Toorak Uniting Church

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The Donald Story

Rev. Margaret Russell and
Pastor John Russell
11 July 2010

Rev. Margaret Russell – Story.

His name was Bill. He was in his early twenties and had wild hair, and he wore a T-shirt with holes in it, blue jeans, and no shoes.
This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college.
He was a very, very bright young man, and became a Christian while attending college.
Across the street from the campus was a church with a very well-dressed, very conservative congregation. They wanted to develop a ministry to the students but were not sure how to go about it.
One Sunday, Bill decided to go there to worship.
He walked in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair.
The service had already started and Bill started down the aisle looking for a seat.
The church was completely packed and he couldn't find a seat.
People began to look a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything.
Bill got closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the carpet.
By then the people were really uptight, and the tension in the air was thick.

About that time, the minister realized that from way at the back of the church, a deacon was slowly making his way toward Bill.
Now the deacon was in his eighties and he had silver-gray hair, and a three-piece suit. A Godly man, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. He walked with a cane.
As he started walking toward this boy, everyone was saying to themselves that you can't blame him for what he was going to do.
How could you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid sitting on the floor in church??
It took a long time for the man to reach the boy.
The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the man's cane.
All eyes were focused on him. You couldn't even hear anyone breathing.
The minister couldn't even preach the sermon until the deacon did what he had to do. And then they saw this elderly man drop his cane on the floor.
With great difficulty, the old man lowered himself and sat down next to Bill and worshipped with him so Bill wouldn't be alone.

Everyone was choked up with emotion.
When the minister gained control, he said, "What I'm about to preach - you will never remember. What you have just seen - you will never forget.
Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some people will ever read."
The Gospel reading set for today is the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan. A story told in answer to the question, "Who is my neighbour?"

This story is right at the heart of the Christian ethos and our mission as Christians.
You will remember that when Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the most important, he replied, "The first of all the commandments is Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength…. And the second is like, namely this: thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these."
All too often, as the Christian church, we can get wrapped up in (and sometimes over committed to) our church activities and in caring for each other. While this is good it is not good enough.
As followers of Jesus Christ we are, each one, being constantly called to be a good neighbour and to care for those in need: in need of food, shelter, acceptance, redemption, friendship, freedom, etc. and, most importantly, in need of experiencing the love of God, given with compassion and without judgment, via human hands, via our hands! The stance of Jesus and the disciples was not a ‘Come to us’ mentality, but rather a ‘Go to them’ one!

In the story of the student: who was his neighbour?
Who went out of their comfort zone to be with him, on his terms, where he was, inappropriately sitting in the church aisle?
Stepping out of our comfort zones is not easy.
In accepting a placement to Donald (my first congregational placement) we certainly felt that we were doing this, but we had no idea just how far out of our comfort zones God was going to ask us to go!

Very early on we began to see that we had been called to a community in crisis, not just a church, and that the emphasis needed to be on us (ourselves and our church people), being Jesus Christ in our community…crossing the demarcation lines between the sacred and the profane spaces.
Jesus said, "Go into all the world"… and this includes football clubs, pubs, supermarkets, offices, schools, kinder-gym, and so on. He didn’t say "sit in your church and wait for people to come to you".
We have come to understand that our mission field is all around us. That we are living in an incredibly urgent time where spirituality is being recognised and valued in our culture, and the message of the Christian church is not getting any airplay! (especially not in relation to other manifestations of interest in spiritual things like New Age beliefs, paganism, atheism, witchcraft, and so on.)

The harvest is ready and ripe for harvesting, but where are the labourers?
What if the labourers are not listening or refuse to go?
What if they are saying, "that’s not my job, I cannot do that"?
Christ’s commission to ALL who follow him is to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel." However, we need to prepare for this task by soaking ourselves in God’s Word and in prayer.
YOU are the people Christ is counting on: to eat and drink with people, to respond with compassion to sickness and brokenness, to talk about the nearness of God, to gossip the Gospel, to, as Frost and Hirsch wrote, "to seep into the cracks and crevasses of society and be Christ to all."
May we each strive to share the good news through all we do and say, at all times, in all places, with all people. Amen

Pastor John Russell – The Donald Story

Margaret has put you into the picture regarding where our thinking comes from theologically, so it falls to me to put flesh on the bones and to talk to you about the practical ways in which we have been able to reach out into the community, in the name of Christ. It is not that the Uniting Church in Donald was not involved before, but new ways were needed and those who had been carrying the baton had become very tired.
Last year was the 12th year where poor seasons resulted in poor or negative outcomes for the farmers, and when you consider that for many it involves an outlay of over $200,000 to put their crops in, you will not be surprised that for many farmers there is not a lot of equity remaining in their ownership of their land: and this is often land that came to them relatively debt free after generations of their family had farmed those same paddocks.

BUT in many ways the drought and poor seasons have been a gift to us. Soon after we arrived we realised just how much people were hurting, and how difficult it was for them to access the information they needed to survive, so one of the first things we did was to organise a Forum where people were provided with a meal, with free child care and with the very best speakers we could access from around Australia. People who could give answers about what good information and assistance was available and how it could be accessed: not just say they would find out and get back to them.
Speakers came from Department of Primary Industries, WUC, Banks, Centrelink, Telstra Countrywide and the government, and over 200 people attended from the local area.
The forum was well received, and was a practical demonstration that ‘the church’, and by definition, ‘God’ cared and was prepared to act.

As we listened to the women in the community it became apparent that they were very concerned about the men keeping their concerns and their feelings bottled up, so one of the next activities we organised was the first of a series of "Men’s Nights Out".
They were held at the local golf club. A meal was provided and the bar was open. The guest speakers were AFL Chaplains. The aim was to meet the men on their own territory, where they were comfortable, talking about something they were interested in. About 30 non-church men came to the first night, and were very relieved, I think, with the fact that the Chaplain did not beat them around the ears with the Gospel, but rather managed to share the gospel in just a few words in a much wider context.
Word spread that it was safe to go, and at the following Men’s Nights over 100 men came. Eventually, feeling a little jealous I think, the ladies also held some Ladies’ nights.

We also discovered early on that there had been a Benevolent Society in Donald, actually set up between the churches to try and stop people double dipping for charity handouts.
This we were able to resurrect and re-name as Donald Friends and Neighbours Society, and to refocus it on meeting individual and community needs. I was also able to obtain Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status which now allows us to apply for grants and to receive tax deductable gifts.
This has proven to be a wonderful vehicle for being able to work in the community. We lease a building in the centre of the shopping strip where we have established a drop-in centre, a lending library and a toy library, staffed by wonderful hospitable volunteers, trained in active listening and able to discern when people need to be referred on for professional help.

Sadly, suicides and Road Traffic Accidents have also provided opportunities to offer support to individuals and to the community. Being a small community the impact of such events is huge. Our response on one occasion was to bring the community together for tea and entertainment in the park, under the banner of "Let’s Come Together". Over 800 people attended (our population is only 1700).
We have also organised training sessions on Active Suicide Prevention for the community, and of course been involved in counselling.

We were concerned, as I’m sure most people are, for the generations missing in our churches, and in thinking about reaching some of them, we realised that to do this would need us to become involved in junior sport, football in particular. The local football club seemed to be the main point of social contact for many families, so the Church decided to sponsor the Junior Football Club, and this was accepted, slowly at first, but with banners, signs and the UCA logo on the young fellows’ practice singlets.
I, and another man from the church try to be at as many games as possible, getting to know the families and the boys, and also becoming known.
In following seasons the logo became accepted on the boys’ playing jumpers, I was accepted as Chaplain to first of all the juniors and later the whole club.
Now the Uniting Church sponsors the whole North Central Junior Football League, and every player wears the UCA logo.
As a Sports Chaplain I am a member of Sports Chaplaincy Australia (SCA) and I am called upon when critical incidents occur that affect club members across the Wimmera, Mallee and Western Districts. This is just another the way in which God has used us to share His loving concern for people, when we are prepared to GO OUT and to MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE.

Just last year I was commissioned by the Presbytery of Western Victoria as a Pastor (unpaid) and Margaret and myself also took on responsibility for the Uniting Churches at St Arnaud, Stuart Mill and Navarre in addition to Donald.
Over the last few months we have begun a weekly evening service in the Donald Church. This features very informal and rather alternative types of worship, and we are delighted with an average attendance of over 20 people, mostly younger and mostly people who do not come to the regular Sunday morning services.

The good news is, crops have begun well again this year, but more rain is needed. Also, those of you who tune in to country TV programs will know that there is currently a mice plague affecting some country areas and there is the potential for a huge locust plague before harvest. So, one certainly could not say that the harvest is "in the bag" yet!
The level of support required has not decreased, in fact it has increased by 30% over the last 12 months, so please continue to keep the families on the land and in the country towns, in your thoughts and prayers, and us too….thankyou.

© Rev. Margaret Russell and Pastor John Russell, 2010


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