They’re the unofficial chaplains of basketball in Bathurst. Three Avondale ministry and theology students are helping hoops fan and minister Raymon Paletua create safe places for children, and in doing so build the reputation of the Seventh-day Adventists as being community-minded.
When not in COVID-19 lockdown, Paleetua Peniata practically live at the town’s indoor sports stadium. Raymon coaches the top under-14 girls team in the Western League, Cedric the under 12s. The church also hosts monthly basketball nights. “The kids know we’re Adventists, they know we’re pastors, so they’re often asking questions about God,” says Raymon. The four are training with Sports Chaplaincy Australia. Accreditation “will solidify our relationship with the basketball families in our community.”
Many of those playing basketball, or hanging out with the guys at the skatepark for an activity Bathurst Regional Council asked the church to run, are students in the public primary schools where Roger, Abel and Cedric are chaplains. The three are changing the perceptions of teachers who’ve seen chaplains as “tired pastors who couldn’t connect with kids.” Here’s Darren Denmead, principal at Bathurst West, introducing Abel to the school community: he’s “always positive and leads by example, helping students share the journey of developing strong life skills.”
Abel joined Roger at Bathurst West earlier this year; Cedric is at Lyndhurst and East Orange. As part of their ministry, they offer parcels from the Central Tablelands Food Pantry to the students. This is building trust and opening up opportunities to address mental health and wellbeing concerns. “We serve needs until the students ask why,” says Roger. His relationship with Bathurst West is so good the school is funding extra hours so Roger can work full-time this year. “My role is to be present, to help the students feel like they belong.” Word spread. “I still have principals of other schools calling and saying, ‘I heard your chaplains over at West Bathurst and Lyndhurst are doing some great work, so how do I get one?” says Raymon.
The team in Bathurst had a boost in June, hosting four other Avondale ministry and theology students completing an externship. One of their tasks: helping members of the Lions and Rotary Clubs and the Men’s Connect Group from the local Neighbourhood Centre pack over 100 food parcels. The community groups told Raymon it was “refreshing” to see young adults wanting to serve with no strings attached. The students then worked with the team to distribute the parcels to families in the suburb of Kelso. “People in the community are very willing to get on board with good ideas,” says Jesse Duperouzel, whose experience with classmates Ben Cowley, Jesse Curnuck and Gabbrielle Shaw broadened his perspective about what ministry could be. “I learned how to leverage what I already have into something more, to be always open for the next opportunity, no matter how small it seems.”
Jesse tells, as an example, of the principal from a school Raymon and the team had yet to meet who dropped by the pantry to pick up some parcels. “Another connection, another community.”
Raymon, Roger, Abel and Cedric represent only about 50 Adventists in the Central West. “Even though we’re small in number,” says Raymon, “we’re punching well above our weight.”
Brenton Stacey is the Public Relations and Philanthropy Officer for Avondale University.