When Marlene ‘Marlee’ Reid moved to the remote Gippsland town of Swifts Creek from Canada in late 2015 she was in for a shock.
“You blink and you go through the whole town,” Marlee said.
“I kept waiting for the town to start and then we were out of it and I said ‘what was that?’”
Marlee, a Native American of Cree and Dene ancestry, had followed Andrew Reid back to his family farm after meeting him in the Canadian city of Lethbridge, in the western province of Alberta.
They met while the Australian was on a working holiday and Marlee was a single mother employed at a satellite imaging company.
In hindsight, Marlee admits she was unprepared for how big the change from an urban lifestyle to living in a farming town of a few hundred would be.
“I struggled with how isolating it is here in Swifts Creek,” Marlee said.
“I had my whole sense of self just ripped out from underneath me. I went from being a crazy workaholic to a stay-at-home parent.
“The culture shock was crazy. I didn’t want to be in Australia because I just didn’t like it. I didn’t feel at home. I wanted to go home.”
However, Marlee said that one day she came to a realisation that she needed to find a way out of that mindset.
She asked herself what would make her feel better and came up with the answer that she needed to “find her way back to God”.
Marlee knew that Swifts Creek had a Uniting Church, but she didn’t know if anyone actually attended. She thought that if services were held they would be conducted by a visiting minister.
Once she learnt that Frontier Services patrol minister Rowena Harris lived in Swifts Creek, Marlee said she contacted her straight away.
Marlee’s first impression on attending the monthly service at the Uniting Church was that it was “absolutely beautiful” and “listening to Rowena’s words just made me feel at home. I was like ‘this is where I need to be’.”
However, the small country church service in the middle of Victoria was a different experience to the Baptist services Marlee was accustomed to attending in Canada.
“I am used to church having 200 to 400 people in the one building every Sunday morning,” she said.
“I was really shocked that I was the only one there (Swifts Creek Uniting Church) with school-age children. It was about five older generation ladies.”
In spite of the generation gap, Marlee instantly felt welcomed by the Swifts Creek faithful few.
“I just loved them,” she said.
“They are very lovely, really cheerful and open.”
“My children were running around like crazy but they said to me ‘Your children are so well behaved’.”
Marlee began spreading the word about the church. Soon a second family with three boys under age seven became regular attendees.
“All I did was tell a few people ‘Hey there’s a church here in town, let’s go’. And we’ve been growing and it’s been great,” Marlee said.
Since then two other married couples have started coming along as well two single men.
Rowena said the change has been remarkable.
“Suddenly church is filled with babies and breast feeding and little children clumping around in big thick winter boots,” she said.
“I love the fact that the children wander around chatting to everyone in church. The babies crawl around and get picked up by the nearest grandma.”
Swifts Creek still has its traditional service but now runs a monthly Messy Church service along with Bible study every Friday night.
Marlee said that this was an initiative of the congregation’s younger members.
“We’re the ones who want church every Sunday,” she said.
“We’re craving that spiritual connection with God and having church every Sunday means something to us.”
There are moves afoot for a regular Sunday school and plans to form an afternoon youth group event, which will provide after-school activities and a supervised place for teens to just hang out.
Tragically, the importance of the church became apparent in October last year. Many of the young people in the tight-knit community were left in shock after two teenage girls lost their lives in a car accident.
Marlee had been planning to go to Melbourne for a colour fun run with one of the teenagers and was left shattered by the news.
“I was just devastated. It took a couple of days for me just to be OK,” she said.
The accident happened 10 days before Halloween. Marlee and Rowena decided to put on an event to help rally the area’s young people.
“We just kind of quickly threw it together,” Marlee said.
“Everyone donated money or something to use.”
To decorate the surrounds of the church, Marlee got the young people to do chalk drawn pumpkins on the footpath.
There were plenty of games, food and dancing, with gift card prizes donated by Kmart for the best movers and shakers. At one stage, a costume parade was held down the street until a burst of rain sent everyone scurrying back.
“It was really fun,” Marlee said.
She said parents thanked her for doing something to help their children in the wake of the tragedy.
Swifts Creek church is planning more outreach and mission activities into the community, including a food bank.
Rowena said that when asked at presbytery meetings how she had revived the church, her reply is that the credit belongs to the congregation that has welcomed new members who, in turn, have embraced the community spirit.
“I’m just staggered by their commitment to spreading the good news and doing it in a really informal family based way,” she said.
“It’s absolutely in God’s hand. All I did was hug some people and make cups of tea. It’s God.”
Marlee, who in November married Andrew in Swifts Creek church in what was thought to be the first wedding there for many years, also sees the influence of the divine.
“I really went from hating, hating, hating it here to making that decision to find my way back to God, to finally being at peace and saying ‘It’s going to be OK, God’s got your back’,” she said.
“Most definitely when I opened up my heart and my mind and my body to God it was like ‘Alright show me what I need to be doing and tell me what you want me to do’.
“That’s when all these little things have added up to something big.”