On a grey and rainy morning in Taree, the old red brick building on Victoria Street that was Taree Church of Christ’s chapel watches sleepily over the busy town on the Manning River. It has lived here for 65 years, housing a church whose history dates back to 1863.
If you look into the chapel’s wizened face, past its wrinkles and ageing marks, through the well-used doors, the warmth of the chapel’s grandfatherly presence still draws you in, even if its fire is now only a flicker. The overcast morning light makes the stained glass above the entry gently glow, revealing the story of Jesus calling his disciples to be fishers of men on the shores of Lake Galilee.
As you step into the chapel and hear your foot resound across the old floorboards, you can sense the countless stories this hall could tell of the works God has done in many generations. When you stop and listen closely, you can almost hear the thunder of hundreds of feet, clapping hands and prayerful voices rumbling around you – the heartbeat of its youth now quieting.
Within the chapel, three resolute women remain, still bearing the long-burning fire of Taree Church of Christ. They each hold an ardent desire to see heaven come on earth. Today, I have come to hear about the church’s impact on their lives.
Kathy Bullock, Dorothy Holstein and Lea Svenson (pictured) share more than 180 years of membership at Taree Church of Christ, not including Lea’s ancestors, who were among the first to be baptised when the church was founded in 1863.
Over the past decade, these three women have shared the responsibility of caring for the church’s congregation and property. Lea has lived on the property and acted as caretaker. Dorothy has worked tirelessly to keep the facilities clean for the local community’s use. Kathy has filled the gap when the church has been without a pastor. This morning they stop to reflect on the beloved people and events that have been so influential in their Christian walk, aware that the church here is in its final year of life.
“This church has always been there to support and encourage me,” Lea began. “I was not a well child. I had heart problems, so I was only eight years old when I had my first heart operation, which was pretty major. I was the second child in Australia to have it.
“The church was there,” she continued. “I found out later they were praying for my healing in prayer meetings. So, from the very early stages, I had that support and encouragement from people. And I’ve had it all my life – through a broken marriage. It’s always been there for me. My walk with Jesus has been enhanced by the love and encouragement I have received from the church folk.”
As the vivid image above the front doors declares, Jesus’ call to reach the lost has been central in this church’s long history.
“Outreach was very much part of the church’s DNA,” Kathy explained. “Through the Sunday night service, which was always traditionally the gospel service, we could invite non-believers in and give them a chance to hear the gospel.
“We had Sunday school, Christian Endeavour, youth groups, Boys Brigade, Girls Life Brigade, all of which focused on attracting and nurturing the youth. Christian Women’s Fellowship ministered to women, while such things as competition cricket teams interested the menfolk, and casual tennis afternoons developed friendships among men, women, boys and girls. Friendships opened many doors to sharing the gospel.”
“Since the early days, we had local tent missions,” Kathy continued. “We would have evangelists come for a period of time. There would be nightly evangelistic campaigns held after work so that you could invite your friends.
“There was also an overseas missions focus. India was perhaps the earliest focus of Churches of Christ. Then there was the New Hebrides [Vanuatu], where I worked. There were also missionaries in Papua New Guinea and later in Fiji. Australia’s First Nations people were also an early part of the mission focus.
“We would be kept informed as to what was happening in the fields. Missionaries on furlough would visit and share with us. We were encouraged as part of our faith walk to serve in an overseas missionary capacity.
“I think that was helpful in the life of the church because we were outward-looking. If I could say what wasn’t quite right after the split in 1987, it was that we became more inward-looking – in survival mode.”
This culture and heartbeat for the lost in Taree COC impacted the direction of Dorothy and Kathy’s lives.
Dorothy walked into Taree Church of Christ as a young nurse in training, hungry to find her ‘God-purpose’. As a 19-year-old, she was immediately inspired by the church’s atmosphere of the mission. God had already been speaking to her about becoming a missionary while completing her nursing training.
“Freely you have received, freely give,” Dorothy remembers hearing from God. “This got my attention. I had received much – an education, nursing training and most significantly, new life in Christ. I realised this matter of freely giving of what I’d received could be practised anywhere – it could be next door or in the Congo. I remember saying, ‘God, it’s my job to get ready.’”
When she concluded her nursing training, Dorothy was meant to get married, but she realised all that had to change because her boyfriend was not a believer. “We had good teaching in those days about being unequally yoked,” she said. “Now, it doesn’t seem to matter so much. That nearly killed me. It’s the most difficult thing I had to do as a new Christian.”
Despite the sacrifices she had to make, Dorothy felt strongly that God was calling her to missions. She remembered saying to herself, “I haven’t a clue where I’m going to end up, but I have to get ready.”
Eventually, Dorothy was led to take a nursing position at Daund Hospital in West India. She worked in India in five different locations over a period of 30 years, the last 18 years being on secondment to an Indian Medical Mission, The Emmanuel Hospital Association (EHA).
Kathy’s story is remarkably similar. She remembers her desire for missions being planted at a young age. In Sunday school at Taree Church of Christ, she would win vouchers to spend at the local Christian book shop for memorising Scripture. Invariably she would pick up a biography about a Christian missionary, and these stories impacted her deeply.
On completing her nursing training, she received a request from missionary nurses in the New Hebrides, friends of Taree COC, asking if she would relieve them for six months while they took home leave. Within weeks, Kathy had resigned from her job and was on a flight to the New Hebrides.
What began as a six-month voluntary stint grew to 10 months and then four years. During this time, Taree COC contributed to her financial support and was faithful in praying for her. Later she spent nine years as a missionary serving in Indonesian Borneo, being part of a team involved in evangelism, discipling and church planting.
Throughout its history, Taree COC acted as a planting, sending and resourcing church, both locally to churches on the east coast (among them Lismore, Forster/Tuncurry, Wingham, Port Macquarie, and Bonny Hills) and missionaries overseas. This was happening as early as the 1930s and continued well into the 1980s when Taree COC supported the planting of the Tuncurry/Forster COC.
After this long and fruitful legacy, today Taree COC’s numbers have dwindled, and Sunday services are no longer held.
As when farewelling an elderly loved one, grief can be a mixture of mourning and relief. While Lea, Dorothy and Kathy have a deep sadness about the closure of Taree COC, there is also a sense of liberty. These women are now considering how God can use them in new ways.
“What we would like to happen is what God wants,” Dorothy said. “That’s our desire. In Acts it says, ‘It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit.’”
Kathy added, “On Thursday mornings, we meet in the hall to follow the Acts 2:42 principle. Up to eight people are still involved in meeting for fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers and studying Scripture.”
These three faithful, lifelong friends shared about the next chapter with a sense of excitement and curiosity, wondering how God might lead them to minister to their local community next.
As the doors of Taree Church of Christ officially close this year, its legacy still burns in the hearts of these three women and those who gather with them. Countless churches, ministries, and individuals across Australia and the globe have been impacted by the culture of mission set by this significant, regional church.
As we listen to Taree COC’s inspiring legacy, I believe our network is left with a challenge: how will the culture of our churches impact the local and global kingdom of God in our day? What will our heartbeat be remembered for?
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