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Papanui
Christchurch 8053

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Nelson-Marlborough-West Coast District:
Not just Sunday churches

When the Nelson-Marlborough-West Coast District held its school of theology at Bridge Water camp near Brightwater in March it's theme was 'Connections'.

Speakers discussed making connections with Pacific Island peoples, connections with the disadvantaged, connections through music, and connections with local communities.

These topics reinforced the outward looking focus of the congregations at the top of the South Island. As District Superintendent Rev Jessie Kerr says, "We are not just Sunday churches, but churches alive in the community."

In such a large and diverse district, this community focus is manifest in many different ways. In several West Coast parishes it includes lay ministry teams that maintain congregations without presbyters; in Nelson it includes the work of the regional mission, Methodist Social Action; and in Blenheim it includes projects that meet the needs of children and the aged.

"Our churches do not have huge numbers and we are not about inventing new wheels. Rather than do something on our own when people are already working in an area, we prefer to support existing programmes or work in partnership with others to create something new," Jessie says.

There are plenty of examples of community initiatives church bodies in the Nelson area have undertaken.

The Stoke Methodist congregation is notable for its community activities. It holds a monthly market on the church grounds, which attracts up to 20 rented stalls. Some of the proceeds from the market go to support hospital chaplaincy.

Stoke Methodists also have a weekly opportunity shop and are active in Habitat for Humanity and Abbeyfield Society, a housing scheme for the aged that provides an alternative to rest homes. During the peacekeeping mission in East Timor the Stoke congregation sent parcels to New Zealand troops serving with the UN.

Last year Jessie's Waimea Parish celebrated 25 years of its Caring and Sharing programme. The congregation runs the social programme every Monday during the winter months for the elderly and disabled, and it regularly attracts 30-35 people.

Rev Brian Turner leads the congregation of St John's Methodist Church in the heart of Nelson. He says his congregation is deliberately community focused.

"We don't see a distinction between the church and the community. The church is the community. Our mission is based on the belief that a better society is a better kingdom of God," Brian says.

Because St Johns is across the road from the district court and around the corner from the police station, one of the tasks it has undertaken is to host the Nelson Council of Churches restorative justice programme.

Though it is an older congregation St Johns relates well to children and young people. It has a fortnightly Friday evening youth club and hosts an Easter holiday programme for children during the school break.

Along with the English language congregation, a Tongan congregation also worships at St Johns.

"The Tongan congregation is affiliated with the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga but we see them as more than tenants. They are fellow travellers and every second Sunday of the month we hold a joint communion with them," Brian says.

When the St John's congregation holds its school holiday programme it does so with the help of money from the Camp Snowden Trust. The trust is a fund the Nelson-Marlborough-West Coast District uses to support young people and families.

Camp Snowden was a recreational camp established to support families. When its sale became necessary, interest from the capital went into a trust fund aimed at furthering the camp's original purpose. It provides grants to parishes to bolster work with families and youth.

Not only do churches in the Nelson region have their own community projects, they also support Methodist Social Action, which addresses serious local social issues.

In 2001 and 2002 Methodist Social Action worked with other agencies to tackle the problem of youth at risk. Jessie, who was a nurse therapist before she became a minister, became concerned at Nelson's high youth suicide rate after she was conducted funeral services for young people who had taken their own lives.

Methodist Social Action hosted a workshop on the topic, which brought together community groups that deal with at risk youth and professionals from the Child Adolescent Unit of the Nelson Mental Health.

Run by Dr Michael Rimm and Rev Ron Phillips, the workshop discussed therapeutic story-telling intervention and discussed ways to help young people make good choices and recognise the consequences of their decisions. The workshop also led to a report on how local groups could deal with the problem.

"Before the workshop there was a lack of coordination between professionals and community groups. We need both groups to solve the problem so it was important for them to meet face to face," Jessie says.

"It is a good example of how the Church can look at the needs of the community and work with existing groups and agencies to address them."