By Josh Gibbon
Southern Illawarra and New Day Church recently partnered to serve the indigenous ministries of Dareton and Mildura Church of Christ. The impact of this shared experience has strengthened the churches’ relationships, birthed common vision for the future and altered the course of some of the team members’ lives.
The Dareton Youth and Community Drop-In Centre
If you drive 10 hours west of Sydney along the Sturt Highway, vistas of green bush and farmland gradually fade to brown before dissipating into red sand. As the highway hugs the Murray River, it eventually winds its way through a tiny, remote town called Dareton, nestled on the NSW-Victorian border and just a 20-minute drive from Mildura.
Dareton is home to 600 people. The highway runs through its heart with one street of houses on either side. Being one kilometre long, a brisk walker could put the kettle on at home, do a lap of town, and beat it back to the boil.
On a corner at one end of the town sits little Dareton Church of Christ, home to about 15 members over the age of 75.
Over 10 years ago, this community decided they wanted to leave a legacy of Kingdom influence in their town, particularly for indigenous young people.
Now, at the other end of town stands the Dareton Youth and Community Drop-In Centre, which has become a hub for the community and a safe place for its young people.
Stephen Cathcart, pastor of Southern Illawarra Church, has been building a relationship with this ministry since 2014, making the 10-hour journey and taking a team to serve almost every year since.
“One of the great joys of my life has been to be on the ground floor of this,” said Stephen.
“The question is often asked, ‘If you took the church out of your community, would your community notice?’” he reflected. “For Dareton, if you take the church out of the community, you take out everything good that’s going on there. It’s just turning the place around.”
Dareton Church of Christ initially approached GMP’s Indigenous Ministries Australia to help establish a ministry in their area. John Saulo was consequently employed to pioneer a community centre. Being a man of vision and with the generosity and support of many churches, John took a galvanised iron garage and transformed it into a functional drop-in centre with a kitchen, desks with computers and sewing machines, and spaces to host short courses and gatherings.
In 2014, Southern Illawarra Church raised $5000 and gathered a team of tradies to head to Dareton and instal false walls, power points and desks.
The centre is now managed by Ilker Deli from Mildura Church of Christ to provide a safe space and a meal to local kids from 3pm-7pm Monday to Friday every week.
On the outskirts of the dusty town is a parcel of land known as ’The Mission’, which is government-allocated Aboriginal land.
The Mission is off limits to almost all white people except the Dareton and Mildura pastors, who have developed relationships with the community’s elders over time.
Many young Aboriginal people from The Mission hang out at the drop-in centre multiple afternoons a week.
When describing his experience of visiting this community, Stephen said, “The Mission opens your eyes and you wonder, ‘Am I in Australia?’ You see rubbish on the street, feral dogs, broken down homes and cars, and you think, ‘What is going on?’”
Many children in this community go without meals regularly and find themselves in unsafe spaces. The drop-in centre has quickly become the place many teenagers gather to have their needs met, find a safe community and hear about Jesus’ love and purpose for their lives.
From 3-7 July this year, Stephen led a joint team of nine members from Southern Illawarra and New Day Church in Wollongong to run kids programs at Mildura Church of Christ and serve the Dareton Drop-in Centre.
For some time now, Jono Prince from New Day, Tammy Preston from iCentral and Stephen have been meeting with no agenda but to pray and do the pastoral journey together. During these times, Stephen shared about his burden for the Dareton community. Already having a relationship with Mildura Church of Christ, Jono felt a stirring for his community to join Southern Illawarra in their efforts.
“It seemed as though we needed to catch up to what God was already doing and get more involved ourselves,” Jono said.
“Collaborating with Southern and Mildura made this trip possible for us. I think doing things like this together helps us make God’s work and His calling more about Him and His kingdom than about us and own.”
The team that went was a mix of teachers, school students and retirees who paid their own way, some even taking a week of annual leave to go.
The team ran a kids club in the mornings with the Mildura church and hung out with the teenagers at the drop-in centre in the afternoon and evening.
“Having had almost no one come through the town in two years due to COVID-19, the young people were just open and willing to engage and learn,” Stephen said.
“We got to share with the primary school kids about Jesus. It’s only going to be the Lord who can pull some of these young people out of the spiral of poverty and give them a bigger vision for what their life could be,” he said.
“If we don’t share Jesus with these kids, who is? Where are they going to hear about it in our nation? It’s easy to hold up a sign, ‘Black Lives Matter’, but unless you’re willing to go out there and engage and hear their story and have the privilege of sharing with them, nothing’s going to change.”
As is the case on mission trips, this experience greatly impacted many team members.
“Some [from New Day] have heard a call on their life to bring justice to indigenous young people and are now exploring how they can be planted in that community,” Jono said.
Hugh Brophey, 20, who had done some indigenous studies at university, was particularly impacted, having an experience that he believes may redirect the course of his life.
Hugh said, “I wasn’t surprised or initially confronted by the disadvantages to the community which I witnessed but having built such strong mutual connections and love for the kids, it hurts knowing that these disadvantages now occur to those I’ve grown to love, and that now I’m not there with them.
“I feel my work in Dareton is not done. I feel a powerful calling to the area and the people to further impact the community and the kids.
“I believe God has given me a gift in building connections with these children. My newfound feeling of calling to further influence the Dareton community has led me to believe that God planned for me to go on this trip.
“Now, I am considering new career paths to give me opportunities to further support the Dareton community. This trip has changed my life.”
If your church is hearing a call to be involved in reaching and supporting remote indigenous communities, why not get in touch with Stephen Cathcart or Mildura Church of Christ?
To read more about Dareton’s Drop-in Centre, check out GMP’s page HERE
Read more stories of Fresh Hope HERE