We are all familiar with the concept of visionless churches; the Bible warns us that where there is no vision, the people perish. The word for ‘vision’ was translated as ‘prophecy’ in the Vulgate, the early Latin translation of the Bible.
The combination of the concept of vision and prophecy as interchangeable terms is fascinating. Where people do not hear the Word in its fullness, they will die. Where people are afraid to speak out in their worlds, their communities die. All over Australia people and communities are dying.
Seven years ago, the Griffith Baptist Church found itself in a dilemma. They had dwindled in numbers to a mere handful, they had been without a pastor for a number of years and they were struggling to keep themselves going. Many of the other churches in the town looked upon the local church with a sense of distrust as they described the ‘God-forsaken church on a God-forsaken patch of land’. How tragic that was. The church had predominantly aged folks, with only two teenagers in the entire congregation. Everyone anticipated that the doors would soon close unless God did something miraculous – and he did not let them down!
Kevin Webb, a pastor from South Africa, was called to take on the role in a full-time capacity. This in itself was a big step of faith on the part of the congregation, as the finances could not sustain paying a person full-time. It was, however, a condition of the acceptance of the call, that the position be full-time and that the church commit itself to growing into a financially sound position over a reasonable period of time. For the time being, the pastor would accept a lower stipend as he, together with the church, believed in the match made by God.
Today, the church not only supports Kevin full-time, but is also looking for an associate pastor, also on a full-time basis. The regular attendance at the church has increased over 400% in seven years and the financial giving has gone up by over 500% since then. The leadership of the church in 2005 had a vision that they wanted to achieve, and that was that the church needed to regain its rightful place in the community, and it needed to reach out to younger people as a matter of urgency.
Part of the original vision to reposition itself in the community would be facilitated by allowing the new pastor to invest as much time as possible in the community, and to be a part of the greater church community program as much as possible. As it happened, the new pastor was particularly interested in chaplaincy work, as he had been involved in Emergency Services Chaplaincy in South Africa. A similar program did not exist here, so one was started. The Griffith Community Chaplaincy was founded and the service to the Griffith community began in a small way. Based at the hospital, the chaplaincy involved ministers from five churches in the Griffith area. The Baptist pastor was appointed as the Senior Chaplain and also took up the role of Griffith Christian Churches’ Association secretary. These positions he still holds today. He also took up the role of Ambulance Chaplain for the Murrumbidgee region, a position he served in for five years.
Being involved in Chaplaincy alerted the church to a very deep need in the community for mental health support. Suicide rates in the area are reported to be the highest in the State. The pastor became a part of the Suicide Awareness group, and as a chaplain also sat on the Griffith Area Palliative Care Service (GAPS). Massive shortages in budgets, staff availability, services and such like issues were too much to ignore; it was obvious that this was an area where there could be an effective ministry. In a conversation the pastor had with someone, the name Barnabas was mentioned as an apt way to describe the ministry needed in Griffith. We needed a Barnabas ministry. The name stuck and Barnabas House was born.
In the centre of Griffith, a retirement village, in bad shape and a deteriorating condition, was starting to run at a loss. The number of residents dropped consistently and the village was not able to be used optimally. Unfortunately, there were numerous legal and practical hurdles to jump over, but the church felt strongly that they needed to take over the village and run it as a Crisis Residential Mental Health facility. Negotiations took a long time and there was much heartache along the way. Sometimes we felt that it was never going to get there. To cut a long story short, the local Council agreed to renegotiate the lease on the property and to enter into a new licence agreement with the church for the purposes of a Crisis Village. The Church took over running the property in late December 2011.
A business plan was drawn up and presented to the church, which was unanimously accepted. This plan saw a three-year development plan to get the poor quality site up to standard. The rooms were in terrible condition and the grounds severely neglected. Money to pour into the project was not readily available, and a huge step of faith was required. Significant impact on the church was envisaged, as roles and emphases in ministries would change. The running of the village would require large numbers of volunteers on regular basis, and most of all, the Pastor would have to devote about 80% of his time to running the village. Mental Health issues are also not without their share of legalities and requirements.
Outpourings of support from our community were enormous. The Suicide Awareness Group donated $72,000 to the Barnabas cause to refurbish two family units. A local furniture outlet, known as Caesar’s Emporium, had a charity committee meeting. Enthralled by the project that had been so long awaited, they agreed to donate 35 beds and mattresses, 100 sets of linen, boardroom furniture, and furnish the counselling centre. In terms of our business plan, this would satisfy our needs for the first year. The Vincent Fairfax Foundation also agreed to fund the senior counsellor for the centre for a period of three years. A loan was secured from the Riverina Baptist Association to buy Phase 1 appliances, and the fitment of carpets and floors was negotiated. We anticipated starting to take in clients from 1 April 2012. Unfortunately, Council approval was being delayed for a number of reasons.
In March 2012, before we were even officially occupying the site for residential purposes, in the midst of serious upgrading and renovations, the worst floods in 148 years hit our area, leaving scores of homes destroyed and hundreds of people homeless. Overnight, every available bed and lodging in the entire region had been allocated and there was a dire need for additional space. The City Council and the Disaster Recovery Network approached us to help out, which we readily agreed to do, but with no financial basis at all. Given the fact that we had 35 beds to use, we hastily got as many rooms as we could into a state of liveability, and took in 35 flood victims. This happened in two to three days. The needs were so great and the resources so small, we started asking around for help. Our own congregation was fantastic. They donated more beds, we received assistance from the BUNSW Disaster Relief Fund, local businesses and individuals. Other regional Baptist churches came to our aid by sending money. As the money came in, it was immediately spent. As soon as a room was readied, people were moving in. By the end of the second week, we were overflowing. With 83 people on site, we had bought every available bed and piece of bedding in the entire town. We were working extremely long hours, and all our volunteers were dead tired.
At the end of the initial rush we realised that we had been forced to achieve a threeyear goal in a matter of weeks. A facility we originally thought would have two family units now has six. Even after all this time, we still have 28 flood victims living on site. Our needs are still big, but we are amazed at what God can do. He is truly amazing and worthy of all praise!
As for the future, our congregation is excited about the opportunities we have to minister to those in deep need. Opportunities for people to volunteer their gifts and talents on the site are huge. As many as 16 volunteers at a time are on site to facilitate the running of the centre, which now has two full-time counsellors, caretakers who live on site, maintenance people, volunteers in the gardens, welders, plumbers, painters, cleaners, op shop operators and receptionists. We have an accountant, a management committee and many prayer supporters. Members of our congregation have dug deep, have trusted God and are seeing the fruit. Some have come to faith in the Lord Jesus in our counselling rooms, some have been delivered from various afflictions. We are also regularly featured in the local press and on radio. Griffith Baps is back on the map!
Our facility is unique in that we offer a raft of services in mental health that has never been available before in our area. We have daily referrals from doctors, agencies, DOCS, the police, the hospital and by word of mouth. Our staff are regularly asked to speak at community events, Rotary Clubs and other societies. Our two counsellors are the only registered counsellors in the Griffith area. Our excitement is hard to contain and we want to give God all the glory and honour and praise!