It’s cold outside, and getting colder, with a biting frost descending as the temperature hovers around 0°. Inside the church hall, however, there is the comfort of warmth and it’s not only provided by the heating and the presence of a growing number of people. There is an inner warmth, too, that comes from smiling, welcoming faces, and the joy of conversation and fellowship with friends new and old.
This is the Alpine Uniting Church hall in Jindabyne, in New South Wales’ High Country, and it’s any Wednesday night in the ski season. On one wall of the hall hangs a banner that reads,
Why does the Op Shop provide a meal? Because it is over food that hearts are opened, fears are revealed and love is expressed.
Beneath the banner, church member Gordon Wilson rises to speak briefly. “I offer you the blessing of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We welcome you here and are glad you’ve come. We would like to get to know every one of you personally.”
It’s a simple but powerful welcome to up to 165 people who may gather for this special meal, on any Wednesday night.
Anyone is welcome, but the meal tends not to attract the well-heeled tourists. Instead, here gather the itinerant workers come for the seasonal employment on the snow fields, and the young back-packing skiers whose dollars are exhausted by the exorbitant cost of even the humblest accommodation in town. They have come are from all over the world – Europe and the UK, North and South America, Asia, and distant regions of Australia. And there are locals too, who find in these evenings the sense of community that perhaps escapes their everyday life in town.
The meal is completely free, paid for by the proceeds of the amazingly successful Op Shop operated by the Church every Wednesday and Saturday. Not that the old maxim, “You get what you pay for”, holds true here! The skilful team of cooks and servers produces a superb two or even three course meal, at an incredibly low price per person.
As the meal is served up and dished out, members of the team circulate, conversing with as many guests as they can manage. All express their gratitude for the meal, and their enjoyment of the atmosphere, which allows them a free night out with good food, at a place other than the expensive restaurants and bars in town. For many, it’s also a relief to be in an alcohol-free environment. And for many, it’s a welcome break from the inevitable loneliness that accompanies, at least, their first few weeks in town.
But there are also important questions to be asked. Some itinerants have commenced work, but have not yet been paid: do they have accommodation? The Op Shop can give (not lend) them a tent for shelter, or can refer them to the Seventh Day Adventist hostel just outside of town. Do they have food? The Op Shop has a food bank ready to meet emergency needs. Are they safe?
It’s hard to identify anyone who’s not a winner here. The Alpine Congregation recognises the enterprise as a vital mission, and most who are in a position to do so are committed volunteers. A number of the other volunteers who assist in the Op Shop and at the dinner (it’s known as “Soul Food Community Kitchen”, by the way) eschew a traditional Church connection because of unhappy past experiences elsewhere. Still, they have come to regard this work as their “Church”. And the broader community has embraced the whole undertaking with generosity, donating huge quantities of quality goods for sale in the Op Shop, including any amount of ski and snow-boarding gear. (If you don’t mind not having the latest fashion or technology on the slopes, then it’s cheaper to purchase at the Op Shop than to hire in town!)
When we first arrived in Jindabyne, went into the National Parks information centre to get a map, and mentioned that we were in town to work for a month with the Uniting Church, both the officer serving us and a nearby customer enthused about what a great job the Church was doing for the town. It was an unusual, but very special introduction to a special band of Christ’s people.
When Jesus spoke of separating the “sheep” from the “goats”, the sheep asked him when they had ever seen him hungry or thirsty. Jesus replied, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 26:40). Those words echo around the humble church hall in Jindabyne, where a mighty act of love occurs every Wednesday night.
Alan Harper OAM