When I pull up and park, the Bonnells Bay (NSW) food pantry is already in full swing, with cars queued up across the property. Those at the head of the queue progress past a number of gazebos where volunteers have set up tables loaded with various kinds of produce—mainly fresh fruit and veg, and packaged foods. The volunteers wear hi-vis vests and surgical gloves—those speaking to the occupants of the cars also wear face masks.
“Welcome to church,” says Sau Finau. For some years now he’s led the Bonnells Bay church plant, which has maintained a focus on practical assistance for locals in need—whether those needs are physical, psychological, social or spiritual. It’s not Sabbath; there’s no worship service scheduled, but, for Mr Finau, today’s activities are just as legitimately “church” as overtly spiritual events.
When I note that, in the COVID era, people seem to be more open to spiritual discussions, Mr Finau hoses down any suggestion that this crisis should be used opportunistically for evangelism: “I don’t think that is the right attitude for Christians. Right now, families are in need of food and with fear of being homeless. People are losing their jobs. Businesses are closing down, not knowing when they will reopen. People are lining up at the job centres. The last thing we should worry about is spiritual discussion. We, as a church must rise up and meet those needs. What would Jesus do in such times as these?”
Nevertheless, the Bonnells Bay congregation does include a number of people whose initial contact with the group involved receiving help and/or volunteering in their community activities. The approach is far from a cynical “bait and switch”, but it’s clear the gospel message is getting through.
While the food pantry has operated for several years, the drive-through service is an innovation prompted by COVID—it’s much easier to maintain physical distancing when people stay in their cars. These days, about 80 vehicles visit the pantry every Thursday, each vehicle representing at least one household.
“We have more people than ever before,” says Mr Finau. “More families are put in the position to make a hard choice: pay bills or put food on the table. Struggling families appreciate the service we do, as it enables them to do both.”
In the early weeks of the lockdown, a number of volunteers stayed home, concerned about the risks of being involved. But, while the drive-through model means more work for the team, new volunteers have stepped forward and the service to the community has continued. “I am so appreciative of the volunteers who are serving with us,” says Mr Finau.
President of the North NSW Conference, Pastor Adrian Raethel, is visiting the Bonnells Bay food pantry for the first time. “The size and scale of the operation and the high level of organisation are the things that strike you when you arrive,” he says.
He notes that other churches around the Conference are involved in similar efforts: “Manna Haven is a vegan cafe that has been operating for a number of years at the Byron Bay Church. Raymond Terrace Mission is a centre of influence, which includes a healthy juice bar and an ADRA op shop. A number of other churches operate food pantries or God’s Closet programs.”
What spiritual value does Pastor Raethel see in these kinds of activities? “As the apostle Paul says, ‘Much in every way.’ Church members are blessed as they are involved in service and meeting the needs of people in the community as they are the hands and feet of Jesus.”