Finding the need, sharing the love
A quick look at some key statistics in our community gives us some concerning insights into the reality of life for many people in Australia at the moment.
According to the Foodbank 2023 Hunger Report, in the past year “3.7 million Australian households (36%) experienced moderate to severe food insecurity”, a 10% increase on the number of households in 2022. The Hunger Report also found that “[m]ore than 2.3 million of all households (23%) fall into the category of severely `food insecure’, which means they are actively going hungry – reducing their food intake, skipping meals or going entire days without eating.” The statistics are concerning, with food insecurity in recent years affecting homes that have never experienced this issue before.
Uniting WA’s Tranby Engagement Hub, an engagement and referral service for people experiencing homelessness in the City of Perth, have noticed a significant increase in the number of people reaching out to them for support, with 28 new service users in February 2023 increasing to 774 for the month of June. Tranby have told us that the average daily number of people attending the Hub went from an average of 175 in January 2023 increasing to 275 by July 2023, with multiple days of 300+ service users.
In the State of the Nation Report – Social Connection in Australia 2023, the Ending Loneliness Together organisation looks at the social health of the nation, and the effects of loneliness and social isolation in our communities. The study found that almost one in three Australians feel lonely, and that one in six are experiencing severe loneliness. Dr Michelle H Lim, Chair and Scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together writes, “The national survey found that despite nearly 1 in 3 Australians feeling lonely, community misconceptions and stigma are preventing people from talking about it – and in turn seeking the connections and support they need.” The study found that “loneliness is a risk factor for poor health, wellbeing and lower workplace productivity.”
A few years ago, the Uniting Church, through a collaboration of work from people involved in social justice related mission and ministry work across the Church, created a vision statement – Our Vision for a Just Australia. The statement is a call to look beyond ourselves and “take a wider view of our country and our world”. It is a vision for building a more just and compassionate Australia, with this vision expressed in seven foundational areas.
In the introduction to the statement, Uniting Church in Australia President Rev Sharon Hollis writes, “In the Uniting Church, and as followers of Jesus, we believe we are called to participate in God’s life-giving mission in the world. This calls us to be communities of justice and mercy, embodying God’s love, peace and reconciliation so that all people and all creation might share abundant life.”
One of the foundational areas of this statement looks at ‘Flourishing Communities’, with the following vision: “We live in communities where we are connected and we care for one another. In communities all over Australia, from our big cities to remote regions, we seek the well-being of each Australian and uplift those who are on the margins.”
Considering this, and the Christian call to ‘participate in God’s life- giving mission in the world’ what are some ways the church can contribute to ‘Flourishing Communities’ and help make a difference to those in need in our communities?
In the Uniting Church WA we can be proud of the work of our care agencies; Beananging Kwuurt Institute, Good Sammy Enterprises, Juniper (aged care) and Uniting WA. They are an outward expression of the church’s mission to meet human need through charitable services, supporting and strengthening our communities. As well as the work of our agencies, there are many examples of Uniting Church congregations living out the call to love their neighbour in the ways, big and small, they reach out to the community around them. Congregations who have looked within in prayerful consideration, looked out at their community, and identified areas of particular need. In doing so they have found there is a role for the local church to play in helping to build community, reach out to the vulnerable, and be a living expression of God’s love.
The following three stories highlight just a few of our many congregations who have found unique ways to support their local communities.
Free Food Mondays
by Sue Whitworth, Armadale Uniting Church
The Armadale Uniting Church’s free food program started with a phone call from a young lady who wanted to volunteer for the organisation called Feed it Forward. She was looking for a church that could distribute leftover food from a supermarket once a week. A quick email to the Church Council members and a positive response from all has set us on an interesting journey for the last two years.
The food arrives on Monday mornings, and we have it available from 9.00am to 11.30am. On Mondays, we also run our Razzle Dazzle program which is dancing and playgroup for preschoolers in the hall, so during school terms we have the food on tables outside. The food we get is bakery items and some fruit and vegetables and occasionally grocery items.
We currently have about 20 people who come to take food and we have got to know many regulars. We advertise via a weekly post on Facebook and a mobile sign that we put out on the footpath. We do not ask for a Health Care Card as there are many working families in the area that struggle at times and can benefit from what we offer. It is wonderful seeing people only taking what they need and saying that they will leave food for others. We have numerous requests for other help such as furniture, payment of bills and housing. We quickly realised that we needed a list of agencies working in these areas, so last year the City of Armadale held a community services day where we gained a lot of information about where to refer people.
The most positive thing about the free food program is the community connections that have come from it. We have a gentleman that comes to the church every three months and gives us money so that we can buy more food to supplement what we get from Feed it Forward. So far, since December last year, he has donated $550. The fresh vegetables and fruit that we can buy are greatly appreciated by our recipients. We have another lady who brings us ten dozen eggs every fortnight as well as fruit from her trees. We have had many other people donate fruit and pantry items. Another significant connection we have made is with the staff of the Armadale Community Centre where we take any leftover food for their free food program.
Many people who come obviously want to talk. We greet everyone with a cheerful good morning, and many want to have a chat about their situation. We now have two men, who have been coming every week and have got to know us, wanting to volunteer. Building relationships is the key to successful mission outreach.
In the future, if we can get a bigger building, we would like to be able to offer space for recipients to have a cup of tea and coffee and more of a chat. For some of the elderly people who come, we may be the only people that they get to talk to that day. We feel we are making a real difference to people’s lives and look forward to being able to expand what we can offer in the future.
CommuniTEA Hub – A Conduit to Connection
by Wendy Pederick, Wagin Uniting Church
A place for a cuppa, chat and connection.
Love is spoken here.
Joy is chosen here.
Grace is given here.
Who would have thought that opening a church hall door for three hours a week could fill a gap that we didn’t even really know was there? Who would have thought something so simple could make a difference? Who would have thought stepping into the unknown would be so exhilarating?
And yet, here we are, over two years after the opening to be an established place for connection and welcome, where people are affirmed, and bonds are strengthened. Touted as a place of ‘cuppa, chat and connection’, the Wagin CommuniTEA hub has become a place of stories told, hearts opened, care expressed, laughter heard, and lives enriched.
While numbers were never going to be a measure of success, the regular attendance of 35-42 adults, mostly aged 65+ years, has exceeded expectations. More importantly, CommuniTEA Hub is a safe place for talking and listening, belonging and being.
While the yearning was to be more than salt in the salt-shaker, the story gained traction in 2018 and 2019 when a number of Elders from Wagin Uniting Church participated in Mission Shaped Ministry. In 2020 the Elders wrote a strategic plan, highlighting four key actions, one of which was to engage with the community. The question was asked, ‘What can we do, given our resources and passions, to serve the people of Wagin?’
After prayer, a social hub was proposed. A pilot program from June to September 2021 was funded by Church Council at a cost of $5,000. The church hall was fitted with couches, chairs and tables, and a partition added to make it feel less like a cavernous hall and more like an inviting meeting place. The plan was to start with what we felt we could maintain over time.
Thursday’s formula is simple: People + Coffee + Food + Availability. More than just a drop-in coffee shop, because we didn’t want to provide something that was already commercially available, each week birthdays are celebrated, and an activity that engages the whole room is undertaken as an essential unifying element. Some play cards, Rummikub, or do a jigsaw.
The leadership team consists of eight dedicated, enthusiastic trailblazers who prioritise The Hub, giving willingly and generously, in multiple ways, including being attentive to listen well. The team includes men, possibly a significant factor in 50% of attendees (called ‘Spokes’) being men, giving us ‘balance’. They tell tall yarns, laugh readily, and fortify each other during personal trials.
Six months into The Hub, federal funding to help seniors cope with the negative impact of Covid-19 was accessed. To be spent over seven months, the $50,000 allowed us to undertake bus trips, be extravagant with gifts, hold topical seminars, expand cultural experiences, celebrate Christmas with a long-table lunch, and improve mental health by holding stimulating events with the associated expectations. This undoubtedly gave momentum to group formation.
People who come along are from a cross-section of Wagin’s population, older citizens, from multiple denominations or none, who have a common need for social engagement.
The project is about service. We serve with no expectations. There are no rules, no hidden agenda, no manipulation for outcomes. We simply say, “Come as you are.” The Hub is financially enabled by Spokes giving a gold coin donation, and by food donations from the leaders, making it now financially self-sustaining. The backing of Church Council has been deeply appreciated and is our security blanket if needed.
These are some of the responses from the Spokes and Wagin residents:
“A great day every Thursday. Plenty of laughs and all world problems solved.” – Barry
“A happy, friendly place where we all feel welcome. An asset to Wagin.” – Thelma
“What a joy – Spokes by their own initiative contribute to washing dishes, cooking, positive conversation, sharing garden produce – I love that.” – Brian
“I appreciate the friendship and acceptance and enjoy coming each week.” – Joan
“I told Jim to get himself to The Hub; he was lonely and needed people.” – Bob
The congregation’s response has been positive and helpful, with genuine joy that the dormant Wesley Hall has been brought back to life – in new, adaptive, appropriate, and God-honouring ways. Moreover, it is pleasing that news of CommuniTEA Hub is spread by word of mouth and promoted within the wider community as a success story and ‘place to be’, authentically meeting real needs and combatting loneliness. Lives have been impacted for the better.
As a church we now engage and interact with dozens of people that we would not have even known without The Hub. We can be salt and light, come alongside, and share in tangible ways the great love of God.
Orange Sky and more
by Monika and Mariga, Spearwood Uniting Church
Our project began when we were looking into options for Mission Outreach. Praying and listening has been a big part of that process.
We started by learning who our neighbours are and what their needs are. This meant engagements with Cockburn Council, local organisations, churches and individuals and information gathering about the area and the wider community, including from Census and other statistics. Reading comments within local social media groups helped too. We also had to factor in our available resources and skillsets within our congregation.
We believe, if you pray for something, you will get an answer. You just need to keep your eyes open. One of our members had seen the Orange Sky Laundry bus in action in Armadale. We realized that there was no public laundry in this area at that time (there is now). We invited a team leader of Orange Sky to our church to find out what our options were and if this could work here. It turned out that Orange Sky had been trying to get into the Cockburn area for some time, and our location seemed ideal for this.
According to Cockburn Council, we are located within ‘problem hot spots’, with very low socio- economic areas. We are on a main road, with easy access by bus and are close to the major shopping centres. Our garden set-up would give a bit of privacy. We also have
all the plumbing connections easily accessible. We have at least two people within our team with some experience in communicating with the diverse range of people we would attract, and we like cooking. We strongly felt that this could work here. It was like a strong call for it.
From the time we agreed with Orange Sky to give this project a go, it took almost a year until it actually started, with time required for a vehicle to become available and an Orange Sky team trained. The church provides a hot meal, and food packages if needed, while the Orange Sky team is in charge of the washing and drying of laundry, plus the shower facility. A hairdresser from our congregation is offering her services for free every second week.
This is a match that seems to work well. People at the edge of society, those who need support and acceptance are being helped.
Orange Sky is providing us a trained team and part of the infrastructure to support us. When starting a new project, one never knows if it will take off and work out as expected. I am not sure we could have started this if we had to build a new infrastructure with laundry machines first.
When it comes to financially sustaining the project, Orange Sky is a not-for-profit organisation whom we partner with and is financially independent from us. We have a Fellowship donation system dedicated for our Mission Outreach. People attending our events are very generous in that regard. Our team is contributing fresh food and whatever else is needed. We have people (strangers) walking in from the street, telling us that they have been watching us and would like to donate money. And a local Deli supplies us regularly with fresh cooked and baked (some frozen) produce. Another Uniting Church congregation brought us their non-perishable food collection for the food parcels we provide.
Our drive for Mission Outreach has opened up lots of valuable discussions about what church and mission actually is, should, would or could be, helping us in re-thinking old structures. In the early periods of the service, there were concerns regarding safety of our own team and other potential undesirable outcomes. This is motivating us to invest into training, and thinking through our strategies and emergency procedures. Setting some rules and boundaries for our team and the participants helps for a smoother running of this type of event. We have been trying to create a space where people are welcome the way they are, no questions asked. It does not matter what their past or their future looks like, they are just welcome. We have learnt what value this has, what
it does to people at the edge of society. It is a first, gentle step in learning about Christianity.
We have been running this event for more than a year now and our team, attending every Wednesday evening, is as motivated as ever. It gives our life a meaning and purpose and it gives us something back personally. Sharing God’s love in service is a rewarding thing to do!
The Orange Sky mobile laundry nights are just one aspect of mission outreach for Spearwood Uniting Church who also offer a weekly café, open church with prayer and pastoral care, firepit dinner fellowship, movie nights, community talks along with tending their thriving vege patch. They are regularly monitoring what is happening in the community around them to be able to respond if possible and adjust programs to meet the needs.
We appreciate your prayers, thank you!
Thanks to the people who contributed to this article which first appeared in the December 2023 issue of Revive magazine.