The rawness of humanity and the richness of community

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.

The residential chapel with veggie plots in front

The residential chapel with veggie plots in front

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.

The Urban Seed residents who are humbly helping to bring about positive change

Some of the Urban Seed residents who are  helping to bring about positive change

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.

An artist and former resident of the community has left her mark on the neighbourhood

An artist and former resident of the community has left her mark on the neighbourhood

The wall of Norlane Baptist Church

The wall of Norlane Baptist Church

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.

Simon

Simon

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.

A spirit of generosity

A spirit of generosity

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.

The People's Pantry

The People’s Pantry

Working together towards food security

The veggie plots

The veggie plots

The last fruits of the summer crops

The last fruits of the summer crops

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 Longroom CommunityThe 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.

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Sustainable living in the forest

We’re nearing the end of our roadtrip and travel weariness is beginning to set in – the regular moving and packing, as well the energy required to meet new people and engage with them. I’m finding my enthusiasm waning and questions coming to the surface like: how different can this next community be – will there really be much new stuff to learn? But time and time again, Mike and I have left feeling freshly inspired and more than a little educated by our visit. Each place has a unique history, philosophy and vision, structure, location, appearance, and the thing which makes all the difference – a unique set of people.

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Fryers Forest, Fryerstown

Hidden away in a little valley, about 13 kilometers south of Castlemaine, lies the intentional community of Fryers Forest. It all started about 20 years ago when Sam and Haridas, a couple who couldn’t bare the thought of this pristine piece of native forest being cleared for development and covered in brick veneers (I sense their horror!), bought the land. This couple teamed up with Dave Holmgren (the co-originator of permaculture) and his partner Su to develop plans for the property and establish a community that would live in harmony with the natural environment. Negotiations with the council eventually led to the eco-village that exists today.

Tamsin and Toby, our hosts for the week, were some of the first people to buy into Fryers Forest. They own one of the 11 residential lots (1 acre each) and share in 290 acres of common native forest. Tamsin came out to greet us as soon as we arrived and I immediately took a liking to this expressive woman with her command of words and wit. She introduced us to Toby, a strong, bearded woodsman-type (he was often sharpening his axe and chopping wood), and their four year old twin boys, Gryphon and Tyco. Such characters!

Our hosts: Toby, Gryphon, Tyco and Tamsin

Our hosts: Toby, Gryphon, Tyco and Tamsin

“We care for and nurture the earth”, “We care for and nurture the group”, “We care for and nurture the self” (The values of Fryers Forest)

Caring for the earth

Toby is a building designer specialising in sustainable housing. He designed and built their home using passive solar principles. The double-mud brick walls have a gap down the center containing a sheet of foil which acts as a reflector of heat. According to Toby, these walls have just as good insulating properties as straw bale, as well as a high thermal mass. Something to consider when it comes to our future dream build perhaps?

Later, as we walked through the village and passed other houses, I noticed the variety of building materials and techniques employed in passive solar design. We saw rammed earth, straw bale, timber… even a yurt! (Okay, maybe the latter doesn’t have such great natural heating and cooling qualities.) Some houses had a heavier focus on thermal mass, others on insulation, and others on ventilation. It was inspiring to see the possibilities.

Our abode for the week was a cosy, rendered-mud brick hut, up behind Tamsin and Toby’s house. It had its own living area, kitchenette, wood fire and sleeping loft. It was nice to have our own space and we were pretty toasty on those chilly nights.

Our little hut – so cosy!

Our little hut – so cosy!

The loo!

But I’d have to say, what I found most impressive about our hosts’ home was the toilet! Up to this point I had associated compost loos with outside long-drops. But this one was inside, up a flight of stairs and in a cute little room with lovely stonework. I realised that you don’t have to compromise on comfort and aesthetics while striving for environmental sustainability. I was impressed – apart from saving water and providing compost for the garden, this Nature Loo is clean, odourless and easy to use.

For most of our stay we worked outdoors. A few large trees that were close to the house needed removing so a fair amount of time was spent in relation to this. The felled trunks were dragged to Hamish’s property (the neighbour) to use in the construction of his house, large branches were set aside for fire wood, and small branches were used to create swales (long rows of interlocking branches which form a wall) in order to catch topsoil which washes down the slope – a permaculture technique.

A definition of permaculture: Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture. (www.holmgren.com.au/about-permaculture)

As Tamsin walked us through the forest one morning, she explained the methods they use for managing the bushland sustainably. By selectively thinning trees and coppicing in rotating sections of forest they encourage biodiversity (the different-aged trees provide a variety of habitats), help reduce fire risk and secure fuel for wood fires. Indigenous people carried out these practices. If only such wisdom was recognised and applied more widely!

Part of the 290 acres of forested common land

Part of the 290 acres of forested common land

We were shown the artificial dams and lake – an integrated water storage system which is a key feature of this permaculture property, the lovely picnic spots including two huge oak trees marking the site of an old pioneer cottage, a beautiful view of the whole tree-covered property from it’s highest point, creeks, camping spots, the orchard, the village green and two old school rooms from Kyneton which had been relocated to serve as the Fryer Forest community buildings – a good example of repurposing.

We heard stories about the community’s history as well as the goldrush era which has left permanent marks on the landscape. It was interesting to learn how the villagers have tried to use the latter to their advantage.

Tamsin and I walking by the two old oaks on the edge of the lake – a favourite picnic spot

Tamsin and I walking by the two old oaks on the edge of the lake – a favourite picnic spot

Caring for each other

With their strong interest in permaculture and sustainability, Tamsin and Toby were quite excited about the potential of this community when they first joined. However they’ve since learned that Fryers Forest is first and foremost about the people.

On Friday night Tamsin, Holly, Emma and I walked into the nearby village of Fryerstown for their weekly game of wine and scrabble. I loved the atmosphere in the old wooden school house-turned pub as we played games, chatted and enjoyed classic tunes from the 50s, along with other local folk. The walk back was just as memorable as we looked up at the stars and discussed the significance of death and our individual souls (as you do!). Cars frequently stopped to ask if we would like a lift home and it seemed I met the rest of Fryers Forest on the road that night!

Tyco with his medieval-styled balaclava!

Tyco with his medieval-styled balaclava!

Gryphon

Gryphon

36 adults and children currently live in the community, with ages ranging from under 5 to over 80. A weekly morning tea and monthly community meeting, followed by a working bee, helps keep people connected. However the general level of interaction is not as high as some people would like. I think the shared life requires much awareness and effort because the influence of western culture is always trying to pull us away from interdependence towards self-sufficiency.

Due to most of our time being spent with one family, it was hard to get a true sense of how close-knit this community is. Still, it was lovely to hear that whenever Tamsin sees a fellow forester outside the community, even if she doesn’t know them so well, she feels a loyalty to them – a bond akin to family.

Being that Fryers Forest is not a cooperative – it consists of 11 freehold titles – buying and selling is much easier. But it also means that current members of the community don’t have much control over who joins Fryers Forest and can’t ensure that new members will share their vision. Perhaps this isn’t as significant as it seems. A new person with different ideas can create an opportunity for mutual learning and growth, and being a minority, shouldn’t be a threat to the the overall vision.

Finally, one thing I particularly appreciated about our host family is how ordinary and achievable they made non-mainstream life – that is, being part of a sustainably-based intentional community – seem. It really is quite natural and normal to live this way.

The animated Tamsin and I – a few days before our shared birthday!

The animated Tamsin and I – a few days before our shared birthday!

 

Mike has some wonderful insights regarding our time in Fryers Forest so make sure you have a read here!