Parish partnerships in community outreach

Reflections

“I have learnt that by listening and asking questions, my neighbours teach me how they want and need to be loved, and that by listening together we can achieve great things,” says community development worker and Liturgical Assistant Sarah Gover from the Parish of North Pine

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As a community development worker in the Diocese of Gippsland, I worked with parishes to help empower healthy and dynamic partnerships between Anglican agencies, community and mission partners, and other parishes.

Gippsland is a rural Diocese and although parishes often found themselves with declining and aging congregations, they still had a desire to love their neighbour, both in their own communities and beyond.

When I started, I heard stories of dreams that had died quickly because the parish had become overwhelmed by what they did not have. So, I commenced by asking parishioners questions like:

What would you like to do?

What outcomes are you seeking and who else might need the same outcomes?

What do you need to make that dream come true and who has the resources or skills who could partner with you?

What skills do you have that someone else might need?

I worked with a rural parish who was considering running a community dinner program. They had everything they needed to get the project started – great cooks, a hall and a manageable kitchen. As the project grew, they were given a grant by their local council to upgrade their kitchen. They soon got to know their neighbours who came for dinner, and week after week they listened to the same struggles, including relationships breakdowns resulting in trips to the family court, and not being able to understand legal documents resulting in dodgy rental agreements.

Identifying a distinct need for community legal assistance, we found a community lawyer who was paid by the state government to provide legal services to people who were marginalised in the community. Knowing few locals, the community lawyer was struggling to build community trust. So, the parish invited her to the weekly meal program. Over dinner she got to know the neighbours and was soon running a series of well-attended community education events in the hall. People began to trust her because they had shared a meal together, and soon word spread.

By loving their neighbours, by spending time with them and listening to them, and by building a partnership with the community lawyer, the parish was able to help meet the needs of some very marginalised and vulnerable families in their community. The community dinners have now been going for over seven years. In time, the parish has built partnerships with numerous community groups and state agencies to develop a very comprehensive project that is giving hope and bringing growth to the church.

I used these same principles of relationship building, listening and forming partnerships last year when I was invited to get to know the Parish of Gayndah. On my first visit, I met some wonderful people and heard about their passion for the Solomon Islands. Over the next few months we worked together to realise their dream of bringing a priest, The Rev’d Wilfred Kekea from Central Melanesia, over to Gayndah for a six-week cultural immersion visit.

During the process the parish partnered with the Anglican Men’s Society (AMS), which has strong connections with the Solomon Islands. Consequently, the parish decided to form their own Anglican Men’s Society Group, who have offered to run the AMS conference in Gayndah next year.

Originally the parish was thinking of a longer immersion visit, but as they listened they understood how hard a longer visit would be for The Rev’d Wilfred, his family, and his own church community.

These experiences remind me that although I know the Bible says that I am to love my neighbour, sometimes, with the best of intensions, I can be tempted to think that I know the best way to love them. I have learnt that by listening and asking questions, my neighbours teach me how they want and need to be loved, and that by listening together we can achieve great things.

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