Backpackers
visiting Sydney have become the unsuspecting targets of a recruitment
campaign by Sydney’s Hillsong Church, which has been using backpacker
“networking” events as a front for the church.

The Hillsong front was most recently led by a Canadian backpacker known as “Tokyo Ricky” who arrived in Australia in October. Shortly afterwards, Ricky began posting on the Lonely Planet forum Thorn Tree about “networking” parties he was organising in Sydney for backpackers to meet up and have dinner together.

Ricky’s
events took place at pubs, restaurants and hotels, and if his messages
are to be believed, gradually grew in size to around 50 in June this
year. Other posters started to notice the increasingly religious tone
in Ricky’s posts advertising his “networking” parties, and began
questioning him about what took place at the events. However, until
recently the biggest controversy surrounded his decision to organise a
party to “celebrate” ANZAC day, which offended a number of other Thorn
Tree posters.

But his
decision last month to advertise a networking event at Sydney’s
Superdome brought suspicions to a head. Whereas Ricky had only just
boasted of getting 50 people at his networking parties, the Superdome
holds more than 20,000.

Research
by another poster “RYB” quickly confirmed that the Superdome was actually
being used that night for the annual Hillsong convention and that what
Ricky was inviting backpackers to
was not a get together for lonely travellers, but Sydney’s biggest
religious convention. A check of Ricky’s home page and other websites
confirmed the connection with Hillsong. Thorn Tree moderators then
banned Ricky from their site, removing all of his earlier posts and
preventing him from posting again. Other backpacker websites have also banned Ricky.

Ricky’s ban sparked an intense debate on Thorn Tree about his activities, which can be read here. The
consensus was that Ricky was welcome to promote his “networking” events
on Thorn Tree, but was wrong to disguise their real intent, and in
particular to try to pass off attendance at Hillsong’s convention as a
“networking” event.

Which
raises the question – were Ricky’s activities a personal form of
evangelism, or was he employed by Hillsong to recruit backpackers? The Hillsong church website confirms it does run a special program aimed at
backpackers.
Does Hillsong condone Ricky’s failure to disclose the true nature of
his activities? And finally, was Ricky in Australia on a tourist visa
and thus working illegally?

Peter Fray

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