Crows Nest is a beautiful and fascinating place. Situated on Sydney’s Lower North Shore, it’s one of the most desired suburbs to live in the Harbour City—and the house prices are testament to this! Crows Nest has what locals love to call ‘that village feel’, and is well known for its cafés and active wear. Interestingly enough, Crows Nest is also home to a not-insignificant number of people living in public housing. The task of bringing together the ‘professional’ and ‘public housing’ populations in a meaningful way is a constant challenge; the main opportunities to do so on a regular basis seem to be either gathering together around the communion table, or for 12-step programs.
I moved to Crows Nest in late 2015, coming to work for Northside Baptist as an Associate Pastor with a focus on helping our community of faith figure out what it means to engage well with the community around us (and, for those who come to Northside but who don’t live in the immediate area, to be inspired and equipped to engage well in their own context). Our church building happens to be located in the very heart of Crows Nest, and this allows us some extraordinary possibilities (in addition to the burden of stewarding well the opportunities that we have been afforded).
The framework that we have used to help us think through the opportunities before us is threefold:
1. We work from a ‘strengths-based’ approach. Taking our cue from asset-based community development practitioners, we seek to identify the strengths of the local community (including people, groups and organisations, businesses, and our local built and natural environment) rather than focusing on the problems—and we hold tight to the belief that everyone in our community has a role to play and something to bring to the shared table. Our aim is whole-of-community flourishing, and we therefore start with appreciative enquiry-type questions like ‘What does this community look like at its best?’ This helps us to ensure that we are not just imposing our own vision for flourishing on the rest of the community, and helps us to figure out the part that we can best play. This approach also helps us identify what’s already going on in the community, so that we can get involved with good initiatives that are already in motion and make sure that we don’t step on anyone’s toes!
2. Our work has no strings attached. In my experience, people can see ‘strings attached’ from a mile away, and this leads to deep distrust. Our aim is to be a ‘trusted partner’ in our local community, and we are therefore committed to high levels of transparency in regards to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We made a decision early on to act in our community out of an overflow of the life of the kingdom that we experience together, rather than with a focus on ‘bums on seats’ (i.e. only doing things with an eye to getting more people in our church building on Sundays). Our aim is for our community to experience what we do as a blessing freely given, and we are upfront about this in all our dealings. What do we get out of it all? Quite simply, an opportunity to embody the love and grace of Jesus in our local context.
3. We maintain a posture of invitation. Everything we do comes with an invitation to join in. We will never force those invitations on anyone (our commitment to ‘no strings attached’ makes sure of that); we will, rather, offer open invitations to anyone and everyone to join in with whatever is going on (whether that be in the community herb garden or the regular community breakfast or whatever else is happening), with a genuine freedom for those invitations to be refused. Our aim in this is to break down the dividing walls in our community in general, as well as creating more porous borders between ‘church’ and ‘community’.
What all of this looks like, for us, is a whole range of possibilities, grouped under the banner of ‘Love Crows Nest’.
It looks like a community herb garden on the edge of our property which flows into one of the busiest pedestrian areas in Crows Nest. Passers-by are encouraged to freely take from the bountiful harvest, always with an invitation to join in. This has led to more conversations with people in our community than I could ever have imagined (with some now regularly involved with the garden), and has also provided the opportunity for us to build relationships with the amazing community gardens team from the local Council. This, in turn, has opened up other opportunities for us to bless our community by volunteering with the Council team to work on other public gardens in our local area, and even the possibility to ‘adopt’ a small bushland garden area in a local park to take on as a semi-regular project.
It looks like working with our local community centre, making sure we don’t duplicate the great work that they’re already doing in the community (like English language classes), and pointing our people to them for volunteer opportunities.
It also looks like working closely with our local business community, represented by the excellent people at Crows Nest Mainstreet. We’ve been able to partner with them for things like a ‘Fair Trade Alley’ on our property as part of the annual Crows Nest Festival, as well as an annual community Carols event in the Crows Nest town centre that attracts about 1,000 people. But the real gold of this is the genuine trust that’s being built, which allows opportunities, for example, for us to connect people working with new migrants and refugees in the area with the local businesses community, in the hope of providing mutually-beneficial opportunities both for the businesses and for the new migrants to establish employment histories, develop English skills, and combat the all-too-common isolation (along with anxiety and depression) that’s resulting from not being able to secure work.
It has looked like a free monthly community breakfast (funded by a local Council food grant and run by a team of volunteers), though this is something that we’re currently reconsidering in order to explore new possibilities (like a small-scale Oz Harvest-style initiative working with local cafés), with the hope of providing even more opportunities for local community involvement (not just as ‘recipients’ but as ‘team members’), and for breaking down the walls that divide us.
Basically, it looks like a huge range of possibilities to engage with our local community in meaningful ways, to build relationships, and to embody something of the character of Jesus.