14 February 2023
It’s a Tuesday night at City on a Hill Church in Whittington, a suburb of Geelong. The hall is alive with cigarette smoke wafting in and the scent of food builds with each dish that arrives on the long table. A table tennis game is kicking off. Conversations are happening in corners.
Many people here look exhausted. Their lives contain complications which are hard to quantify. A taxi driver tells of his 12-hour shift driving in the clammy, unforgiving heat. He works this job because his refugee background offers him little choice. A woman tells of her aim to quit smoking a packet of cigarettes a day.
“I just need to go cold turkey,” she says. “It doesn’t work otherwise.”
Someone else, Kylie, has just accepted Jesus at the afternoon Alpha course gathering. As people arrive bearing plates of food, she gets swept into a gentle huddle of hugs and prayers. Tears are wiped away, mugs of International Roast placed in hands.
There is a kind of teamwork here, a collaborative effort to provide food, encouragement and friendship.
Three women who have helped the church to flourish in the community are Kristi Bernardson, Deanne Cornwill and Helen Steinbock. They are Christian grandmothers who have each battled with drug addiction, mental illness or physical illness.
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Ms Steinbock’s transformational encounter with God happened during a manic episode in 2021.
“I just felt the presence of God and then this peace came over me amongst this craziness,” she said. “I’m an ex-heroin addict, and I’ve never had any drugs like that.”
So, Ms Steinbock contacted a friend. She and Ms Cornwill had met in a drug rehab several years earlier.
“I reached out to Deanne and asked her if she was going to church anywhere,” she said. “How I came to belong here was through Deanne.”
Ms Steinbock said her life had changed significantly since attending the church. Her addiction to cannabis was over, with no need for rehab. She also temporarily stopped smoking.
“It was like I was delivered from them because I had no craving or anything really,” she said.
City on a Hill Whittington began in February 2021 as a response to a need within the community for more connection during COVID-19. The growth was steep.
Pastor Peter Steven said though numbers varied on the day, the community consisted of about 50 people joining for Sunday services, Tuesday night potluck dinners or free bread on Fridays.
“We’ve not really had a strategy apart from loving people and welcoming people,” Mr Steven said. “We’re just relaxed, we’re open and we’re loving.”
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“We have people turning up completely wasted on drugs, and someone will make a coffee and sit with them. Everyone’s on the same page. It’s just a beautiful family and I think people sense that.”
For Ms Cornwill, a former sex worker, faith came through an unexpected, traumatic route. Nineteen years ago, someone who took advantage of her sexually convinced her to try going to church. After attending church for a few years, she fell into a spiritual depression. Later, her faith in God returned.
Ms Cornwill, who suffers from debilitating Lyme disease, spends her time organising a weekly bread distribution and supporting her children, who spent time in foster care when she was a young mother struggling with addictions. She has a heart for those in the Whittington homeless community. Alongside Ms Bernardson and Ms Steinbock, she also cares for those battling addictions.
“Sometimes you want it to all happen now,” she said.
Ms Bernardson said that when those battling addiction aren’t present at church, there is still work to be done.
“There are people who come and go because of their addictions and when they’re not here, we pray for them,” she said.
Besides addiction and criminal records, mental illness is a struggle for the community. Depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-natal depression are some of the conditions which present at City on a Hill Whittington. The women were all seeing the same counsellor, but she recently died. They said there is little professional help readily available in the area.
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Ms Bernardson suffers from schizoaffective disorder, a condition marked by schizophrenia symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, as well as rapid mood changes such as mania and depression. Her illness has coincided with varying degrees of drug addiction.
She tells how Ms Cornwill and Ms Steinbock have been there to support her when times were tough.
“I had one night where I’d used and you came over to my house to see me,” she said to the women. “People [at City on a Hill] have just been there for me, praying for me, encouraging me and giving me wisdom.”
For Ms Bernardson, this care is a far cry from the abusive environment she grew up in with a violent Anglican minister as a father. She said though her upbringing turned her off faith at the time, she has learned to trust Christian community again.
“I know he wasn’t your average man,” she said. “I know there’s not many like him. I’ve been involved in five churches, and you know, you don’t come across that very often.”
All three of these women have overcome battles, and also share battles that are still ongoing. Their church community has provided them with a place to find care, and also offer it to those around them.
“It’s a welcoming atmosphere,” Ms Cornwill said. “No one’s judged. People want to feel like they belong somewhere.”
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