Twenty-six properties in Yarra Yarra Presbytery are listed for divestment. West Hawthorn Uniting Church is an example of the way the sale of properties is also impacting the wider community and ecumenical partners.
In 2009, the congregation at West Hawthorn UC allowed their hall to be used by Hawthorn West Baptist church during the renovation of their own church building. From this, an ecumenical relationship between the two steadily grew. Mike Cutter, youth pastor at Hawthorn West Baptist church, describes the beginnings of the relationship.
“We mentioned to them that we ran group share houses for young Christian people moving out of home, usually for the first time, in the area. They had a property they were interested in having us take over. We looked at it and thought it could be fantastic with some hard work, as it had been allowed to get very rundown by the previous tenants,” Mr Cutter said.
West Hawthorn UC agreed to employ a builder from Mr Cutter’s church to renovate the property and get it up to a living standard that met council requirements for rooming houses.
Members of both churches invested hundreds of volunteer hours together, assisting with building work, painting, repairing and gardening, while the tasks requiring professional work, such as installation of a kitchen, were completed by the builder.
“It was quite an investment. We’d been running a similar group house in our manse for about nine years already so we had a model that we knew worked well. We’d been looking for another property. When this came along we thought it was a Godsend to have a partnership between the two churches,” Mr Cutter said.
The plan recognised the financial benefit for West Hawthorn UC as well as the opportunity it gave the Baptist church to offer young people affordable housing.
“Our church has long struggled to attract and keep young families and adults due to the cost of living in the area,” he said.
The initial discussions started in November 2012. Since April this year, the rooms have been filled by young women, most with a connection to the Baptist church.
“We’ve valued the connections formed with West Hawthorn UC over the course of the project, from partnering on the working bees, to assisting with moving days and their efforts to get to know the residents.
“People from Hawthorn West Baptist have been involved in Easter Sunday services at the Uniting Church, and a few of them have visited our services occasionally.”
Now the residents at the property will soon have to find somewhere new to live. Mr Cutter already has six applications from people wanting to live there next year.
“Someone from Hawthorn West UC church council contacted me a while back, saying it may be a possibility that the property would be sold… but really the first we knew that the sale was happening was in The Age.
“When we let our church know what was happening, people were a bit shell-shocked. There were over half a dozen working bees, it took a lot of work.”
Mr Cutter said his church would love to keep housing residents at the property – or any other nearby.
“We saw this as an ecumenical connection benefiting local Christian young people and building intentional Christian community. I don’t think that’s going to stop but it certainly presents an immediate challenge. But I’m open to finding a way ahead, continuing some sort of partnership with the Uniting Church.”
A spokeswoman from Hawthorn West UC said that while some people are disappointed, they will maintain a relationship with Hawthorn West Baptist.
“We’ll keep in contact with Hawthorn West Baptist,” she said. “ We intend to keep the relationship but we don’t know what form or shape it’s going to take yet. We recognise that the work that people associated with West Hawthorn UC have done over the decades is going to play an important part of the church’s different direction, Uniting our Future.”
West Hawthorn Uniting Church hope to find new homes for the choirs, yoga classes and other groups who use the properties. They have been meeting with other congregations in the area about the availability of their facilities. If you think you can help, email firstname.lastname@example.org