Throughout the past month, Crosslight’s Garth Jones and Tim Lam have travelled throughout Victoria meeting some of the church neighbourhoods that make up the Vic/Tas synod. From songs, to BBQs; fruit picking to political action, these rural churches encompass what it is to be a missional community. TIM LAM reports.
Robinvale community opens doors to backpackers
Nestled along the Murray River, the regional town of Robinvale is perhaps best known for its fruit and agricultural produce. In recent years, it has become home to an influx of backpackers and migrant workers seeking employment on the farms.
However, many of these workers are exploited by unscrupulous labour contractors. They are often subjected to degrading living conditions, gross underpayment of wages and sexual harassment.
The mistreatment of migrant workers is an issue that greatly concerns members of St Luke’s Uniting Church in Robinvale. Many church council members are community leaders who work in social services to assist disadvantaged groups.
Retired minister Rev Brad Harris is the former minister of Robinvale Uniting Church. He approached the synod’s Justice and International Mission (JIM) unit in late 2014 to discuss how the congregation could tackle the abuse of migrant workers. Denisse Sandoval and Rev Berlin Guerrero from the JIM unit visited Robinvale to engage the congregation members in community organising training.
“This community here couldn’t exist without our workers who come in and are prepared to do short-term work,” Mr Harris said.
“There are a lot of changes in Australia, but everybody knows the world has got to have food. And that’s what this community does.”
In November last year, Mr Harris and four other Uniting Church members visited the office of Nationals MP Andrew Broad, federal member for Mallee. They shared stories of how unethical labour contractors are exploiting foreign workers in the Mildura and Robinvale area.
“The government is starting to take some interest and we got a bit of publicity,” Mr Harris said.
“People who are involved in the church life tend to be deeply involved in the community. They are social activists and do work that involves working with people.”
The migrant workers sometimes visit the Uniting Church in Robinvale to look for assistance or companionship. Mr Harris said the church excels at offering hospitality and support for vulnerable people.
“When things go bad for people and they’re not in their home country, they don’t know where to go,” Mr Harris said.
“We’ve had people turning up to our church just needing and wanting friendship, and we’re pretty good at providing that.”
The JIM unit has created a petition asking federal Minister for Justice Michael Keenan to set up a licensing system for labour hire companies to put an end to exploitation. You can sign the petition at bit.ly/StopExploitation
Multicultural ministries in Sunraysia
The Sunraysia region in north-west Victoria is characterised by large wineries, warm sunshine and vibrant multicultural communities.
Many Uniting Church congregations in this region rely on the dedication of hardworking lay leaders to coordinate church programs and host worship services in their native language.
Rev Siotame Paletu’a is minister for the Sunraysia region, covering Mildura, Dalton, Wentworth, Irymple, Red Cliffs and Merbein. He is also temporary minister for Robinvale.
“The rewarding thing for me is witnessing lay ministry, where people use their gifts to maintain worship and maintain their churches in this region,” Mr Paletu’a said.
“It’s also rewarding to see people from different cultures involved in the church, especially in Mildura, Robinvale and Irymple.”
Many migrants to the region are young families who bring their children to church, injecting a youthful flavour to what were previously ageing congregations.
Irymple is home to a strong Tongan community while the Mildura congregation has an active Cook Islander community that hosts a service in their own language every Sunday. At the centenary celebrations at St Andrew’s Uniting Church in Mildura last year, the Tongan and Cook Islander communities entertained guests with traditional music and dance.
Robinvale, an hour’s drive south of Mildura, is also home to a culturally diverse community. More than 40 nationalities are represented in a town of approximately 4,000 people (although this can swell to 8,000 to 10,000 people during harvest season). This includes Indigenous Australians and migrants from Vietnam, Tonga, Fiji, Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan, Italy and Turkey.
This diversity is reflected in the demographic of the Uniting Church in Robinvale. The church has a large Tongan and Fijian congregation along with a smaller proportion of Anglo members. Foreign workers and young backpackers from Korea and Taiwan frequently visit the church.
Lupe Taumoefolau is a church elder and lay preacher at St Luke’s Uniting Church in Robinvale. She came to Robinvale 26 years ago from Tonga.
“I’m very proud to be a member of the Uniting Church here in Robinvale. I enjoy worshipping together with other cultures,” Ms Taumoefolau said.
“We learn from each other and come together as Christians to worship.”
The congregation worships together on Sunday mornings but also have separate services in Tongan and Fijian.
The number of Fijians in Robinvale has grown in recent years. Some have settled permanently while others are seasonal workers who stay for temporary work.
Church leader Jim Waqalevut has been instrumental in growing the Fijian congregation in Robinvale. His house, located in neighbouring Euston on the other side of the Murray River, is used as a place of worship for night services.
Val Tucker, parish secretary for Robinvale Uniting Church, said the Tongan and Fijian members have brought tremendous energy and enthusiasm to the congregation. Their singing, in particular, is a joy to witness and greatly enriches the worship experience.
“The Fijian choir is sweet and gentle, the Tongans are bold and loud, which is a lovely contrast,” Ms Tucker said.
“There’s definitely no separateness as far as fellowship goes. The Fijian and Tongan people are very warm and caring towards the elderly. Everyone grieves together when somebody dies and is happy when a baby is christened.”
Mr Paletu’a is delighted to see people from different cultures uniting to worship one God. Together, they bring alive the church’s commitment to be an inclusive and multicultural community.
“It is working well interculturally, with people from different nationalities feeling they are part of the congregation,” Mr Paletu’a said.
“When they come to a congregation like Mildura, Robinvale and Irymple, they feel welcomed.”
Every Friday evening, youth from Shepparton and Mooroopna Uniting Church cook at the community kitchen at Victoria Park Lake.
The program was initiated by People Supporting People, a non-profit organisation that provides free hot meals for people experiencing homelessness. It is supported by a range of community organisations and churches in the Goulburn Valley region, including the Uniting Church in Shepparton.
Youth group members Matthew Smith and Neema Maulidi explained why they became involved in the community kitchen.
“Being born into a family with everything, I feel like I need to give back a bit,” Mr Smith said.
“I’ve learnt not to judge people by the way they look like. You can learn from their experiences too.”
Ms Maulidi said she has become more comfortable engaging with people who live on the margins of society.
“The most rewarding part is knowing you have served someone today and that they have something in their stomach to eat,” she said.
“You’re helping the community, giving back and making someone else’s life better.”
The youth group was the main driver behind the church’s involvement in the program. Shepparton Uniting Church member Lorraine Threlfall, coordinator of the youth group, expressed great pride in the young men and women for taking the initiative to lead the congregation in this important community activity.
“It’s so good to stand up in our congregation and say to them that our young people want to engage with this program and they’re inviting you to be in a team with them,” she said.
The church’s participation in the community kitchen has strengthened the relationship between the younger and older members of the congregation. Because most of the youth group members are in high school, they require an adult driver to transport them to Victoria Park Lake. Some of the youth bring their parents along to the community kitchen while others are in a team with an adult church member.
“The age of people involved in this range from 11 to nearly 90. That to me reflects the understanding that the church is a family and involves all ages,” Ms Threlfall said.
When Crosslight visited the community kitchen, many visitors were German backpackers who recently arrived in Australia. Similar to Robinvale, the exploitation of foreign workers is an increasingly prominent issue in Shepparton. Initiatives such as the community kitchen offer a safe and welcoming space for people experiencing financial hardship.
“The backpackers were amazed at the free BBQ, free food and free showers that they can experience in our town,” Ms Threlfall said.
“There’s also a group of people who come every night. This is where they get their companionship, community and food.
“I always go home thinking I’ve learnt something new. I’ve learnt how people live with adversity, yet still have a kind word to say and a kind deed to do for someone else.”
Ms Threlfall said a strong community spirit emerges from these nightly BBQs. She recalled a story of a man who came to the kitchen one night with his sick dog.
“He asked if I could give a sausage for the dog. So he took the sausage, broke it into small pieces, blew on it so it was cool and fed the dog one small piece at a time. Only when the dog finished its sausage did he begin to eat,” she said.
“I thought that’s a great example of living for another being, and that’s demonstrated over and over again in this community. It’s a privilege to be able to witness that.”
For Ms Threlfall, volunteering at the community kitchen is a practical expression of her faith.
“If we take seriously the command of Jesus to feed the hungry and provide a home for the homeless, then this is a natural extension of that,” she said.
The Weeroona Uniting Church in Bendigo performed the musical Godspell on the Palm Sunday weekend.
The popular Broadway production tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, culminating in his crucifixion on the cross. The musical is structured around the parables in Matthew’s gospel and is interspersed with modern music set primarily to lyrics from traditional hymns.
Weeroona Uniting Church member Vern Wall is director of Godspell. He said that while a small part of the musical was modified, their adaptation maintained the spirit and songs of the original production.
“We felt it was really meaningful to have the story of Godspell just before Easter. It’s a really powerful presentation to do leading up to Holy Week,” he said.
“We also find it’s a great way to bring families together, particularly as we have amalgamated three churches.”
In 2014, the Bendigo congregations at Arnold Street, Neale Street and White Hills merged to form the Weeroona congregation. As a relatively new church, the musical provided an ideal opportunity for congregation members to combine their voice and talents together.
Musical productions demand much preparation and hard work from dedicated volunteers. Approximately 70 people from the church and the wider community were involved in Godspell. This included 25 people in the choir, 30 in the chorus, 12 musicians and people helping out backstage and acting as ushers on the day of the performance.
“We started rehearsing at the start of February,” Mr Wall said.
“We’ve tried to do a church musical once every two years. It’s a big effort so it can’t be something that can be approached every year.
“Outreach is another aspect of Godspell, so we’d like the community to come along and connect with them that way.”
Damien Hurrell is a member of the Weeroona congregation and played the roles of John the Baptist and Judas.
“They’re fairly hefty roles with some heavy-duty stuff in it, but I’ve really looked forward to it,” Mr Hurrell said.
“I’ve been a member here for many years and I’m quite an enthusiastic singer. When we talked about doing a musical – and I’ve been in the last couple – I was keen to be a part of it.”
The Weeroona congregation may only be two years old, but it is already an active and vibrant community. Rev Susan Malthouse-Law began her ministry at Weeroona last year and said it was a privilege to be part of a congregation that has a strong commitment to outreach and creative collaboration.
“Getting to know everyone has been a great blessing and becoming part of this very enthusiastic community, leading worship and doing creative things in worship has been lots of fun,” Ms Malthouse-Law said.
“Just being part of a community and bringing God alive in new and different ways for the community has been really exciting.
“We are a very busy congregation – we’ve got multiple afternoon fellowship groups, numerous home bible studies group, kids’ club, a youth group, a very talented choir, a playgroup and a men’s breakfast group that meets on Saturday morning. There are lots of things going on.”