Churchfreo: Grace in the Margins
When Phil Graham became a leader at churchfreo, a small church plant in Fremantle, Australia, he never imagined that his role would include cleaning up human waste from the floor, breaking up fights, or putting out fires. Actual fires. But those are just some of the quirks that make churchfreo both an endearing community of diverse people, and a challenge for leaders and members alike. “Following Jesus and shepherding others,” said Clint Bergsma, another of churchfreo’s leaders, “is quite possibly the most confusing and upside-down thing I’ve ever attempted.
Without boundless grace, abundant favor, and a bit of that Australian “no worries” outlook, attempting churchfreo’s kind of ministry to addicts, anti-church, and marginalized people might be impossible. Fortunately, there is plenty of grace to go around. “We are still very much learning to do this!” admitted Graham.
Creating church in Freo
During their first five years of ministry, MTW missionaries Chuck and Jimmie Lynn Linkston learned how ambivalent, even antagonistic, most Australians were toward the Church.
The Linkstons had to work through many preconceived notions that Aussies had about God and Church. “God isn’t a big cosmic sheriff,” explained Linkston. “The gospel isn’t based on doing good and church doesn’t have to be a 19th century social club with code words and special dress.”
In 2007, the Linkstons formed a home church in the culturally diverse, artsy community of Fremantle, Western Australia. They wanted to strip away pre-conceptions and get to the gospel. Their message resonated, and the church’s numbers grew. Soon it became evident they would need a bigger space in “Freo,” local parlance for Fremantle. “The name churchfreo represents who we are (church) and where we live (freo),” explained Linkston. They found a derelict restaurant that in its storied past had been a biker bar, a café, and a brothel. Once settled into their new space, now affectionately called “408” because of its address, churchfreo set out to be a loving, welcoming community. They sought to remove barriers that made people uncomfortable with church. Everyone sat on couches during the service, not pews. There were sermons, but discussion was encouraged. Service plans remained fluid based on who might show up on a given Sunday. And seeking to model the early Church, members and visitors shared a meal together after the service.
Unplanned homeless outreach
Thanks to the weekly meal, churchfreo got to know a lot more neighbors than they expected. The Linkstons didn’t know it when they moved into 408, but churchfreo was just a few blocks from Perth’s largest homeless population. “I wasn’t ever specifically called to homeless ministry or social justice ministries,” explained Linkston. “God did that.”
Thus began churchfreo’s unpredictable journey into embracing the homeless, marginalized, addict population in their community. The church has sustained property damage from arson, theft, and vandalism. And human waste. But perhaps a greater challenge has been learning how to blend what Linkston calls the “marginal folks” with the “mainstream” members. “It’s one thing to welcome the homeless or the mentally ill or the addicts into your church building when you gather to worship,” explained Linkston. “It’s another thing to open one’s life and home to folks like that.” In fact, churchfreo’s commitment to intimately include the marginalized has caused some “culture fatigue,” as Linkston calls it, among the church’s mainstream.
“I like that churchfreo is not always comfortable and easy,” said Arlene Bax, a professional photographer and longtime member of churchfreo.” It constantly challenges me to love more, grow more, and pick up my cross daily.” And despite the struggles and culture clashes, stories of transformation abound.
Ricky Boekelmann, known to most as “Sketch,” was one of the homeless neighbors who first came to churchfreo for a meal. Sketch got to know people at the church, and eventually asked Chuck and another leader to help him get off the streets. With support from the church and community, he got a job, then a place to live, and then a better job. “I run me own business now,” said Sketch proudly, reflecting on where he is now, several years later. “Pretty dramatic change, really.” Though he’s less available due to work commitments, he still donates food and occasionally volunteers to help serve meals. “He’s really good at paying it forward,” said Linkston. So it is in the often confusing and upside- down world of following Jesus. Some stories, like Sketch’s, come full-circle, while others don’t have neat conclusions. “Our ministry seems to always be messy,” said Caitlyn White, a longtime churchfreo member. “However, through all the mess there’s usually at least a silver lining, if not a glorious sunrise!”
“We started with a home church that was squeaky clean and manageable,” said Linkston. Now, he admits, it is anything but predictable and clean.
“We all come from different walks, cultures, ways of life, but can be one together in Christ,” explained Arlene Bax. “We are all broken and sinful, but Jesus did not come to heal the whole and healthy, but the sick and sinful.”
Mar 31, 2014