Spend any time with the ministries of St John's, Darlinghurst to homeless and marginalised local people and you will be impressed by their impact on individual lives.
It was just such an encounter that led Gabriel Lacoba to become CEO of St John’s Community Services – the ministry behind the parish’s popular Rough Edges cafe.
"Quite a few years ago, when I came into contact with Rough Edges while working at Anglicare, it was a simple conversation that affected me profoundly," Mr Lacoba says.
"The conversation was with a volunteer who spent time helping people on the margins. He told me that often, when things snowball in people's lives and they find themselves in over their heads, just one thing might make a difference in restoring a pathway back to healing and a new start."
Although the parish’s mid-19th century heritage-listed church has been a ministry base for generations, the present outreach to the homeless started in 1996. It has grown to encompass the cafe, Banksia Women (supporting women who have experienced domestic and family violence) and a community assistance partnership program. There is also a legal service in partnership with a solicitor who operates a pro bono practice, and the Urban Exposure social justice education program.
"Just one thing might make a difference"
The parish provides space for the St John’s Community Services ministries and the rector, the Rev Matthew Wilcoxen, chairs the board.
Says Mr Lacoba: "Rough Edges and Banksia Women grew out of the concern the St John's church had for its community in Darlinghurst. It is a wonderful testimony to the love of Jesus for some of the most marginalised in our community.
“It is thrilling to see what happens when vision, generosity and compassion meet in such a tangible way. My hope is that we build the work in even more tangible ways."
Mr Lacoba has already seen the effects of the small encounters that first drew him to the work. "In my first week, I spent a lunchtime at ‘Roughies’. My idea was to be an observer. It took only a few minutes before I was drawn into simple greetings, some of which developed into a few lines of conversation. In a couple of cases, the few lines turned into something more significant.
"It is a wonderful testimony to the love of Jesus for some of the most marginalised in our community. "
“It struck me that Roughies is so much more than a place where those on the margins come for a meal. It is a place of community. It is a place where people find connection and belonging."
He adds that the impact goes well beyond the meals. “It can be seen through the education provided for the hundreds of schoolkids I've seen attending Urban Exposure walks, immersing them in the world of homelessness. I've also been profoundly challenged by the amazing work we do through Banksia Women.
“My first night was spent in a workshop with several [DV] survivors, who gave me the privilege of entering into a very private space. They were willing to provide a picture to help me understand that it is never okay to control another person. Never okay to dominate, gaslight, violate or bully another person, no matter who they are. Domestic violence is never justified."
Mr Lacoba is the inaugural CEO, as it was decided only recently that St John’s Community Services needed to establish the position as its ministry expands. He has already identified the Banksia Women as a program that needs to grow.
"It is still young – just over two years old. But its impact and reach must grow. This is a very, very important priority for me as the inaugural CEO."
Mr Wilcoxen, who became rector of St John’s only last year, says the appointment of a CEO was a deliberate step to broaden and deepen the ministry partnerships.
"St John's has a rich legacy of holding together both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the gospel – ministering both to the soul and the body,” he says. “The work of St John's Community Services is at the centre of this legacy, and we are grateful that God has provided Gabriel to help us continue, and improve upon, our service to those in need in our community.
Mr Wilcoxen says one of the most important things about St John's Community Services is the opportunities it provides Christians to live out their faith through meaningful involvement in the lives of people experiencing difficulty.
“The help we provide our patrons and clients is essential, but it's the opportunity for relational connection with God's people that really sets us apart,” he says. “We are always looking for new volunteers and partners in this work, and we hope in time to inspire people and churches in other high-need areas to serve their communities in creative and faithful ways."