The Longroom Community, Norlane
Geelong, in the few times that I’ve passed through, has always struck me as rather industrial and bleak. So this time I was looking forward to lingering a bit longer and having my perception redeemed. Destination: Norlane. Hmm, perhaps not the first place you’d think of exploring if you want to experience the city’s cultural and natural beauty. However, down a pretty ordinary suburban street lies an extraordinary little community which is bringing forth life and beauty in all sorts of small yet significant ways.
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The Longroom Community is based at Norlane Baptist Church. It is a project of Urban Seed whose vision is to create communities of hope, healing, and justice – in this case, within a suburban setting. (See also my post about Credo Community in Melbourne City’s laneways: A place to call home.) Community life is centred around various weekly activities where those needing a nutritious meal, purposeful work or simply connection with others can come and be involved.
Apart from the sign near the entrance, you wouldn’t necessarily know this is a church. Veggie plots, outdoor seating areas, chooks and space set aside for a future food forest surround the small carpark. A charming, converted chapel houses residents. Inside this building, a door leads directly to The Longroom and kitchen where community meals are prepared and enjoyed. Connected to this, the church makes a very welcoming and homely space with its couches and artwork. I love how this place seems to be naturally evolving and growing over time, and how individuals have left their mark.
Essential to the life of the Longroom Community is a group of residents living at the church and in the surrounding streets. Sarah, Dave, Cherie, Steve and two year old Charlie live in the chapel and are committed to spending at least 1–2 years being part of this neighbourhood. They were our wonderful hosts for a few days.
Brokenness and hope
On the first afternoon, Sarah and Dave took us on a walking tour of the local area and shared some sobering information with us. In the 1970s, the demise of the nearby Ford factory caused hundreds of residents to lose their jobs. As a result, many people in Norlane now experience long-term unemployment and generational poverty (www.urbanseed.org/norlane). No doubt this also contributes to the high incidents of crime and drug use in Norlane.
Cherie and Steve, as well as Sarah, have all experienced the frustration of having their cars stolen by teenagers, often just for hooning around. But they’ve also come to appreciate the boredom and disadvantage these teenagers face. Sarah, who is wise beyond her years, said that their response must be to “fight fire with water – that’s the only way to break the cycle”. Responding with unexpected words and acts of grace are one way these folk are helping to bring about positive change in the streets.
Later, as we were weeding the garden together, Sarah told me about some of the individuals who’ve become part of the Longroom Community. I heard stories of accidents and physical suffering, theft and homelessness, and incredible challenges such as raising 6 kids on your own. I could tell as she spoke that the brokenness and needs are often overwhelming. “What can you do but pray” she said, and then added, “What’s required is for the church to walk alongside them, hear their stories and love them.” And that’s exactly what these followers of Jesus are doing – nothing fancy, simply offering their presence. One man in particular has found welcome, love and Jesus after stumbling across Urban Seed in Norlane. He now has such a positive outlook on life and is very quick to compliment and encourage others. I loved how Sarah summed things up: “There’s darkness here, but there’s light too; you see the rawness of humanity, but you also see the richness of community.” So true.
Sarah’s stories and reflections got me thinking… if each one of us opened our hearts to one broken individual or family, and walked alongside them, admitting that we’re not that different from each other in terms of our mutual needs for understanding, love and companionship, this world would soon become a very different place.
A hive of activity
Wednesdays are a busy day for the Longroom Community. People come together to cook, garden, eat, hang out and participate in The People’s Pantry.
That day, amidst the hive of activity, it was great to sit down with Simon who along with his wife Kaylene heads the Urban Seed community in Norlane. He told us about the history of the Longroom Community, as well as the exciting future possibilities and connections with the broader community they are working towards.
Simon also graciously shared with us his previous experience of establishing an intentional community. He sounded somewhat regretful about the mistakes they had made, but it was clear those mistakes brought with them very valuable lessons. He said “Don’t start an intentional community on your own. Establish a partnership first, whether it’s with a church or a community organisation, because when things get tough you need accountability partners, mentors, and support”. Very good advice.
Community lunch that day was a lovely experience. Autumn sunlight streamed in through the windows at one end of The Longroom, warming our bodies, and good conversation with local characters warmed our hearts. Any left over food from community meals goes in the Share Corner where people can take whatever they need, no questions asked. People are also invited to drop other items in the corner, such as clothing. I rather like their motto: Share what you can, take only what you need. But The People’s Pantry seemed to be the main event of the day…
The People’s Pantry redistributes food from Foodbank Victoria and SecondBite, enabling local families on low incomes to access nutritious food. In exchange for a regular supply of quality food, individuals are simply required to pay a $10 membership fee and volunteer a few times every 6 months. Sounds great! And it was. People cheerfully took charge; setting up tables, displaying goods and carrying out other tasks. Individuals waited patiently for their number to be called and then made their selections from the tables. The place had a very positive buzz to it.
Working together towards food security
Much of the Longroom Community’s activities revolve around food and nutrition, in line with the needs of the local community. This is not only seen in the number of shared meals provided each week, but also in the growing of veggies, keeping of chooks and plans for a food forest. Steve took us for a tour of the community garden and outdoor area. It’s not a huge space to work with, but is being used really well. And ideas for further development are in the works with a course in permaculture being next on the list. It was great to hear of the broader community getting involved too, such as a local school group who donated some soil and their time.
A vision of the kingdom of God
The community at Norlane Baptist Church gave me a vision of how other churches and faith communities could look: a place where people can truly experience the unconditional love and acceptance of God, without any judgement or feeling like a misfit due to their appearance, education, background or beliefs; a place where Christ-like love is not only discussed, it’s also demonstrated.
It was a delight to stay with the Longroom Community for a few days and be able to witness a bunch of people who are humbly going about their lives, quietly ushering in the kingdom of God. I was reminded that the kingdom of God is often hidden, and can be found in very ordinary and unexpected places, like in the graffitied laneways of Melbourne’s CBD or the rough streets of Norlane. It’s not showy and triumphant, but slowly works it’s way into hearts and lives, eventually transforming whole communities.
Read about Mike’s experience of the Longroom Community here.