It was a baptism of fire raining down on the head of Elisabeth Clarke that sparked her unique ministry almost a decade ago.
Well, it was actually a box of about 50 cardboard cut-out candles falling from a box that caused her (pre-) light bulb moment. At the time the active retiree was baptismal co-ordinator for Immanuel Lutheran Church at Gawler, north of Adelaide.
Then it hit her – the box of candles. The decorations had fallen onto her head from a cupboard in her small church office. Thankfully, no damage was done.
But it got her thinking. The candle decorations, now scattered on the carpet, appeared just in time for the upcoming Pentecost Sunday.
‘I thought “Holy smoke, I might just use these candles somehow”’, she says. And so they went up around the church foyer, becoming her first display.
So began a ministry that has created inviting and interesting spaces in church foyers – areas which Elisabeth says are often relegated to being busy, cluttered storage spaces.
Her displays have ranged from seasonal wall-mounted decorations and brightly coloured posters, to inviting displays of tracts for people to take. In her current congregation of Immanuel, North Adelaide, Elisabeth has made a large wooden cross – which she found sitting unused in a corner – the centrepiece of her all foyer displays.
‘I made Christ the centre of everything I did’, she says.
Elisabeth says the concept of presenting a peaceful space to all who enter is a way of blessing everyone who walks through the church doors.
‘It’s also a way to signify what part of the church year we are in’, she reflects.
Her prayer is that foyers will not be a forgotten entrance but used to share welcoming messages about the church and its seasons, such as Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas.
She has even included displays of stolls, the ecclesiastical vestments worn around pastors’ shoulders. Elisabeth, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, has shared the beauty of those raiments in many a display.
This labour of love is deeply rooted in the artistic expression Elisabeth learnt in her 40-year teaching career with the Department of Immigration. Working throughout Australia, before finally retiring in Adelaide, she says the work ‘brought out the artistic side of me, something that I didn’t think I had’.
Her work journey began at the Bonegilla Migrant Centre – the birthplace of ALWS – in Victoria, when she had just married Kevin, her husband of 56 years, and took her first position as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher to adult migrants.
Elisabeth’s work has also shown that foyers can provide great mission support. ‘I used to have tracts displayed hanging from tree branches and sitting underneath. People would pick up tracts and share them with friends’, she says. ‘It was like a little mission outreach in the foyer.’
Four years ago, after joining North Adelaide’s Immanuel congregation, Elisabeth approached her pastor, Dr Mark Worthing, about the possibility of brightening up the foyer of her new church home. Immanuel’s church council not only gave the idea their blessing, but also supported a small sales outlet to sell Christian cards, children’s books, seasonal gifts and resources, as an additional inviting touch. All earnings were sowed back into new resources.
And so the ‘Sow the Seed’ shop was born, named to complement the congregational newsletter, which is known as ‘The Mustard Seed’.
‘There are so many members who have enjoyed the convenience of being able to buy cards at church’, says Elisabeth.
And it has provided a welcome touch for parishioners and visitors alike.
‘As soon as you put a few interesting things around, it makes such a difference to the ambience of the foyer’, she says.
The foyer decorations and shop continued for two-and-a-half years until renovations last year put things on hold.
And now, as some congregations slowly reopen their doors to worship, the challenge will be how we can ensure our entry spaces become inviting, peaceful spaces again.
‘It’s a real challenge, in the current circumstances’, says Elisabeth. ‘Going forward, as our churches reopen, how can we bless people walking through the door?’
Taking the time to think about what the foyer can do to inspire people to feel comfortable within their church family is key, she says.
‘We are inviting people into a place of peace. When they come in and out of church they always feel that sense of peace … it has a good feeling about it’, she says.
Her efforts are reflected in her favourite hymn, based on the prayer of Francis of Assisi, ‘Make me a channel of your peace’ (Lutheran Hymnal no. 858).
‘It comes back to God being in this heart of this,’ Elisabeth says.
Seeking advice on how you can create a welcoming church foyer? Email Elisabeth at email@example.com or phone her on 0447 250 202.
Helen Beringen is a Brisbane-based writer who is inspired by the many GREYT people who serve tirelessly and humbly in our community. By sharing stories of how God shines his light through his people, she hopes others are encouraged to explore how they can use their gifts to share his light in the world.
Know of any other GREYT stories in your local community? Email the editor firstname.lastname@example.org
This feature story comes from The Lutheran September 2020. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.