Gippsland tales from the country of contrasts

By Mikaela Turner

Australia is a nation of contrasts, where your lived experience will vary dramatically depending on where you call home.

This is true of city versus country, but it’s also true of country versus country, where no two townships are exactly the same.

About 350km separates Phillip Island and Orbost, for example, but in many respects they are worlds apart. And the towns along the way? Some of them exist in a parallel universe, with a shared geography, but peculiar social challenges.

The tyranny of distance also means these challenges are often suffered in solitude and not adequately addressed. Metropolitan Melbourne, for example, is largely clueless when it comes to understanding and appreciating the daily struggles experienced and endured by its rural neighbours.

You only have to turn on the news to realise rural Victoria, unless it’s in crisis, isn’t on Melbourne’s radar. And, even then, it often gets short shrift. But rural Victoria accounts for 96 per cent of Victoria; it deserves to be seen and heard and included.

If you were to distil Victoria into a 40,000sqkm region you’d probably come up with Gippsland. Extending from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to the NSW border and bound by Bass Strait, Gippsland has beaches, bushland, mountains and dry plains.

It is a region of extremes bound by the common struggles and goodwill of its 270,000 people. Chief among those struggles right now is drought, but there is also economic hardship, rising unemployment and a steady exodus of young people.

Crosslight recently spent the best part of a week travelling through middle Gippsland, talking with ministers on the ground to get a better understanding of life beyond the city fringes.

Ever-present was the overwhelming sense of community. People knew people, or knew people who knew people. You weren’t anonymous. And this kinship was genuine and heartfelt.

We began our journey at Phillip Island, one of Victoria’s most popular tourist destinations. Attracting about 3.5 million visitors each year, it offers something for everyone – the Grand Prix circuit, a daily penguin parade and, of course, stunning beaches.

Strip away the tourists though and Phillip Island’s population hovers close to 10,000 – and most of those people are there as a lifestyle choice.

Cowes, home to all the supermarkets, is the main town. If you are a local walking down the main street you will not escape unrecognised and you best be prepared to stop for an extended chat. This is especially true if you are the minister to a 60-person congregation.

Rev Ian Turrnidge, 52, has been in placement at St Johns Uniting Church for four years, having moved from West Heidelberg. It took Ian about six months to reach what he calls “the limit of the community”, meaning the point at which he was finally able to connect all the who’s-related-to-who dots.

“It was at that point that I went, ‘oh yeah, you’re not in the city now’,” Ian says.

He says living on an island creates a stronger community mindset. “You can actually do something in the community and it doesn’t get dissolved. People notice and get involved,” he says.

This sense of community is amplified in his congregation of mostly retired people, with varying levels of health concerns.

“People feel safe and comfortable knowing they have support,” he says. “Someone will see one of our members walking down the street and stop and say ‘let me drive you home’.”

The congregation has a strong outreach into the wider community, mainly through a community meal, which runs every Monday night.  About 60-80 people from all walks of life are fed a two-course meal in the church hall.

Some may be financially challenged, others lonely, some simply chatty, but the weekly meal fills more than hungry stomachs.

Ian says the meals have “revealed church” to the congregation. “In the first year we decided we wouldn’t do a community meal the Monday before Melbourne Cup, but then a woman from my congregation said ‘so there’s no church next Monday’ and it was in that moment that we all went ‘duh, this is church’. We’re shoulder to shoulder, week in, week out.

“It’s a tight community. You hear stories of ‘I took so and so over to the hospital because she wasn’t well’. This is how we imagine church could and should be.”

Back on the mainland, just a little over an hour from Cowes, is the bustling town of Warragul. As you enter, you’re greeted by expansive housing developments and, before long, you’re lost in suburbia as the surrounding hills fade out of sight.

Warragul is so big the locals say you can go out for an meal every night of the month and not have to go to the same place twice. Note: you won’t go hungry here.

Warragul UC reflects the town’s modern appearance. A long driveway leads to a huge, contemporary-looking complex which, if it wasn’t for the sign plastered across the building, could easily be mistaken for a sports centre.

Many of the 130 people in this congregation have been members for 50 years or more.

Gippsland presbytery chair Rev Dr Des Parker, 80, says he is considered a newcomer despite first attending in 1982.

“You’re not really a member unless you’ve had parents born here, preferably grandparents,” he jokes.

Rev Ian Turrnidge says the community meals have “revealed church” to the congregation at Phillip Island.

Warragul is a congregation with plenty of grey hair and glasses. Des says the average age is about 75, but numbers are growing. He puts this down to the fact his services are “quite traditional” and aimed at his constituency. In other words, he is not trying to woo a younger audience.

“There’s not much point bringing young people in when we run the sort of service we do, it’s completely alien,” Des says. “We’ve thought if we do get young people in, what on Earth are we going to do with them?

“We get a number of people from other churches who are catering for young people. They say those churches aren’t interested in people their age.”

Despite its large flock, Warragul has been without a minister for the past six months, after ill health forced its previous incumbent into early retirement. The congregation now relies on two retired ministers to take turns leading the service, with some help from supply ministers.

Being without a minister is not uncommon in the Gippsland presbytery – St Andrews UC in Mirboo North, 54km south-east of Warragul, is facing the same reality. Its last full-time minister retired about seven years ago and, since then, the tiny church has managed with supply ministers or, failing that, a retired minister.

Church secretary Lynne Oates, 80, says ministers never really retire – “it’s just pretend”.

Supply ministers are about the only thing Mirboo North has in common with Warragul, however. This is your typical one-street town, which is reflected in church numbers.

With less than 20 people in the pews each Sunday, the congregation is smaller than Warragul’s choir. What it lacks in numbers, however, it more than makes up for with outreach work, both home and abroad.

The congregation has supported a girls’ school in South Sudan, a blindness prevention program in Vanuatu and, for the past two years, paid the full-time salary of a health worker in Vanuatu.

Closer to home, St Andrews runs a community kitchen, where people are invited to improve their cooking skills. It has more or less morphed into a young mums’ group.

St Andrews member Dianne Kiddell says smaller populations seem to foster ecumenical cooperation, particularly when it comes to mission activities.

“The Anglicans run a breakfast club at the secondary school, so rather than us try to compete by running a different one, we just support theirs,” she says. “Same with foodbank – the Assemblies of God congregation runs one, so we just collect goods to give them to manage.”

Dianne says despite the fact the congregation feels embedded in the local community, the church itself is still on the margins.

“The younger generation don’t relate to church structures,” she says. “Especially after the Royal Commission. The challenge is, how do we take what we value out of this building?”

Surprisingly, one word which no one has mentioned yet is “drought”. If you type “Mirboo North” into Google Maps you can’t help but notice the sea of brown surrounding it. But, on the ground, it’s lush green vegetation as far as the eye can see.

Head north-east, however, and it isn’t too long before the landscape starts to change. Take the A1 for an hour and you hit Rosedale, a town that looks like it hasn’t seen rain in a long time.

Further on up the highway is Stratford, where the welcome sign states “Stratford upon the river Avon”. Cross the Avon, however, and there is no river – just a dry, dusty bed of dirt and weather-beaten shrubs.

Keep going and you will eventually arrive at Bairnsdale. The only thing Bairnsdale and Stratford have in common is the 50km stretch of road which joins them.

Bairnsdale is big and it’s busy – and the busyness extends to its Uniting Church. With an op shop, messy church, playgroup, sewing group, banner group, community concerts and a monthly car boot market, the church is a hub of activity.

Church Council chair Marilyn Cassidy says Bairnsdale “definitely knows we’re here”.

Marilyn, who moved from Brighton 12 years ago, says of all the community work the church does, one of the most appreciated is the help afforded to parents of children with disability. Twice a week, the church opens its doors and lets the children play in one area while their parents receive counselling in another room.

“We feel that’s an important service to the community,” she says.

Bairnsdale’s population is pushing 15,000 people, but it still has a small-town feel – something Marilyn marks as a plus. And a minus.

On the positive side, everyone is friendly and up for a chat. On the negative side, Bairnsdale, despite being just 280km from Melbourne, feels “a little bit forgotten”.

“You do feel isolated because you don’t have enough transport, you can feel a little bit forgotten,” Marilyn says. “It’s a little bit ‘them and us’ with the city.”

Swifts Creek is 100 clicks due north of Bairnsdale and to get there you have to negotiate a slow, twisting, drive up the Great Alpine Rd. But when you reach the town, you are welcomed with a magnificent procession of trees lining the road. However, it’s a mirage of sorts.

The town, home to 300 people, consists of a 500m stretch of road, an IGA, post office, bakery and little else. Everywhere you turn there is green grass, but looks can be deceiving. Swifts Creek is three years into a “green drought”.

“You do feel isolated because you don’t have enough transport, you can feel a little bit forgotten.” Marilyn Cassidy, Bairnsdale.

Rowena Harris is minister at the local Uniting Church, but her placement is unusual – it’s a three-way partnership between the Synod, Presbytery of Gippsland and Frontier Services.

Rowena’s tenure coincided with the start of the drought, a situation which dominates her work. She says the town exists predominately to serve the farming community, so the drought’s aftershocks are keenly felt.

“At present, we have a green drought, which means it’s rained enough to make the grass look pretty and green and the flowers come out, but the grass has hardly any root system, so when cattle come in and eat it, it dies,” Rowena says.

“This is the third year of drought and we are approaching very difficult times. Obviously, there is still grass, but if you drive past farms and look in the dams there’s hardly any water.

“We need about a month of continuous rain to break the drought.”

Rowena says families are struggling to feed themselves and their stock, as well as pay for hay, water, essential medical bills, school activities and everyday expenses such as petrol.

Like any community ravaged by drought, mental health looms large. Rowena and her congregation are tackling the issue head on with events called “Resilience Days” which include free food, activities and counselling.

These events allow people to come together in solidarity while also allowing Rowena a chance to get to know more about what is going on in their lives.

“I may be talking with a family and afterwards someone will come up and tell me that family has had no income for the last two months, so we will find ways to help,” she says.

“People’s pride may get damaged as they don’t like to admit they’re struggling, but the reality is they need the help. What we found is at first people were embarrassed to receive help, but now they’re just relieved.”

Swifts Creek UC’s congregation is small – “on a good day we will have six,” Rowena says – but “church” isn’t just about attending service on a Sunday.

“St Francis of Assisi was reputed to have said ‘preach the Gospel constantly and, if necessary, use words’,” Rowena says. “So preaching the Gospel for us may be giving out a food hamper or running a Resilience Day.”

If you head back down the mountain and keep driving south you will run into a town called Johnsonville. Blink and you might miss it, though. There is no green drought in Johnsonville –  just drought.

Johnsonville looks more like a service station rest stop than an actual town. On one side of the road is BP and on the other a café, bait shop and the Uniting Church.

Like Swifts Creek, about 300 people call Johnsonville home and the church has seven members. Interestingly, only one of them lives in Johnsonville – the rest come from neighbouring towns.

With such a small congregation, Johnsonville UC doesn’t have a minister, instead it has partnered with Glen Waverley UC, which sends videos of its Sunday service for Johnsonville UC to watch on a projector.

Two of the parishioners are sisters Wendy Flahive, 66, and Gill Trudinger, 68, who have both spent time in the Pacific Islands conducting women’s health training.

Wendy says the topic is taboo in the region, which leads to misconceptions and, worse, wrong information. On one trip, Wendy and Gill gave a presentation in a school in Vanuatu and were alarmed by how little the students knew about basic women’s hygiene.

“Two girls came up to us after the speech and asked ‘do boys have periods?’ They were 13 years old,” Wendy says.

On another occasion, Wendy was working in Kiribati when she discovered one of the women only had a hand towel to seal with her period. “How are you supposed to work a whole day with that?” she asks.

Soon after, Wendy found out about a program called Days for Girls, which provides reusable feminine hygiene products for women in need. Wendy and Gill started to help about eight years ago and, since then, word has spread to other Uniting Churches in the area.

In the past two years alone, the East Gippsland sector has sent about 4000 feminine hygiene kits to Vanuatu, Cambodia and the Solomon Islands.

About 20km further east is Lakes Entrance, which seems to be a magnet for tourists and retirees. If you need a place to stay you don’t have to look too far – the road to the town centre is dotted with holiday parks, motels and hotels.

Taken at face value, Lakes Entrance appears to be on doing well, but you don’t need to draw the curtain back too far to see some serious cracks in the façade. The local arcade, for example, caters for about 10 shops, but only two are occupied – the op shop, which is run by the Uniting Church, and a pizza place.

Ruth Widdowson and Susan Grundy are members of the Lakes Entrance UC and also volunteer at the op shop. Both moved from Melbourne when they retired. Susan says she was drawn to the “slow, relaxed lifestyle” but worries about the town’s prosperity.

Orbost minister Rev Nathaniel Atem “Church is where the people are,” he says. “Go to them and that’s church.”

As the calendar counts down to the Christmas holidays, she says many local businesses live or die by their holiday trade.

“Businesses need to make enough money during the Easter and Christmas breaks and long weekends to keep them going all through the year,” Susan says.

For evidence, Ruth points to the near-empty arcade. “It used to be a thriving hub, now it’s basically empty with no walk-in traffic and nothing encouraging people to open here,” Ruth says.

“It’s pretty sad.”

The church is also having to make do with what it has. Ruth says it hasn’t had a minister in placement for about five years, which is something the 20-person congregation hopes will change, but the lay leaders who are filling the breach are “very capable” and “inspiring”.

“Sunday is very well taken care of,” she says. “We’re very blessed to have them.”

Like most country towns, church in Lakes Entrance is more than a Sunday service – it’s an extended family, where members take care of each other.

“Just one person has to say something and someone will take care of it, whether it’s a lift to a medical appointment or whatever,” Ruth says.

“That’s what a good Australian town does, we like to look after people.”

Many of the problems faced by Lakes Entrance are mirrored at Orbost, 60km further along the A1. Locals say job opportunities are few and far between and access to medical care is limited.

And then there’s the drought. As with Swifts Creek, the drought at Orbost is hidden under a thin veneer of grass, but its effects are being felt throughout this 2000-strong farming town.

Local Uniting Church minister Rev Nathaniel Atem, 50, says the drought is “horrendous”. “Everyone is very worried about it,” he says. “Farmers are struggling to feed their livestock.”

Nathaniel’s flock is about 25, but its footprints spread deep into the community. The church hall is a popular place, with regular dance classes, child care, monthly meals and the annual flower show, which has been going for more than a century.

Nathaniel, who was born in South Sudan and fled to Australia in 2004, believes church isn’t  something contained to a weekly gathering.

“Church is where the people are,” he says. “Go to them and that’s church.”

Sound familiar? It could have been Ian Turrnidge speaking. Maybe Cowes and Orbost aren’t worlds away after all. Either way, Melbourne could do worse than take note.

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