Welcome to the Zeebra Cafe
Monday night and people are strolling past the open door of the beachside Zeebra cafÃ© carrying surfboards, walking their dogs, or just wandering together along the strip. A few peer in as they pass but the small group inside is oblivious: they're here to read the Bible, talk about what it says and try to figure out what it means for them - and the people of this beachside Sydney suburb.
Most of those attending wouldn't feel comfortable walking through the door of a standard church building. Some have tried but found it too daunting, or formal, or just plain different. But they still want to find out about God, and here they can be comfortable in an outreach ministry tailor-made for them - an idea at the heart of Connect09, which officially runs throughout the year.
Sitting underneath the small striped surfboards that hang from the cafÃ© ceiling, most are dressed in variations of standard surf wear - boardies, t-shirt and thongs - and some guys sport tattoos, although there isn't a busty woman or skull among them. One has "Those who believe" on one arm and "Fear no evil" on the other, while BJ Koppl, who's leading the meeting, has Jesus' name and a cross tattooed on one bicep.
"Who does your heart cry out for?" Koppl is asking the group, as they read a part of the New Testament that warns against a life filled with wild partying, impure living and fits of rage. "My heart cries out for all the kids around here doing that kind of stuff - killing themselves.”
One woman observes that "if I was God, I reckon I would have rubbed us all out long ago. It's amazing to know that he loves us so much. it's awesome".
Not everyone is comfortable chatting. One guy in a hoodie comes late and sits near the door with his sports drink, watching and listening but rarely opening his mouth. He scoots off soon after the official talk and prayer time is over, and Koppl sighs with concern.
But at least he has somewhere to come. The clear need - in common with most suburbs and towns across the country - is for Christian churches to reach out to locals who, for a number of reasons, don't or won't seek out God by themselves.
Making this work in a personal way that builds relationships is the big challenge given to each church in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney as part of Connect09. For some, the answer is knocking on doors. For others, it's teaching English. At Maroubra Surfers' Church, it's being a real, accepted part of the surfing community.
Chris Bligh, the son of the church's leader the Rev Steve Bligh, is among the Zeebra group, and says that for many people in Maroubra "you can't just be any Joe Blow trying to preach to someone. You can't use the same tactics and language. You have to be one of the guys down here in order to help them."
That's certainly true for Jason Bedford. A smiley guy in his early 20s, he grew up locally and was given Christian principles at home and at school, but then spent years pursuing boxing, "blowing money, drinking and being violent on the streets".
"There was a big, black coat I had on me," he says. "It got heavier and heavier with all my regrets and anger and pain, and people I had trusted who cut me in the past. that coat got so big. I didn't like myself."
Then, one Monday night, Jason was walking past the Zeebra cafÃ© on his way to the local pizza shop. "I saw the sign saying 'Maroubra Surfers' Church: all welcome' - and for a long time I hadn't felt welcome anywhere. I thought that people wouldn't want me because of all my crap. But I came here and was accepted for who I was. I know I can conquer anything now because I've got God on my side."
It's a sentiment echoed by Ep Weatherhead, one of the single parents who goes to Grom Church on Sunday evening with her primary-aged kids. She and the other parents there take part in a Bible discussion pitched at their kids, who sit two or three to an armchair in a local living room, rushing to look up the page in their Surfers' Bible so they can read it aloud.
"I was looking for somewhere - a church or somewhere - to belong," Ep says. "I couldn't find it. I've been to [large church] date in the calendar that provides just such an opportunity
A central part of the Connect09 campaign is encouraging churches to develop meaningful points of contact with people in their community. Clean Up Australia Day on March 1 provides this kind of opportunity.
After a number of years providing surfing lessons for local kids every Sunday along with other community services, Maroubra Surfers Church are now an integral part of the Maroubra surfing scene.
It's no surprise they have been one of the key groups helping run the day-long clean-up activities and surfing festival.