By Ben Grundy
Like most churches Springvale Uniting Church has longstanding ties with its local community. Located in a thriving multicultural hub south east of Melbourne, the Springvale congregation has for decades fostered links with the area’s successive waves of new migrants.
Springvale UC minister Rev Paul Creasey believes the Church needs to not simply reach out but respond and engage in the changing landscape of local communities.
Several years ago a chance encounter neatly intersected with the congregation’s ongoing conversations about active ministry.
“I was asked to get in touch with a local man who had lost family and become very socially isolated,” Mr Creasey said.
“At that time we decided to develop our ministry, particularly in the area of multiculturalism and providing community space.
“That’s sort of how it started – it’s been a pretty long road from back then.”
This chance encounter struck at the heart of the congregation’s discussion around ministry and how it envisioned engaging with the local community.
Congregation member Rev John Gardiner (retired) said the idea for a community space was born from these early discussions.
“We had the idea for a community centre where people could come and get involved, meet and talk, learn English, play games or just have a cuppa,” he said.
“We talked and talked about it and eventually got a committee together from congregation members and the broader community.”
In recent years the congregation has fundraised and worked to develop programs while strengthening links with other community groups, council members and local business leaders.
This work recently culminated in the opening of a multicultural Men’s Shed utilised as a springboard for many other outreach and community support programs.
The four-year journey towards opening the Men’s Shed links into a broader missional community space now called ‘Wominjenka Place’ – an Indigenous word for welcome.
“It’s certainly not a typical men’s shed – we’re the first multicultural men’s shed in Victoria and I think the first multicultural men’s shed in Australia,” Mr Creasey said.
“It’s more to do with families; the men’s shed is just one aspect of what we’re doing. Wominjenka Place is about embracing the wider community around food, hospitality, culture and faith.”
The congregation has also operated an Op Shop for more than 20 years, and is continuing a no-interest loan program to assist new migrant families.
Various congregation members have also been heavily involved with establishing the Free Burma Café, a social enterprise café assisting Burmese migrants with training and employment opportunities.
In addition to these initiatives, Wominjenka Place hosts art, craft, music, hospitality and English language courses as well as many informal social groups.
“We’re a congregation of about 60 to 80 people but we try and punch above our weight,” Mr Creasey said.
“The men’s shed was a four year journey. From concept to actually getting the building up and operational has been a lot of work – we’ve worked with our local community, local government and neighbourhood house.
“Now it’s all really coming together.”
Building up the congregation’s work in the community was in no small part due to the dedicated commitment of the diverse community at Springvale Uniting Church.
The congregation boasts more than a dozen different cultural backgrounds and a broad range of age groups.
The community support work of several congregation members has been recognised with awards noting their commitment to multiculturalism and community development work in the Springvale region.
A number of congregation members were also included in ‘Voiceless Journeys’ – a community art project celebrating diverse ethnic groups.
The project produced striking photographic portraits of community members from diverse backgrounds. The images were publicly displayed to raise awareness of those who survive conflicts and create community connections through sharing stories.
With a view to employing a project worker for Wominjeka Place, Springvale UC is planning to further strengthen its community outreach and support programs.
Mr Creasey is adamant the congregation will continue to look to their community for opportunities.
“The whole idea is to be relevant to the community,” he said.
“It’s fine to run weekly church services but the challenge for us has been to grow within the local community.
“In a small congregation it’s easy to turn inwards – this congregation has never done that. It’s always had a focus towards what’s happening around it.
“I think that has been the defining strength for Springvale Uniting Church – the ability to embrace these newly emerging cultures in Australia.
“With government changes and cutbacks to services the need to provide different styles of community support and more self-initiated programs are becoming increasingly important.”