Phil Simpson is a bundle of energy. I’ve barely shaken his hand and stepped inside The Shed Door, or we’re on a tour of the facility… a factory space converted into a bright, engaging indoor “play space” for adolescent youth and men. BMX bikes adorn the walls. Minibikes are part of the decor. There is a decent space for shooting hoops. A simple kitchen. Upstairs quiet space. A stage with microphones, a sound system, a mobile coffee cart, and old neon signs. It is both relaxed and radiates warmth.
Phil is one of those people who have an idea. It would be exhausting to be with him if he wasn’t so effusive, passionate, and sympathetic. This man likes people. He wants the best for everyone, and what concerns him most are “guys” and young people.
He is a lawyer, chaplain, gentle evangelist, an advocate for the down-and-out, and a man who gets things done.
How does a lawyer end up in a small office in the middle of Factory Central on Maroondah Highway in Mitcham, Victoria?
Throughout our time together, he mentions Shed Youth, Shednite for Men, 36 Hours of Prayer, “Coffee and Cars,” Food for Thought, business lunches, an Alpha group for youth, and setting up support services for the homeless in the area.
Let’s start with the lawyer. How does a lawyer end up in a small office in the middle of Factory Central on Maroondah Highway in Mitcham, Victoria? The man in front of me in a baseball cap, hoodie, and jeans doesn’t fit the image of the wig-and-cloaked professional we see walking to the courtroom on the TV news.
Phil Simpson will appear at Magistrates’ Courts across the state to represent his clients. When the first meeting between the potential client and legal counsel occurs at The Shed Door, the client is always pleasantly surprised to find him tucked away in a factory. His legal work allows him to volunteer for The Shed Door while also (along with his primary school teacher wife Lara) making sure the bills are paid and food is on the table. They have four children aged 21, 19, 17, and 15.
“I’m dealing with people who have done something stupid,” explains Phil, the lawyer. “I don’t wear jeans to conferences, but I don’t wear pinstripes either. I often put on a tie, usually a vest, and people take a deep breath and say ‘thank you.
“People like to come here because they don’t have to look for a park in the city, they don’t have to worry about a receptionist, they often think they are in the wrong place, and they sit here, and they let their souls, and they tell me their dramas, and I’ve never heard anyone say ‘this is weird. They normally go, ‘This is so good.”
Phil gives his client a warehouse tour at the end of each conference (the legal conversation between the client and the lawyer).
“Blokes are bad at debriefing things; they keep it in. And often, when they look at the bikes, it will lead to ‘Oh, this is what happened to my dad…’ So they have a giving a tour is an important part of the whole process.”
“It’s kind of like a church in sandals.” – Phil Simpson
Like the dreams, passions, and wonder of how The Shed Door came to be, phrases like “it’s just a hodgepodge of humanity,”; “It’s fantastic,”; “This is for guys,”; “it is easily accessible,”; “it’s recognizable” flows from Phil’s mouth. But can it be defined for those who like to fit things into a neat box with a bow?
“Well,” Phil says, “it’s like the Church in sandals or thongs.
“Even if there wasn’t an element of faith in it, it’s people coming together to de-isolate and reconnect. But that’s community service, and I’m probably not. I like to see that, but faith supports the story for me.”
He also says that The Shed Door is not a Christian organization, but he does consider this small registered charity a mission partner of One Community Church and New Hope Baptist Church in Blackburn. The idea of Shednite originated from Phil’s small group at One Community several years ago.
While Phil isn’t seeking funding from the churches, he does want them to know what The Shed Door is doing. “We pray for you and, if you can, pray for us,” he says.
“We need to find ways to bring the relevance of God back into people’s lives.” – Phil Simpson.
Every Tuesday morning, volunteers gather to pray for the work and relationships that have grown at The Shed Door; his entire family attends the weekly Youth and Young Adult Evening on Wednesdays.
More than 70 young people came to the last Youth Night to eat free pizza and hear about mental health from Trey Moses, a 208cm professional basketball player.
Phil describes Wednesday Youth Nite as a cross between a youth group, and he’s not quite sure what, “but the kids keep coming”.
“It’s a funny, disorganized kind of audience. A kid is coming, and he’s hilarious. He’s 17. He came in the other day covered in black paint. And I said, ‘What have you done, Stewy?’ And he said, Graffin. And I said, ‘Graffin?’ He said, “Spray paint.” I replied, “How are you?” “Okay, I’m in a bit of trouble.”
“He was pretty aloof, but he sat in my office for about 20 minutes and said, ‘Mate, I’ve got some dramas at home, and I’ve done a lot of stupid shit.’
“They’re the people I like to connect with because they don’t have a lot of other positive influences – no filters, no structure – and I think you probably need two or three groups of peers in your life, especially when you have a young adult.
“One group pulls you this way, another group pulls you another way, and if you can do it right, you might go down the middle a little bit.
“A lot of people are lonely and overwhelmed, and I just think, ‘Well, if we could just do a little bit to connect people.'”
Recently, Phil was challenged to consider whether he had heard God’s voice. His first reaction was ‘no’. And then he started thinking about his conviction to create this small initiative that grew into The Shed Door.
“You throw it away, you have no idea, and people walk in the door, and you step back and let it unfold.
“I think the closest God is to what he told me: ‘Keep going. You don’t have to have everything written down; you don’t have to have a handbook. You don’t need ten speakers. Just go with it.’ So I went to the guys and said, ‘Let’s do it. It’s ad hoc. It still is.”
Phil only asks when he needs help. He reads about someone doing something remarkable, finds them on Facebook, and sends a note.
They held their first Shednite for 2022 in April, with their guest speaker, Carlton AFL player Matt Kennedy.
The Shed Door’s Facebook page described the event as follows: … a ripping guy with a great story. It was a great message of faith, resilience, hard work, and strong family values.
Phil says the speakers aren’t always Christians, but they’ll all have a good story relevant to the crowd. For example, the next speaker is a supercar driver competing in Bathurst.
“He wants to tell the story of a man he just met who gave his life for him.” – Phil Simpson.
Phil also reached out to a man who survived a shocking skydiving accident in Torquay last year when the instructor positioned himself to absorb most of the impact after the parachute malfunctioned and was killed.
“I just Facebooked him. He said he talks at community events to tell the story of a man he had just met and who gave his life to him. That fits nicely with the gospel message.
“As he plunged to Earth, the man he had never met… [before] turned and said, “You’d better pray, mate,” and he was alive. That man died, but he lived and wants to tell people that story.”
“The greatest legacy we could leave behind would be for others to capture the vision of something like this in their environment.” – Phil Simpson.
Before founding Shed Door, Phil was a chaplain at Blackburn Primary School a few days a week. He would play soccer with the kids. He has been to 27 school camps, and his children never went to primary school without Dad being there. What a legacy! Young people he interacted with in their teens still call him for advice or support.
Does Phil have any advice for others motivated to do something in their neighborhood?
“The greatest legacy we could leave would be for others to see something like this in their environment. It doesn’t have to look like this. It looks like this because I love cars and bikes.
“Ultimately, I want people to tell what the Kingdom looks like in a practical atmosphere with no or very low barriers to entry. That’s what it’s about. I don’t think people are generally critical or hostile to the Church. They don’t see the relevance of it. We need to find ways to bring the relevance of God back into people’s lives.”