By BEN GRUNDY
Warrnambool is a regional centre with historic ties stretching back to the 1840s. Like many rural communities in Australia, early settlement was characterized by harsh conditions that highlighted the need for regional communities to be well connected.
The coastal city has been fortunate to have successive generations of leadership with strong ties to local churches and an appreciation of existing community needs, particularly in a rural context.
While the regional hub has undergone immense changes, some things have remained the same.
Today, Uniting Churches in the Warrnambool region are involved in a breadth of community orientated activities. From childcare and chaplaincy, to community welfare and the creative arts, there isn’t much that the UCA community in Warrnambool isn’t involved with.
Chatting with various members of Uniting churches in the region, most are quick to point out the range of community connections made through the churches.
As well as local initiatives many congregations have wider links.
Warrnambool’s monthly visit from a Korean congregation in Essendon (which includes shared services and a community lunch) is just one example.
Social groups, ecumenical services and celebrations, fundraising and support for local charities and hospitality are all staples in the life of these churches.
Trevor Fraser is a Warrnambool Uniting Church member and chairperson of its property committee. He cites the influence and ongoing legacy of early church leaders in how the church operates in Warrnambool.
One example of this is the church’s properties, rented to local businesses, which serve to fund missional and community support activities in the region.
“This is something that has been going for 90 years so in a way it’s not hard to continue the tradition because that framework is already there – but it’s up to us to make sure that it stays alive and active,” Mr Fraser said.
As well as commercial businesses, the church is active in seeking missional opportunities via these properties. Most recently the congregation was able to strike up a partnership with the Warrnambool District Food Share.
Food Share, which provides food to community support agencies, was in need of a new home after its existing location was sold – luckily the church was able to step in. The Warrnambool church purchased a suitable building and provided it to Food Share at a significantly reduced rent.
Last year Food Share distributed approximately 105 tons of food throughout the region. This amounts to thousands food parcels for families in need.
“It’s such a great missional opportunity,” Mr Fraser said
“The church is supported by the buildings and that in turn allows us to support organisations like Food Share.”
The seven congregations in the Warrnambool region are linked by a regional preaching plan that sees Rev Geoff Barker, Rev Malcolm Frazer, Pastor Marjorie Crothers and lay preachers supporting various congregations in the area.
Ms Crothers, who is heavily involved with pastoral care in palliative care contexts, regularly runs services in aged care facilities and the Warrnambool hospital.
While quick to downplay her individual role, Ms Crothers is emblematic of numerous active UCA members working in this community.
Many church members in this part of western Victoria similarly work behind the scenes supporting social justice and community support initiatives.
“We do try to recognise the needs and not just continue on with what we’ve always done,” Ms Crothers said.
“We are always looking to do other things that support the needs in the region.
“I think making people feel welcome is really important. We’ve always got someone at the door welcoming people and we always make a point of reaching out and welcoming new faces.”
Discussing the community’s strong missional mindset, Ms Crothers says it comes from a vision of a church that’s truly embedded in the wider community.
“The region came out of a vision started many years ago,” she said.
“The breadth of involvement isn’t an accident but rather a considered approach to working with the community in the Warrnambool area.”
“Our congregations are ageing, which is sad, but everyone helps out and gets involved, there’s still a lot happening out here and that’s’ really important for people in more remote areas.”
Rev Geoff Barker echoes this sentiment in his approach to missional activities across the community. As part of the ministry team he is involved with the life of the Church across the region’s congregations and further afield with other community activities.
“My vision for outreach is that it’s not a matter of the Church just doing stuff for other people but rather it’s partnering with other people in mission,” he said.
“It’s more about ‘come and join us in this mission sort of church work’ and the gospel gets shared in that – it’s about working with like-minded people.”
Mr Barker highlights not only the support of grassroots community groups but also quirky initiatives that utilise the regions popularity as a tourist destination.
“For every community project or social justice initiative in the Warrnambool region, chances are that a Uniting Church member is involved,” he said.
“But we try other things as well. The Port Fairy Folk Festival is a huge event so we always try and do something special.
“This year we did a Seekers’ inspired service featuring Seekers’ songs – so we do try and look at things like that as well.”
Whether it is through the UCAF, links with local schools, discussion and craft groups or recording and distributing worship service DVDs to those in remote areas, there is a strong sense of inclusion amongst the area’s congregations.
As well as these socially driven activities, the church is involved with more structured large scale missional projects.
UnitingCare Heatherlie Homes, the 92 independent-living units adjacent to the church as well as the childcare centre also on church grounds, are two notable examples.
Commenting on the diversity of people with church connections in the area, Mr Barker notes the importance of the church in supporting community connections.
Prominently featured on the street-facing window of the Warrnambool church is an ever-changing message. Mr Barker says they can be a bit provocative for some people such as challenging statements about climate change or asylum seekers.
However a recently displayed message (Joy, Courage – have a heart) served as an apt reflection of the UCA community in the Warrnambool region.
“We’re lucky in that we do have so many creative people,” Mr Barker said.
“That helps us to be really involved with the community across the board.”