How the biggest flood in 100 years changed everything for one local church

19 Mar 2020

Tweed Church of Christ volunteer John Van DerLuer with local Darryl, who struggles with homelessness, has his phone charged as part of the homelessness support ministry Tethered.

By Emily Ferguson

Tweed Church of Christ always knew they were called to mission. Selling their church building, they bought an iconic local sports centre as a way to reach their community. But they struggled to make in-roads – until the flood hit.

John Latta, Senior Pastor at Tweed Church of Christ, went to the Tweed River one Friday in March 2017 and discovered it breaking its banks at low tide.

“I started telling locals that if it flooded they could call me and I’d open up the sports centre for them to stay the night. I put the same thing on Facebook and suggested we use the sports centre as a hub to go out from to help clean up,” said John.

National and local radio programs were soon interviewing him, calling for volunteers and donations. Television journalist Stan Grant came and filmed a 20-minute segment that aired all week.

And so “The Mud Army” was rallied – 150 volunteers from the church and community who went out together from the sports centre. They cleaned around 150 houses. They washed clothes and cooked over 1000 meals. They distributed carpet off-cuts for caravans and 1000 sheets donated by a local hospital. Coles, Woolworths, Beds R Us, Subway and Bakers Delight, along with other local businesses and individuals, also made donations.

“It became quite massive. The sports centre looked like a big supermarket; people walked through and got what they needed,” said John.

And Tweed Church of Christ was never the same again.

They had become connected with disadvantaged people living in nearby lifestyle villages, like caravan parks. They had discovered small communities of people living in sand dunes.

They met a man who told them their efforts had totally changed his worldview from hating God and the church to believing in God and thinking the church is the best institution in the world. They met a lady who thanked them for restoring her house and her faith.

As the flood receded, God revealed a new focus for mission: 4000 people in their community who are homeless, mainly due to divorce, domestic violence or natural disaster.

“What the flood experience did was call people to arms and say, ‘Come on, this is something you can do!’ It widened people’s visibility and re-framed what was possible,” said Donna Clift, Chairperson of the Board at Tweed Church of Christ.

“We are now seeing it’s not insurmountable for us to be actively engaged with the vulnerable people of our community. With pastoral-care training opportunities embraced by a wide range of the members, hands-on encouragement and support, the church community has gained confidence to reach out and know that they can engage. Barriers are opportunities now.”

“We have been helping those living in the sand dunes with tents, tarpaulins, sleeping bags and blankets,” John said. “We run two events that mainly those in lifestyle villages come to. At Open House, which a Fresh Hope grant enabled us to provide a safe place for, we give them a really good brunch with lots of fruit and they stay for a couple of hours and chat. Dinner Church is where we invite them for a meal and interactive church service. We also run regular sexual abuse support groups and counselling services.

“We’ve started donating free gifts like clothes, food, kitchenware and toys. We go around to all the lifestyle villages; people really look forward to it.”

Another innovative program they have started is Tethered, a digital literacy service that enables the disadvantaged to remain connected by charging their phone, accessing email and online government services, and printing forms.

With ministry now firmly focused in the community, it is no surprise that Tweed Church of Christ found itself at the centre of a $3.5 million bushfire donation drive at the beginning of 2020.

“Our neighbour wanted to help by using their tin shed to take donations, and I went down and offered our sports centre as I knew it could handle the volume,” said John.

“So we started a donations appeal. People would bring a bag from Coles or Woolworths and we ended up having three massive semi-trailers, with 54 pallets in each, full of every conceivable thing people need. The first two trucks went to Ulladulla and Batemans Bay, and the third to Coffs Harbour.

“It was the same intensity as with the flood – 30 to 50 people a day were coming from the community to help. Celebrity Celeste Barber lives near us and she came down and joined us, doing interviews about her fundraiser from our floor.”

Today, the local community sees the sports centre as their own. They have an affinity with it because of the way it has been used to help others.

“When the community is in pain, the sports centre has become the place of hope where things are possible,” said Donna.

“Our idea is to transform the sports centre into a multi-faceted community resource where we minister to the whole person,” said John. “Physically through sports, mentally and emotionally through counselling rooms, spiritually through church, and relationally through a big coffee shop and child-care play area.

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