by Helen Brinkman

Picture a big box of kindness filled with Christmas goodies and pantry staples, a Christmas tree full of gift baubles, and gift catalogues supporting people in developing nations.

This is the spirit of Advent shining from Melbourne’s St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Box Hill. The congregation’s Advent Action program unveils giving opportunities throughout this church season.

The congregation’s volunteer Justice and Mercy Ministry Team, a small band of volunteers mostly aged over 60, run the program as one of a range of social justice causes in their local community and beyond.

The group may be small, but its secret is working together with like-minded groups in the local community through the Whitehorse Churches Care group network. Whitehorse Churches Care involves 30-plus churches working together across the council area to support the community’s most vulnerable. It runs a range of outreach services, from a community pop-up space in a local shopping centre to providing care packs. This strengthens their impact and the bonds between the churches, connecting people across denominations, and encouraging opportunities for charitable collaboration.

For example, the Big Boxes of Kindness that Box Hill members are filling this year with festive foods and pantry staples came through another church, also in Whitehorse Churches Care, which offered the Lutheran congregation spare boxes and resources. Complete with a letter of instruction, the full Big Boxes of Kindness are donated to the local migrant information centre for distribution to new migrants and refugees.

Box Hill Pastoral Care Coordinator Cathy Beaton, 60, also volunteers with Whitehorse Churches Care. She says this is the second year in a row that St Paul’s has been offered the boxes for the congregation to fill. Cathy says the Christmas hampers are greatly appreciated by the recipients: ‘I spoke with one of the migrant centre workers earlier this year and she said there was great joy and rejoicing over the hampers, it brought much delight to the people.’

That is only one of the Advent giving choices on offer at Box Hill. Another is the bauble gift tree, an outreach of the Prison Fellowship Australia’s Angel Tree program. Each bauble collected from the Christmas tree in the church’s foyer includes the name and address of a child or grandchild of a prisoner in one of Victoria’s prisons.

With the bauble, the donor gets some guidance on what the child might like to receive, then buys and sends the gift to the recipient on behalf of the prisoner, accompanied by their message.

Thirdly, Australian Lutheran World Service’s Gift of Grace program is promoted as another way to support the season of giving on a global scale. Giving Grace cards as a Christmas gift to family and friends acknowledges a donation of presents – from goats to toilets – to communities in need around the world.

The St Paul’s Justice and Mercy Ministry Team is not your normal committee, says Cathy. Each participant is an ambassador for a justice and mercy cause, from refugees and migrants to Indigenous reconciliation and more.

‘Team members are called ambassadors, as our members are passionate about a justice and mercy cause’, she says. ‘A handful of dedicated people can make a difference.’

Last year alone, 34 huge red boxes were delivered to the local migrant information centres in Box Hill and nearby Ringwood, about 120 gifts were sent to the children and grandchildren of Victorian prisoners, and many ALWS Gifts of Grace brought joy to children and communities in need.

Justice and Mercy team leader John Hinz and Box Hill Pastor Neville Otto are among the ambassadors in the team, which has run Advent Action for the past three years.

Cathy says it is just the latest in a long involvement for St Paul’s of supporting local organisations, ministries and charities. ‘I think in some ways during COVID we became a bit insular, and everyone was isolated during lockdown. So, it was really important that we could provide a way for people to look outward again’, she says.

And size doesn’t have to be a barrier to action. St Paul’s has shown that working together with others, such as local churches, or the local council, can create opportunities to help.

‘Sometimes we don’t have the resources to do something on our own. But (working) together encourages each other, builds a network of relationships, and together, people can do things that they could not necessarily do on their own if they don’t have enough people’, says Cathy. ‘This gives us a way of connecting with our neighbours, of serving and loving our neighbours.’

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