Dave Andrews has set himself a formidable task: to build understanding and trust between Muslims and Christians when anti-Islamist sentiment is running high. But if the job is getting him down, it doesn't show as he bowls into the Mado cafe in Auburn, a stone's throw from the Gallipoli Mosque, Sydney's biggest Islamic place of worship.
Andrews, who has been a community worker for more than 40 years, looks the part with his long white hair, unruly beard and Mahatma Gandhi-style glasses.
Muslim friend reacting to Dave Andrews' The Jihad of Jesus
As we pick at a dipping plate of hummus, jajic, beetroot and yoghurt with Turkish bread, Andrews describes how a long involvement with marginalised people in Brisbane led to his work as an interfaith bridge builder. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 were a key moment.
"The religious identity of the marginalised people we worked with was never an issue until 9/11," he says. "Then all of a sudden these refugees we had related to as Hazara or Afghans, or whatever, became Muslims and we became Christians. We were confronted with how to bridge this chasm in this new game of identity politics."
Andrews knew he had to engage with this new, religious dimension to his life's work. In the days and months following 9/11 he spent time in mosques in Brisbane listening to the worshippers and praying with them. "I needed to look for Muslim counterparts who I could work with to rebuild some of the bridges that were being blown up. Not only by the terrorists, but by the reports of these events that terrified everyone including me."
Andrews then began organising meetings involving people from many faith traditions – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and those with no religious affiliation. The aim was to "get together, to listen to one another and to learn from one another".
Andrews is a devout Christian but has chosen to remain at the fringes of the organised church. In 1999 he published a book called Christi-Anarchy: Discovering a Radical Spirituality of Compassion. It asks how the history of the Christian religion could be littered with every kind of evil when Jesus Christ preached a gospel of love and peace with justice. He advocates a radical, subversive spirituality of compassion. Andrews has sometimes clashed publicly with church leaders including the former Anglican archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth.
Life as an interfaith bridge builder in Australia can be tough. Andrews tells the story of when he and his friend Nora Amath, a Muslim scholar, were invited to a Sunshine Coast church to speak about how Muslims and Christians could live in harmony. They were met by a group of angry protesters outside the venue.
"There were hundreds of people there waving banners with words like 'Resist Islam', and the police were there to deal with the conflict," Andrews says. "It was terrible to see the way so many Christians express such hate for Muslims in their name of their faith. They were so blinded by their ideology."
Andrews' animated face darkens and his voice quivers as he recounts this experience. "By far the most animosity I face is from Christians," he says.
One outcome from Andrews' experience trying to build religious and cultural understanding is a provocative new book titled The Jihad of Jesus.
In it he draws on the teachings of Muslim scholars to recast jihad as a "sacred non-violent struggle for justice" rather than violent holy war. Andrews argues that the "strong-but-gentle" figure of Christ provides the ideal model for non-violent jihad.
"Jesus should not be seen as a poster boy for Christian's crusading against Muslims but as a messiah who brings Christians and Muslims together for a non-violent struggle for justice," he says. As a plate of steaming shish kebabs arrives at our table, Andrews tells me with a smile about the reaction of one Muslim friend after she read a draft manuscript of The Jihad of Jesus: "Dave, you're going to get shot."
Andrews' struggle for interfaith harmony builds on an extraordinary life of community work.
In a "fit of romantic, unrealistic idealism", he and wife Ange sold their house in Brisbane in the early 1970s, gave the money away and moved to Afghanistan to work with young people, especially travellers. The pair lived through the 1973 coup in Kabul before moving to India where they spent a decade doing community work with drug addicts, slum dwellers and others.
Their first daughter, Evonne, was born while they were living in India and they adopted a second daughter, Navi, a Nepali orphan. Andrews was caught up in the deadly anti-Sikh riots that engulfed New Delhi in 1984 after Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Amid the mass slaughter, he stood in the doorway of his Sikh neighbour's house and turned away a Hindu lynch mob.
Andrews and his family eventually returned to Brisbane where he founded the "Waiters Union", a community network serving marginalised people especially the disabled, refugees and Aborigines. Andrews has also worked as an educator for the overseas aid agency TEAR Australia for nearly 30 years. It was this involvement that eventually led him to try to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims.
"I never thought I'd find myself engaged in this Christian-Muslim dialogue because I didn't relate to Muslims as Muslims, I'd relate to them as friends," he says. "But after 9/11, identity politics came to define them as Muslims and the whole challenge became how do we overcome this chasm of suspicion and reach out to each other."
Andrews says it's a major problem that most Australians don't have any meaningful contact with Muslims because they make up only a little more than 2 per cent of the population.
"All they are going to do is derive their understanding of Muslims from the media which does not accurately represent them," he says. "So it's almost inevitable that people have very twisted and biased views." Andrews has found the best way to overcome the misunderstandings and prejudice is for Muslims and non-Muslims to meet face to face.
"It's only in that interaction that people have the opportunity to have their stereotypes challenged in the face or the humanity of the other," he says.
"We've seen many people change their negative attitude toward Muslims when they have had a face-to-face encounter," he says. "Although there are always some who still hold onto their stereotypes tightly."
As Turkish coffee arrives at our table, I ask Andrews if he's hopeful that greater religious harmony can be achieved.
"People sometimes say to me, 'This is a great dream, Dave, but it's an impossible dream'," he says. "I've got to admit it's really difficult but I won't concede it's impossible. I won't call it the impossible dream, I'll call it the improbable dream. The odds are against us but I still think it's possible. If we have leaders in our community that are genuinely committed to creating a culture of dignity and respect, affirming all people and helping people come together to deal with their problems I think it is possible."
Andrews reels off a list of examples where groups involved in religious conflict have found ways to build peace. "In some places in the world Christians and Muslims have come together in the midst of violence, in the midst of civil war, in the midst of slaughter to support each other and find ways forward," he says.
Andrews was heartened by the "I'll ride with you" campaign, the social media movement showing solidarity with Muslims following December's Martin Place siege. "It was something simple, something practical and a bit of a game changer," he says. "It can happen here when you least expect it."
Life and times:
1951 Born in London but grows up in Queensland, the son of a Baptist minister
1968 "Youth of the Year" for Far North Qld
1972 Marries Ange
1973 sells his family home, gives the money away and moves to Afghanistan to work with the marginalised
1974 moves into a rehab centre with 50 drug addicts in India
1978 begins work with slum communities in New Delhi
1979 adopts an orphaned girl in Nepal
1984 stands in the way of a Hindu lynch mob to save a Sikh family during riots in Delhi
1985 starts work with marginalised people in Brisbane
1999 publishes Christi-Anarchy a book critical of institutional religion
2001 runs dialogues between religious groups to build harmony and co-operation following 9/11
2015 trains Christians and Muslims in non-violent Jihad and publishes The Jihad of Jesus. The sacred non-violent struggle for justice.