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Emerging arts and theatre company Tribal Pacific. Photo: Tribal Pacific Inc. Matt Schyff

Powered by love: how one small church is harnessing diversity to create change

When it comes to revitalising the church, the small congregation of Edmonton Uniting Church in Cairns is proof that size and diversity are no barriers to participating in the mission of God. Dianne Jensen reports.

Like many Uniting Churches across Queensland, the Edmonton Uniting Church congregation of 60 or so regular attendees encompasses a range of ages and ethnicities; long-time members have been joined by a significant and growing group of families from across Melanesia and the Pacific region, a number of Indigenous and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and other national groups from further afield.

Together this diverse group delivers ministry ranging from an Indigenous arts and theatre company, local food outreach, Kids Club, a church-wide Bible study and hosting the Cairns Show Diner in conjunction with the other Cairns Uniting Churches.

Pastor Chris Guise, who has been in placement at Edmonton since the beginning of 2017, says the small community is working hard to find meaningful ways to build relationships and express its multicultural richness.

“Some inroads have been made this year, and it has brought me great joy to see this diversity of expression in our congregation through groups such as our performing arts and media group providing worship through dance, and our PNG people providing music and Bible reading. I am excited by the possibilities,” says Chris.

Why redeeming culture matters

The emerging arts and theatre company Tribal Pacific is already having an impact within the church and in the wider community.

Barry O’Ryan says that the motto of the group, “We seek the good in culture”, reflects the heart of this ministry: to acknowledge and preserve that which is excellent in culture and to create platforms of cultural expression.

“We strive to deepen and increase individual potential through family, community, leadership and cultural diversity in Christ,” says Barry.
“Our cultural values and beliefs manifest themselves through our lifestyle in Christ Jesus and therefore our morals and values represent our culture.

The importance of culture lies in its close association with the ways of ‘thinking’ and ‘living’.

“It also relates to the development of attitudes, and our cultural values influence how we approach living … it is the ultimate system of social cohesion where people are responsible for their own standards in accordance with Christ’s teachings and behaviour as a body of Christ.”

Tribal Pacific’s community/church engagement program embraces a multi-media program, dance production, community outreach and training.
“Tribal Pacific portrays the main biblical narrative story through cultural dance and song,” Barry explains. “Through cultural dance we give loud echoes of the cultural importance of values, reconciliation and restoration.”

The power of family

Congregation member Brandon Nona has been attending Edmonton Uniting Church since 2014 after becoming a Christian in 2013. He has been inspired to start his own outreach to Indigenous children at the Three Sista’s Crisis Accommodation Centre and his ministry is now being supported by the centre’s management.

“I started reading my first Bible and I read that if I pray and ask for anything in Jesus’ name, he will give it to me. So I asked for a church family, and God’s Holy Spirit led me to Edmonton Uniting church,” says Brandon.

“Our God through the power of his Holy Spirit has led me to start a sausage sizzle every fortnight. So far between 40 and 50 children out of the 60 that live at the Three Sista’s complex attend the free sausage sizzle. Myself, the Lord Jesus, and the outreach team who have joined me, feed and show the love of Jesus to adults passing by and all the little children God has blessed us with. The love Jesus has for sinners needs to be shown by us his followers and it’s as easy as just being a friend to the poor and needy.”

Neryda Pitcher is involved with the church’s annual collaboration with three other Uniting Church congregations to run a sit down/takeaway diner over three days at the Cairns Show.

“We enjoy the fun and fellowship of preparing, cooking and serving great food to a wonderful community of people, where they can come in out of the weather (hot or wet!), sit down and feel God’s loving presence (that is our prayer!),” says Neryda. “As smaller church congregations, it is great to get to know each other and connect, praying that God will use our gifts and talents in a way that will give him glory in our community.

“Our loving, caring and praying church family keeps me connected and involved in our church—God is at work here!”

Laying the groundwork

Underpinning both established and new ministries at the church is a congregation-wide Bible study.

“The concept was born out of the recognition of a need and a desire to go deeper into the Bible than is possible through the preaching of the Word alone,” says Chris. “We began a Sunday afternoon study, offering it to the entire church, just a few months ago, and it appears to have ‘hit the mark’ with many.

“My goal was simple; to provide an engaging way to connect with the broad truths of Christianity and to provide a reasoned apologetic for the things that we believe as Christians, to better enable our people to engage effectively with family, friends, and community … It has been great, and has generated a great deal of encouraging and rewarding conversation for everyone involved. We will almost certainly begin another study of this type in 2018.”

The church community is also thinking ahead as the Edmonton community hub experiences increasing infrastructural development as the population of Cairns moves toward the south into new development areas.

“With our own spacious grounds and with Ravizza Park just across the road, we are in a prime location to establish the church as a local community hub in all sorts of areas. With some imagination, creativity, (and finances) we are not short of significant opportunity,” says Chris.

The congregation has recently begun a long-term project to renovate the church building, and will use the opportunity to ensure that internal activities, processes and spaces work together to serve the life and ministry of the church.

The sum of us

While all of the ministries undertaken at Edmonton Uniting Church enrich the local community, each also contributes to the vitality of this small but growing congregation.

“There’s a very real sense of movement in our congregation,” says Chris. “And that movement is grounded in the recognition that we are one body, working together, and following the trail that the Holy Spirit has already blazed ahead of us.”

He acknowledges that the challenges facing the congregation are endemic to churches everywhere; the call to nurture and celebrate faith through diversity, and to express that faith in ways which are relevant and meaningful to those outside the church.

“The way we worship; the way we present ourselves physically, culturally and philosophically to the community—all of this has to come under our purview as we strive to keep and to grow a Christian voice and relevance in our community,” Chris says.

“While tradition and orthodoxy have their valid place in the church, we need to avoid turning inward, and to be looking upward and outwards without fear. God is already working in our communities, and we need to learn how to join him there.”

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