By Chris Shearer
24 November 2021
Being the only minister in town is never easy, but for Mallacoota’s Reverend Jude Benton, the circumstances seem extra hard.
Not that Ms Benton betrays any weariness with these struggles. If anything, she has the kind of sunny-stoicism that seems to come from experiencing things that might have broken others.
The residents of Mallacoota – Ms Benton among them – have lived through a lot in the past two years. Bushfires ravaged the town on New Year’s Eve 2019, turning the sky apocalyptic red and destroying dozens of homes.
Thousands of holiday makers were evacuated by the navy, but for most residents, there was nowhere to go. The town remained cut off for weeks, without a power grid connection until early February.
In March came the pandemic and its various restrictions that made an isolated town even more cut off. The chance to grieve as a community was hampered by lockdowns, deliveries of vital rebuilding supplies were suspended, and border closures made essential shopping nearly impossible.
Add to this the hour’s drive for Ms Benton from one side of the Cooperating-Parish of Croajingolong to the other, and that next nearest minster is a two-hour drive away in Orbost, and the size of the task is clear.
But Ms Benton has made every effort to reach her community in whatever way she can. In a time when many churches went online, Ms Benton knew she had to think differently.
“When we saw that lockdown number one was coming in March last year, Mallacoota at that point didn’t have NBN and our internet capacity was really very bad. Very few people would have had enough bandwidth to do any kind of zoom online thing. I certainly didn’t have enough bandwidth to do it reliably,” Ms Benton said
“I put my thinking cap on and we’ve got a community radio station which is all done by volunteers. I went to the committee and said, ‘Look, this is going to be a problem. We’re not going to be able to have church and I can’t see that online is going to work. What do you think about me doing a radio broadcast on 3MGB?’”
The committee was reticent.
They said that Ms Benton would need a co-presenter, and that they’d have to read a disclaimer at the beginning and end of the show affirming that the station was a secular broadcaster. But they gave her the 9am Sunday timeslot.
Despite the initial resistance, there was support from some unusual quarters.
“We’ve had a lovely guy called Don who has been my radio DJ almost every week. Faithfully committed Don – he’s the town atheist,” Ms Benton said.
“But he was the first one off the block to say, ‘I’ll partner with Ms Benton, this is important’.”
Ms Benton said the only formal part of radio church was the reading the Lord’s Prayer, but beyond that she adapted the show to what might suit the community that week. They have music, talks, bible readings, children’s stories, time for prayers, and other segments.
“Particularly last year I’d use the information about recovery from different psychologists and link that back into the scriptures, talking about the resurrection narrative through a disaster recovery lens, and linking the scriptures and where we were as a community and disaster recovery,” Ms Benton said.
Radio Church recently broadcast its 55th show, and is now being live streamed online. They’ve had listeners sending feedback from as far away as Melbourne.
The focus however remains on the needs of the local community.
“It works because I know roughly where the community is at,” Ms Benton said.
“I know when they’re grieving, I know when they’re joyful, I know when there’s a situation happening.
“It’s never going to fill the void of being together face-to-face. But it’s worked in a way that I’ve never expected it to work either.
“We’ve had a lot of people [listening] who wouldn’t have been able to come into church in the last two years anyway. They’ve aged, they’re unwell, they have anxiety around COVID. Even when gathering was possible they wouldn’t have gathered.”
While Ms Benton has a standing invitation to continue Radio Church once a month, as Mallacoota slowly reopens, her role is increasingly back out in the community.
The way she sees it is she’s there to lend a hand or an ear, whether someone is a person of faith or not.
For example, recently a young mother in town died, and her friends organised a memorial service. Late the night before Ms Benton got a message asking if she could be there. When she spoke to the friends they said they wanted someone there who was calm, solid, and cared for the community.
“They didn’t need me to be there to take it,” Ms Benton said. “They wanted me there to be with them in it.”
It’s just one small example of the philosophy of togetherness and support that underpins Ms Benton’s work in her community.
The lesson she hopes other ministers can take away is to risk trying new things, accept that sometimes they won’t work, but know that in a small community everyone is watching.
“The priest or the local minister has to engage with the local community,” she said.
“One of the joys and challenges of remote ministry is you can’t not engage. You have to. You’ve got no anonymity and you’ve got to learn to live with it. You’ve got to feel what they’re feeling, and know that you can’t be all things to all people.
“[But] part of our role is to continue to respond to the community as it is … you’ve just got to keep serving your community. There’s no one else to do it.”