Hospitality is at the heart of Waranga Uniting Churches, according to minister Brian Spencer. And, although the decision to sell Tatura’s Thomson St church and move the congregation to a cafe may be surprising to some, it’s not so strange on second glance. ‘The church served us well, this will serve us better,’ Rev Spencer said. Context changes perception — churches can be forbidding, whereas a cafe has a friendly vibe.
But it soon became clear that the costs of replacing asbestos roofing and associated plumbing upgrades would chew through the bank balance, leaving nothing for other essential upgrades to the interiors or for community projects. ‘Most of our money would have been used just bringing the building up to the current building code,’ Mrs Cross said.
So when The Gallery Cafe in Tatura’s main street went up for sale in 2020, Rev Spencer saw it as a golden opportunity to safeguard the sustainability of the church community, and better serve its members. ‘People come searching for purpose, healing, meaning … our hope and dream is that resources will now be able to go toward people, rather than an ageing building,’ he said.
Tatura Uniting Church’s new digs, now known as Olive and Vine, features two indoor areas capable of seating 65 people in each, and an outdoor setting for 40. The rear section is to become the church, although transforming the former function room into a house of God requires more than a bit of elbow grease. A fresh coat of paint, a pulpit, a Bible, a candle and a cross are already working wonders one week before the first service in the new space.
The front room boasts a commercial kitchen and a dining room, which will be used for church meetings as well as to raise revenue — maybe as a cafe, maybe as a venue for hire, maybe serving purposes the open minded church leaders have not yet imagined. A three-bedroom apartment upstairs provides another potential income stream.
Rev Spencer said there were a lot of questions but ‘no real pushback’ when he pitched the switch to the congregation. He said it would be emotional to say goodbye to something treasured, however, members of Waranga Uniting Churches had become accustomed to change and embraced new ways of worship since the start of the pandemic. ‘We’ve been persistent, and we’re smarter than we think we are,’ Rev Spencer said.
All four congregations — Colbinabbin, Murchison, Rushworth and Tatura — joined forces via Zoom during lockdowns, coming together in the midst of social isolation to catch up, share stories and take part in Sunday services. Rev Spencer said he was conscious that weekly worship was a kind of community meeting, ‘to strengthen each other’ and he found ways to honour that ethos online. Zoom broadcasts are now a staple of Rev Spencer’s weekly service, and as he rotates his physical presence between Waranga’s four congregations, they remain united.
Mrs Cross said the congregation was ‘both excited and scared’ by the big venture they had embarked upon, and they looked forward to making their new home ‘prominent, warm and inviting’.
The Tatura church’s transition received strong support from the Presbytery of North East Victoria and generous financial support from the Rutherglen, West Wodonga and North Albury congregations. The final service at the Thomson St church is on Sunday at 9.30 am, followed by an inspection of Olive and Vine, a lunch, music and singing. Tatura Uniting Church’s first service at Olive and Vine, 115 Hogan St, Tatura, is on July 11 at 9.30 am.
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