Since 2019, Sunbury Winter Shelter has been offering overnight accommodation to those without a home, in addition to a hot meal, friendship and other practical supports. The shelter is actually a collective effort on the part of six different churches: Sunbury Baptist, St Andrew’s Uniting, St Mary’s Anglican, Sunbury Salvation Army, St Anne’s Catholic Parish and Enjoy Church Sunbury.

Operating for a 13-week period, from 1 June to 31 August, each church community works on a rotation, hosting a ‘venue’ at least one day of the week. Juan Carlos Rodriguez-Deller is secretary for the organisation and the venue coordinator for St Anne’s Catholic Parish. He has been with the shelter from the beginning, helping to make it a temporary home for those most vulnerable to the winter season.

And this is one of the beautiful things about their work, he says: they try to make their venues as homely as possible.

We treat the venue like a home. In the foyer we have chairs, tables, flowers and a few other things to make them welcome. We want to make sure people feel welcome.

‘Guests’ are welcomed each evening from 5pm, with a few hours set aside for a hot meal provided by volunteer cooks, conversation, TV and games before bed. If the venue has appropriate facilities, their guests are offered the opportunity to take a shower.

Three volunteers are on duty overnight, and in the morning they send guests off with a breakfast package of a meal and coffee or tea.

Specialists are an important part of the operation too, Juan Carlos says; these are people who make an assessment determining the suitability of a person to stay with them depending on various ‘high-risk’ factors, including drug or alcohol abuse. If a person is determined to be too high-risk, they will organise an alternative, more specialised hostel, but they do not bring them into the venue. The safety of the guests and the volunteers is paramount.

The project began at the initiative of the Sunbury Baptist pastor Paul Craig and has grown to be a valuable ecumenical endeavour. Juan Carlos says they are ‘well respected’ in the community.

While they were forced to take a break during COVID—and work more creatively—they are also a popular initiative among volunteers. They currently have 120 volunteers on the books, which Juan says is nothing compared to pre-COVID times, when they had more than 200.

IMG 4689
Sunbury Winter Shelter volunteers at the 2023 information and training session. (Photo courtesy of Sunbury Winter Shelter.)

Their work extends beyond accommodation, however. Juan Carlos says their attitude is not simply, ‘Here’s your meal, here’s your bed, bye-bye.’ For those who want it, they look for opportunities to help in other ways, directing them into programs that can assist them to establish themselves and, eventually, move into a home of their own.

Juan Carlos has seen some of the fruit of their work, not only among those whose lives have become more stable but in guests who return to give something back out of a sense of gratitude.

‘Two of our previous guests are coming back as volunteers because they are so grateful,’ he says. ‘They want to repay that.’

A key element of their philosophy is the idea that their job is to listen. They train the volunteers to be very graceful with the guests. ‘They are there to listen to the person, not interrogate them,’ Juan Carlos explains. As a rule, they do not allow their volunteers to argue with those who stay with them. ‘If they say something and you don’t agree with it, you don’t make an issue out of it. That’s not your role. Your role is to listen.’

This extends to their sharing of the faith as well. ‘We don’t push religion on them. What we do is show by example what we mean and what we expect of people. We lead by example.’

The ecumenical side of things is something Juan Carlos finds quite beautiful too. The relationship between the churches is grounded above all in friendship.

‘All the churches work together very well,’ he says. ‘I have developed very good friendships with people from other churches. We do a lot of things together.’

‘We’re always looking at things we can do together, because that’s the priority in Sunbury, to expand the ecumenical aspect of our lives.’

Even outside of their work with the shelter, the volunteers from the different churches look out for each other, offering support when someone needs help.

With the winter season setting in, the shelter’s operations are about to kick off again. Despite being a relatively new enterprise, and despite the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they are back this year with new energy and excitement. In everything they have experienced so far, they have seen providence at work bringing things together for them.

Their scriptural motto comes from the book of Acts, from the words of St Paul:

In everything I have shown you that it is necessary to work in this way to support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, who himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35)