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Southport Uniting Church community minister Rev Dona Spencer with art from Flourish Arts Festival
Southport Uniting Church community minister Rev Dona Spencer with art from Flourish Arts Festival Photo: Southport congregation

Permission to speak, please

Southport Uniting Church has opened its doors and its heart to the busy world outside. Dianne Jensen reports.

The young woman was a regular attender at the night services at Southport Uniting Church on the Gold Coast. An artist who lived alone, Anne suffered from depression and schizophrenia following childhood trauma. One night she self-harmed, and accidentally killed herself.

Artist and Southport community minister Rev Dona Spencer remembers Anne well, because she had visited the church on the day she died. The minister and others in their turn sat with Anne as long as they could.

“What Anne did through her death was give the congregation permission to spend time with every single person who comes into that church and who asks for help,” she says.

Southport Uniting Church lies in the heart of the community at the northern end of the Gold Coast. The area is an eclectic mix of students, retirees, holiday-makers, businesses and residents, with a significant fringe population of people suffering from mental health disorders and one of the busiest court houses and parole offices in Queensland.

Anne was one of the many people who flow through the doors of the church every weekday morning. The open church, with free coffee and biscuits served by volunteers, is part of the intentional ministry of the congregation to be a place of sanctuary for people experiencing mental illness.

“Members of the congregation are rostered to meet, greet, and pray with any who enter,” says Ms Spencer. “Anyone who comes and wants to have extra time with the minister can do so.

“We have lots of regulars. The mental health issues present themselves in a multifaceted manner—from serious cases of schizophrenia to the repercussions of drug and alcohol use. Our members, through experience, develop supportive pastoral relationships with them.”

Southport was the first church in Queensland to host the CBM (formerly known as Christian Blind Mission) Luke14, workshop, Mental Health Unwrapped.

“Luke14 challenged the church community to consider ways of being more inclusive. It also encouraged us to appreciate and foster the gifts, abilities, and dreams of each person,” says Ms Spencer.

The congregation developed a range of intentional activities to link with the community, including a Never Alone Friendship Group (based on the Burleigh Heads model). It also welcomes other groups to use their facilities, including the Men Out There (MOT) drama group for homeless men.

Flourish Arts Festival, a congregational initiative now in its second year, is developing as a major community event every September. The festival celebrates the arts as a platform for healing and growth through a range of displays, performances, and workshops.

“Many of the people involved in the festival have suffered mental health issues,” says Ms Spencer. “They have found that through the creative processes of art, in a group, as well as on their own, they’ve experienced healing.”


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