At St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Shepparton, in northern Victoria, we are very blessed to have many families from across Africa as part of our congregation.
Many of these people have suffered great hardships and spent years in refugee camps. They arrive full of thanks and hope for the future, eager to share their faith in Christ with joy and enthusiasm and we welcome them with open arms.
St Paul’s African House, which opened in November 2014, is a key instrument of the congregation’s cross-cultural ministry. Located adjacent to the church and equipped with a large hall, meeting rooms, commercial kitchen, playground and outdoor spaces, African House is an important part of the faith journey of many members of St Paul’s. It enables us to reach out to African-Australian families and offer them a safe, welcoming space where they can gather to preserve and celebrate their cultures, and gain the practical knowledge and skills required to become flourishing members of the local community.
A big challenge for African families settling into Shepparton is getting around, as public transport is limited. If you cannot access job opportunities – many of which are out of town – and local education and health services, and engage in community activities, you can very quickly become isolated.
So the congregation decided to set up a learn-to-drive program at St Paul’s African House for African people aged over 21, which began in March 2019. Butoyi Delphina was the seventh person to receive the help and encouragement needed to gain a driver’s licence from the Afralian Licence2Work program. More than 20 other African-Australian men and women ranging from 21 to 61 years of age are also participating. Most have never driven a car before, do not have someone to teach them or the means to pay for driving lessons.
Like all St Paul’s African House programs, the Afralian Licence2Work program relies on funders, partners and volunteers. We obtained a Victorian State Government grant, partnered with Berry Street L2P program and two local professional driving school instructors, and recruited 12 volunteers who don’t mind the occasional adrenaline rush as they help participants clock up practice hours. Several volunteers have come from beyond our congregation, including two African-Australians, which is very encouraging for us.
All that was missing for this program initially was a vehicle. Our prayers were answered with financial support offered by the LLL for our African ministry which, with the proceeds from the sale of our 1980s 22-seater church bus and fundraising, enabled us to buy a good second-hand multi-purpose vehicle. It is used not only for driving practice sessions by participants and volunteers, but also for transporting St Paul’s congregation members to and from Sunday worship and many other duties.
Suspended in March due to the COVID-19 restrictions, we hope to resume the Afralian Licence2Work program this month and help many more participants.
Dr Steve Little is voluntary Executive Officer of St Paul’s African House and chair of St Paul’s Shepparton in Victoria.