's Facebook page that showed a message on the street sign supporting homosexuality. The page had 150 "Likes" and was used to update parishioners about activities. That all changed within days.
SOME PPL ARE GAY
GET OVER IT
The message went viral. It has been shared more than 4000 times and attracted more than a million views. There had always been parish messages - in capital letters - but they were more innocuous: COMPLAIN LESS, MAKE TIME 4 FUN.
"People who put up church signs don't realise they're not read by church people, they're read by people driving by who probably don't step inside a church," says Bower. "That sign's been there for years, but I was becoming increasingly aware that the general public assume certain things about the clergy and the church in terms of what we think about certain issues. I didn't want that assumption to go untested."
You only have to read the comments on the original post to gauge how the message was received - from "Thank you" to "You apostate. You will burn for sure". "It was a very healing thing for many people," offers Bower, his clasped hands resting on his rotund belly, "but we also lost people because of it, people who don't hold the same view. A lot of other people now come to the church because they've found a place where they feel comfortable."
Bower has since addressed climate change, the carbon tax, coal seam gas, marriage equality, children in detention, the battle in Gaza, the loss of MH370, indigenous rights and the asylum seeker debate.
"I think the core message is of Jesus," he says. "It is about building a society that is just and cares for those on its edges. It's a universal message and I think we [the church] have something wonderful to offer the world but it has to be done in a way in which the world can receive it.
"Part of what the signs are about is me thinking through what that language might be. I believe if you're thinking progressively about one issue, you'll be thinking progressively about all issues and for us, at this point in time, the asylum seeker issue is a huge one."
This approach has galvanised pockets of the community who are disappointed by the political climate and have been taking to social media - and the streets - in protest. The church's Facebook page now has 14,000 "Likes" and photos of the message updates are shared far and wide, attracting 300,000 views a week.
The messages are pithy and powerful, acting as prompts for discussion and reflection. Last Melbourne Cup day, he wrote: THE NATION THAT STOPS ALL RACES.
Bower is bipartisan in his approach, sledging both the Abbott government and Labor on boat people and he says he has the unofficial imprimatur of the bishop. "It if weren't for social media," he says, "no one outside of Gosford would have heard about the church."
ROD Bower was adopted as a baby by Bob, a Barrington Tops grazier, and his wife Joyce. The couple was loving, supportive and "nominally Anglican" (Bower also has an adopted sister). "I went to Sunday school in Eccleston until I was confirmed at 12 and from then on I didn't have anything to do with the church for 10 years."
Bob died suddenly of a heart attack when Bower was 13 and he became the man of the house, working before and after school on the 1000-acre cattle farm. Using those same skills, he became a butcher in Mayfield. One Christmas Day, he sought out the local Anglican church. "I was captured by the liturgy, there was something about it," the 51-year-old remembers. "It just captured my imagination, so I went back the next week and the week after and got more involved. People started to say, 'You should be a priest'. I told them I didn't think so, that they were being ridiculous. Eventually, I thought, OK, I'll finish this off and see the bishop and he'll laugh me out of his office. He said, 'Maybe we should think about this'. I went through the discernment process and kept thinking they'd see through me and that'd be it.
"I got through that step and it was suggested I go to college so I went through St John's at Morpeth thinking all the time that they'll throw me out."
On the day of his ordination in February 1992 in Christ Church Cathedral, Bower finally accepted his calling. "I was in the side chapel sitting there with three other candidates supposedly in prayer and I'm counting the bricks on the wall. The cathedral was full of people and at the moment the bishop ordained me a deacon, I stood up and . . ." Bower pauses as tears well up. "I thought, this is where I belong."
He was the parish priest at Toukley before moving to Gosford 16 years ago. He and wife Kerry, a dedicated volunteer who prepares briefs for pro bono lawyers representing asylum seekers, have an adult son and daughter and two grandchildren. Bower sees the church as his spiritual family and though there have been times when he has wanted to walk away, he hasn't been able to. It definitely isn't easy being a priest in light of the damning evidence about institutional child abuse being heard by the Royal Commission.
"You get spat on wearing this," he says, grabbing his jacket with his right hand. "And I understand why. Essentially the church has been rightly condemned for not speaking out about child abuse historically, but if we don't speak out about what's happening to children in offshore processing, history will condemn us, too.
"When I put something up [on the signs] about child abuse people say, 'How dare you say anything about child abuse?' I understand why they're responding that way, but I think it's even more important for the clergy to speak out."
And while social media has spread Bower's message further than he ever imagined, it has also exposed him to the threats and barbs of online trolls. He has felt intimidated, even going as far as saying he is relieved not to be living at the church's exposed Mann Street site.
"I feel for the politicians, even the ones I don't like. The hurtful things people say about me sometimes, they do get into your bones. I think, how does [Minister for Immigration and Border Protection] Scott Morrison cope with the awful things said about him? I don't agree with anything he does, but I feel for him because of the personal attacks."
Bower has always empathised with the underdog, the outsider. He is more comfortable on the fringe and describes himself as a "chronic introvert". Joining the church and finding his birth parents in his 20s helped with his awkward search for identity. His views about the role of priests are refreshing and revealing.
"We tend to see the sacred here and the secular here," he says, indicating left then right. "I don't believe that's reality; I think the reality is they meet in the middle. They overlap at the centre and the priest's place is in that area. It's not about religion, it's about the reality of human existence."
He wants to reach "middle Australia" and encourage a more compassionate approach to issues, especially the treatment of asylum seekers. The street signs have become pivotal.
"Generally speaking we have a safe, affluent, decent country but I feel it's almost a battle for our national soul," he says, imploringly.
"Who are we as a people?"