The idea of a parish on the northern beaches hosting a weekly dinner for the needy might seem unnecessary to some. It’s an affluent area, after all, so would locals even have a use for this kind of outreach?

Absolutely, says the membership pastor at St Faith’s, Narrabeen, the Rev Neil Souter.

“You don’t have to look far to see that there are people in need – whether they’re struggling to pay off the mortgage, living alone and lonely, or sleeping in car parks, sand dunes or vans around the lake... So, we thought we’d start up something where we put on a meal every Wednesday night at 5 and it’s just grown since then.”

You don’t have to look far to see that there are people in need

Christened The Community Pantry, the Narrabeen parish’s grassroots ministry hasn’t missed a week since it began seven years ago, even though COVID lockdowns and social distancing requirements closed their usual venue, the Narrabeen Sharks clubhouse, for months at a time. 

One of the original organisers, Kathy Neilson, still co-ordinates the food needed for the six teams involved and says that during the height of COVID they borrowed another church’s food van to give out dinner in takeaway containers, then were offered a room in a council building until their usual location was available again.

“We literally didn’t miss a week,” she says. “It was really cool. God just provided everything.”

God just provided everything.

Each team has a co-ordinator, who decides what their group will cook that week. The 30-40 people who come for dinner are always given two main meals to choose from – including casseroles, curries, pastas and a barbecue – plus roast vegetables and/or salad and dessert. Each person is also given a fruit pack to take with them when they go.

“We have some people who have been coming [since we started], so it’s become like a family,” Mrs Neilson says. “We set it up with tables: six to eight people to a table, with tablecloths and crockery. We were given a grant by the State Government before COVID to put in a commercial kitchen... We had been washing up in a little sink with no hot water! This provided stainless steel benches, a commercial dishwasher and a new oven, so that was a real blessing – and the clubhouse benefits from it too, which is so good.”

Deep relationships have formed between everyone involved – both guests and cooks, of all ages. Members of the community who aren’t part of the church also come to help, and a number of people donate funds each month to pay for the food.

Although it’s clear that those who organise The Community Pantry are Christian, and Mr Souter runs a Bible study before the dinner each week, faith is lived out rather than “pushed”.

“I think at first they were a bit wary of us,” he says, “but over time they’ve opened up to us, we’ve learned a lot of their stories and we’ve been able to share Christ with them through that, so it’s been wonderful.

“Some of them are coming to church now, which is great... and one of the men became a Christian about three weeks ago, which is awesome. It really is the highlight of my week. I love it.”

Adds Mrs Neilson: “We wanted to show them Christ’s love by our actions, how we treated them and just accepting people for who they are... God wants us to love everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are – we’re all his creation.”