Seeking the shalom of Lalor Park
'Police investigating a suspicious house fire in Lucas Rd, Lalor Park'
'Police raid drug house near the scene of alleged double ice killing in Lalor Park'
'Lalor Park: Three-year-old girl shot dead inside house'
Poor old Lalor Park only seems to make headlines for the wrong reasons. Developed by the NSW Housing Commission in western Sydney in the late 1950’s, 'LP' is now home to an eclectic mix of working class and welfare-dependant families, de-institutionalised mental health patients, people from indigenous, migrant and refugee backgrounds, and middle-class first home-buyers.
An old-fashioned strip of shops provides a village feel to LP, albeit punctuated by semi-regular arguments, domestic disputes and the occasional police call-out. A park, a primary school, a community hall with a small branch library, a newish skate park and a servo complete the town centre, which is surrounded by public housing flats.
When Churches of Christ pastor Nathan Marshall first floated the idea of moving to Lalor Park to set up a missional community, one friend joked 'Can anything good come from Lalor Park?'. As a passionate, energetic and determined (not to mention somewhat starry-eyed) follower of Christ, that was all the encouragement he needed to give it a crack. But how do you bring the message of Jesus to a community notorious for its social security dependency, dysfunctional families, drug abuse and mental health issues?
Common Groundz Community Café
After much prayer and even more beverage-fuelled discussion, and taking Vincent van Gogh’s The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum as an icon, the dream of creating a space of welcome and hospitality, eating and drinking began to take shape. Soon enough, one of the shops became available for lease. Nathan managed to convince enough people that an idea as crazy as this might just work and, with the generous backing of an associated church, Common Groundz Community Café was born.
Although mission statements and strategic plans would gradually take shape, the basic concept for the café was to provide a safe and welcoming place for locals to hang out, as well as a focal point for Christian ministry in the neighbourhood. We were keen to explore what it might mean to 'seek the shalom of the city' where we lived, to explore what it means to be salt and light in a local community.
As the new café was taking shape, locals responded with a mixture of excited anticipation, disbelief, condescension and outright pity. Nearby shop owners were skeptical about our chances of survival. Local churches offered encouragement and prayer support, but not much else. Blacktown Council, willing to support any initiative that might help to 'fix' Lalor Park, was intrigued, but guardedly optimistic. At the other end of the scale was Sam, the manager of the local servo, who took every opportunity to remind us that we were 'effin mad'.
The doors opened in October 2008 and Common Groundz quickly began to attract talented and passionate people from a variety of faith or no-faith backgrounds, but with a shared vision for what Lalor Park could be. One early addition to the 'Groundz Crew' was Danielle Rawnsley-Galistan, an artist who was already well known in the area for her 'fight graffiti with murals' philosophy. She brought her dream of a community art space to run sessions for people with mental health issues, programs for school kids and gatherings for the local indigenous community.
Over time, the café has served as a laboratory for community engagement experiments. At various times, it has hosted homework clubs, social groups, various types of support groups, music evenings and community Christmas meals. It has provided a venue for TAFE courses, work experience programs and 'Groundz Care', a gang of vigilante lawn mowers who tamed pensioners' back yards whilst providing mentoring and training for unemployed youth.
Lalor Park Community Garden
The community garden is an interesting case study in how followers of Jesus can be catalysts in fostering positive change. The original idea was first floated over coffee at Common Groundz, and a few potential sites scoped out. Almost on cue, Graeme Somerset, a permaculture Jedi who somehow managed to survive the hippie era with most of his brain cells intact, appeared on the scene. Graeme happened to be between jobs and looking for something to throw his time and energy into, so jumped at the opportunity to be involved in establishing a garden.
Having visited a few community gardens in New York, Graeme was keen that the Lalor Park garden should be an incorporated body and a grass-roots initiative driven collaboratively by its members. A notice was displayed at the counter of the café and half-a-dozen interested people began to meet regularly to discuss the purpose, structure, governance and physical form of the garden. Nathan introduced Graeme to some of his contacts at Blacktown Council and Graeme began to cultivate a few relationships of his own. Eventually, the council agreed to release a disused storage/play area at the rear of the community centre for the garden.
In the end, it was more than a year before the first sod was turned, but the original mission statement and constitution developed during that foundational period have stood the test of time and the garden continues to thrive as a genuine cooperative, owned and run by a small, but enthusiastic membership. And having appeared on Gardening Australia and Sydney Weekender, it’s also now officially famous.
Throughout its 11-year history, Common Groundz has perhaps been a little too successfully not-for-profit and keeping the doors open is a constant struggle. Financial sustainability is a challenge for cafés everywhere, let alone one situated in possibly the least hip part of Sydney. Despite all the hard work of staff and volunteers, Common Groundz has been dependent on the generous support of Pathways Community Church (which underwrites the venture), local government, community organisations and individual donors to stay afloat.
Our relationship with Blacktown Council has been especially important in seeking to foster positive change in Lalor Park. Despite our unashamedly Christian identity, Council has been very supportive and also generous in providing material support, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, for various ministries and initiatives. This includes refurbishing a disused section of the community centre for use as a 'ministry space' and a downstairs area for 'Creative Groundz' (our community arts centre), as well as providing funding for an impressive outdoor kitchen in the community garden. As a measure of the value Council places on Common Groundz and its associated ventures, Nathan was recognised as Blacktown Citizen of the Year in 2013.
Other organisations that have provided generous support include the NSW Government (through its Community Building Partnership program), Blacktown RSL and Blacktown Workers Club.
An Anglican minister, a Presbyterian minister, a Pentecostal pastor and a Baptist pastor walked into a café. The punchline is a little disappointing from a comedic standpoint, but true to its name Common Groundz provides 'neutral territory' where local church leaders can meet regularly to share the joys and frustrations of parish ministry and to support each other in prayer. The ensuing corporate heart for local mission has led to combined prayer gatherings which rotate around the local churches, and cooperation on events such as the annual Carols in the Park.
Very early in its history, another small group of Christians began meeting at the café to share, read scripture, debate and pray. Common Groundz Café Church was formed and soon outgrew the confines of the café (which, let’s face it, was never a great space to do church, especially with lots of young kids). It moved across the road to the community hall, where it still provides a spiritual home to doubters, misfits and refugees from more traditional expressions of Christian practice.
Lalor Park Focus is another initiative to grow out of the relationships established with churches and other local stakeholders. Focus provides a forum where representatives from local council, law enforcement, social services, schools, faith communities, business and other community groups can meet to discuss issues affecting Lalor Park, seek input on planning decisions and develop cooperative solutions to problems. Mark Tough, the minister at St Clement’s Anglican Church, has been chair of LP Focus for several years and considers it one of the most important contributions he makes to the local community.
Finally, a reality check, lest this brief account makes everything that’s happening in Lalor Park sound too idyllic. At present, we face a number of challenges that threaten the long-term viability of Common Groundz. The café has always struggled to balance the books and the church that underwrites it is no longer in a position to absorb financial losses. Most available grants are tied to capital expenditure and, whilst refurbished toilets and well-equipped community laundries are wonderful, our major expense is wages for our already over-worked and under-paid staff. Long-term sustainability is, unfortunately, still a pipe dream.
Although always a corporate effort, ventures like Common Groundz only seem to materialise through the passionate leadership of one or two highly motivated people. Nathan’s vision and drive were central to getting the café up and running, but it exacted its own toll. After one-too-many burnouts, time off for reflection and discernment led him to pull out of café management and church leadership and move on to a new role within Churches of Christ. It remains to be seen whether Common Groundz can survive, and how it will evolve, in the 'post-Nathan era'.
Despite the many wonderful stories of redemption that have emerged over more than a decade of ministry - of lives saved, relationships healed, community spaces renewed, people welcomed into a safe place and some even coming to faith - Lalor Park hasn’t been radically transformed in the way we may have first hoped. All the old problems of drug abuse, domestic violence, dysfunction and destruction still exist. The cops still get called out on a regular basis. We’ve come to realise that there will always be weeds amongst the wheat this side of Kingdom Come. Despite all the excitement and bustle, ministry in this context will always be a slog and there will be regular seasons of doubt and disappointment. But, above all else, the story of Common Groundz is testament to what Christ can do if a few people who aspire to follow him are willing to give him half a chance …
Steve Barnett works for International Nepal Fellowship and is a member of the Common Groundz Café Church.
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