By Andrew Humphries
When Rev Matt Cutler reflects on his role as Minister at Tecoma UC, he does so with a deep sense of gratitude.
In finding Tecoma, he believes, he has been blessed.
Social justice is pivotal in Matt’s life and faith and, at Tecoma, he has found a congregation and community that puts that concept at the heart of everything it does.
From its commitment to our First Nations people, to providing free food to some of those doing it tough in the community, Tecoma congregation members don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk when it comes to promoting social justice.
A quick look at its website shows how heavily the church is involved in the community, from the free food program, to an op shop, to martial arts and dancing.
Matt refers to it all as the “church as community” and he is immensely proud of its place in the Yarra Ranges, east of Melbourne.
And while the future looks bright for such a forward-thinking Minister and congregation, that hasn’t always been the case.
In fact, at one stage, Tecoma residents were forced to ponder the possibility of closure, as congregation numbers dwindled to unviable levels.
As a resident of Belgrave, just a kilometre up the road, Matt was already aware of Tecoma UC when he became its Minister in June 2018.
While the church held a special place in the community’s affections, that didn’t mean it was immune from the same pressures affecting places of worship in regional and rural areas around the country.
“Living in Belgrave meant I had an awareness of a church that promoted various programs and had a community garden out the front, so I had a vibe of a church that was very community-minded, albeit small with an ageing congregation which, of course, is a common story,” Matt says.
It’s all about the numbers, though, and the reality was that in 2018 they weren’t looking so good in Tecoma.
“When I arrived as Minister, we were down to about a dozen members attending a service and, of course, this was pre-COVID,” Matt says.
“Ours was the classic case of the Uniting Church congregation with an ageing population and not many young families involved.
“It’s the same story with a lot of the other churches in the Dandenong Ranges and Tecoma was certainly heading the same way.
“Thankfully, we had a facility here that was still being used and had a good reputation within the community but, yes, if it had continued to trend the way a conversation within the church hierarchy about its future wouldn’t have been far away.
“I think the hierarchy still had a belief that any conversation about closing didn’t need to be entertained at that stage, although the tracking was looking ominous (in terms of numbers).
“There was still a belief the church was doing good things in the community and there needed to be something in place that continued that work.”
Through all this, Matt could see the potential in what the church offered if it was able to grow enough to remain viable.
“I was certainly aware of its size, but also the fact it had a community awareness, so (as Minister) there was a great appeal in that sense,” Matt says.
“I was very much interested more in its potential and its reputation in the local area.”
Building on its community connection and increasing congregation numbers became a focus for Matt and, with a young family of his own, developing strong relationships with other families helped in that regard.
A simple, but key pivot towards promoting Tecoma as a family-friendly church was important in attracting new members, with Matt and his family a visible presence within the community.
“For me, it was about the covenant of fidelity, with me and my family saying ‘OK, this is where we are going to be’,” he says.
“In my first few months here, the occasional family would come along and say ‘we love your sign out the front and the justice messages you place on it, but we need something here for the family’, and off they would go, never to be seen again.
“That was a very common story and I probably saw that happen three or four times, but then it only took one or two of those families to stick and then a cohort was there that we could build on.
“It meant that when families did come, there was an energy they could attach themselves to.
“We now have a children’s program convenor, families are very active in that space and meet once each quarter to plan the next term, and we now hold a very noisy and robust regular intergenerational service.
“And even if only a handful of kids attend that service, it’s our way of saying it’s important and as a congregation we want to be sensitive and accommodating to a different cohort of people, and that’s our children.”
The result is a family-oriented congregation that can look towards the future with confidence.
“We’ve got eight or nine families involved here and 18 children kicking around,” Matt says.
“On a good Sunday, we might have 55 people attending and we average anywhere between 40-60 people, while we will easily get 60-70 people to a community lunch.
“I feel very aligned with the church here in terms of wanting it be an open door where people can be here, participate and belong first, before we have the conversation about what you believe in and how you behave.
“For me, it’s the classic triangle of ‘believe, behave, belong’ being turned over so it says ‘belong first, then behave, then believe’.
“This is an area that is very spiritually thirsty, but that people hadn’t found a place that resonated with them in terms of openness and inclusivity to match what a church could and should be.
“Now I see a match between what we are offering here and what people are looking for.”
And while he might be reluctant to suggest he has all the answers, Matt says the important role families play in any congregation should never be underestimated.
“Parenting is tough these days and people will say to me, ‘coming on a Sunday and knowing that I will be nourished with ideas that sustain me, and that my children will be mixing with their peers is very important’,” he says.
“This is a story about what the church can reclaim in terms of being a place in which we consider who we are, our values, and how we can contribute to the world, and families naturally want those things for their kids and the church can be that place.”
The concept of what a church can achieve as part of a community also drives much of what congregation members such as Sue Brown aspire to at Tecoma.
As hospitality co-ordinator, Sue is responsible for the Food is Free Tecoma program, which operates on the simple, but heartfelt, premise of making food available to anyone in need.
An expansive community garden on the church grounds provides wonderful healthy produce, while regular community donations are also welcomed.
“Essentially, what we have are fridges, freezers and an outdoor cabinet and the idea is to keep fresh food available to whoever might need it,” Sue says.
“We are also all about minimising waste, so we might get some fruit and veg that is no longer edible, but it can be used in the compost site located in the garden.”
Like so many congregations, Tecoma relies on its volunteers, who are never backward in coming forward to help out in a variety of ways.
“There is a lady in one of the units behind the church who comes over morning and night and does a COVID clean,” Sue says.
“She recently turned 90 and is an absolute legend.
“We have so many dedicated people who enjoy giving back to the community, including some people who benefitted from the free food program and have decided to give back by volunteering.
“For them, it’s about a sense of self-worth and they have developed friendships around it, so it’s a holistic thing.
“Yes, what we are about is feeding people, but there is so much more to it than that.”
At the heart of the community garden are volunteers such as Shakti McLaren, who was part of the group which set it up about eight years ago.
“We got together at the time and asked ourselves, ‘what can we do in Tecoma that is positive?’,” Shakti explains.
“We had a lot of people following us who were interested in good food, so we decided we would create a garden space in which to grow food.”
After much discussion, space was made available within the church grounds and the result is a thriving garden which is a hub of community life.
“What we are trying to do is make it self-sufficient and the food is free and available to everyone,” Shakti says.
When she isn’t busy in the community garden, Shakti’s energy is devoted to increasing awareness of, and respect for, our First Peoples.
It’s a part of the Uniting Church’s covenant towards walking together as First and Second Peoples, a cause fully embraced and supported by Matt.
Step one, Shakti says, involves telling the history of First Peoples in the Yarra Ranges.
“If you walk around this area and look through the eyes of a First Nations person, there is nothing up here that tells their stories,” she says.
To change that, Shakti hopes to hold a number of events, the first of which took place in late June, involving Anglican Priest and Wiradjuri man, Rev Glenn Loughrey, and the unveiling of First Peoples artwork in the community garden.
And slowly, she says, change is taking place, with artwork and acknowledgement to country messages going up in some of the local villages.
“This has become my life’s work and I really think it’s one of the things I have been put here to do,” Shakti says.
“I want to see an understanding of First Nations culture in this country and it would be nice to see it happening where we are.”
Shakti’s involvement with Tecoma UC has seen her become a regular sight at Sunday services, comfortable in the knowledge it reflects her own strong sense of social justice.
“I don’t know what the life of a church is about anymore if it isn’t about promoting social justice,” she says.
“The church here has always been seen as a friend to the community.”
Like Shakti, Sue immediately thinks of social justice when she reflects on what Tecoma offers to its congregation and the wider community.
“It’s about treating people with respect, no matter what their circumstances,” she says.
“We sometimes have people who are homeless and we have had people camping out around the church during lockdown and we refer them on (to support services) as best we can.
“Social justice is a huge part of what we do here and in that we are living the Uniting Church’s values.
“Something like Food is Free Tecoma sits really well within the values of the church and the church has always wanted to be seen as being out in the world and living Christianity in action.
“It’s certainly something I have always loved about the Uniting Church.”
For Matt, the Tecoma church and congregation represent everything that is good about being immersed in a community that cares about its people. As such, he feels fortunate to be a part of it all.
Before Tecoma, Matt had been a Church of Christ Minister and, after joining the Uniting Church, he filled interim Minister placements at Mt Eliza and Ringwood.
“I had been hedging for a little while, but the Uniting Church had always felt like a space that would benefit who I am, in terms of my Ministry and values,” he says.
“The Uniting Church has a strong emphasis on social justice and it always felt very aligned to who I was.
“And the interim placements gave me an opportunity to discern and explore further, and when I discovered there was a vacancy at Tecoma I had a chat with the chair and off I went.
“I have transitioned formally into the Uniting Church and this really is home.”
Matt is grateful he arrived at a church with such a strong DNA geared towards social justice and the mantra of “church as community”.
“We have a church here that is prepared to dance with anyone who has shared values,” he says.
“Our community garden is a classic example of that in that it’s quite common for a church to say that ‘we’ve got a space and we can run a garden’ but this church’s model was ‘we’re old and small but we’ve got space (for others) to run a garden’.
“So you end up with a situation where four or five of the community members involved in the garden end up coming to church and that’s just the kind of stuff that happens.
“The other point is there are so many people in the community who consider themselves very much part of the church, even if they don’t come to a service on a Sunday.
“People have a strong sense of connection with us, even if they’re not part of the worshipping community, so I think there is a larger identity here in that the church is not seen as just one hour on a Sunday, it’s seen as a web of relationships. That, to me, is very exciting.”
Ask Matt about the importance of social justice and it goes to the heart of what being a person of Christ means.
“To me, it’s life-blood stuff and one of the most important manifestations of our faith,” he says.
“For example, before the May federal election we hosted a ‘meet the candidates’ evening and we had about 170 people attend.
“That was on the back of just one week of Facebook promotion and that says to me these are the sort of (political) conversations our church should be a part of.
“That is very natural for us as a church and it’s assumed within the community that we would be a part of that conversation.
“The Uniting Church generally, and certainly this congregation, sees the very nature of faith as needing to be political because that is simply how we organise ourselves.
“How could followers of Jesus not want to be in a conversation that talked about how we organise ourselves, about who is in and who is out and who is missing out, who is preferenced and privileged and whose voices are being heard and not being heard?
“They are deeply political questions and an expression of social justice is a way of showing what love looks like in public. Social justice is a strong heartbeat in this congregation.”
Matt sees a future with unlimited potential for the church and, indeed, the Tecoma community.
“I hope to be here for a while yet,” he says. “This feels like home and I value living in a community that I am also ministering in.
“I just value the fact that how I do faith and ministry has a connection with life and kids and family here and, for me, that is just tremendous.”