Pastor Louise Pekan loves babies, families and communities. She’s also passionate about encouraging others to be leaders in their own contexts, so it’s no surprise she’s begun working with families and children in and around Melville as the new Community Engagement Pastor at Melville Uniting Church.
After hearing at a Presbytery of WA meeting recently that the Uniting Church WA has been in steady decline for a number of years, Louise – alongside the Melville congregation – is ready and prepared to try a new way of being church. While these ideas may be new to some, Louise has already seen the success of community engagement projects she’s run in Perth, as well as been a part of in Chicago in the United States of America, where she lived on and off for five years.
As Melville Uniting Church started thinking about selling up and joining other nearby congregations, Louise, with the help of Rev Mark Illingworth, Pastoral Relations and Placements Co-ordinator at the Uniting Church WA, will instead work with them to create meaningful networks with the local community. And as I sat with her over coffee, it was pretty clear she not only has the experience to do this, but also has a deep passion for hospitality and building a space where all are welcome.
“This year will be a lot about doing some community asset mapping,” Louise said. “Who are the people in the area, what do they do, what’s great, what do they love, what’s missing? How can the church serve the community rather than us standing there waiting with our doors open hoping that they’ll walk through – which they’ve stopped doing.”
With 35 kids on their street alone, Louise, her husband Rick, and their four children have had no problem settling into their new home in Melville and getting to know the neighbours. Louise is a trusted friend, mum and neighbour to the local community, and she’s already building meaningful relationships in the area.
“We’re a family with four young kids, like everyone else on the street. So we look like the others and our role is just to be a part of knowing who the people are,” she said. Louise believes that while the church is great at looking after each other in our own communities, and supporting organisations to look after other people, being in meaningful relationships with all sorts of people outside of the church community – those who might look different to you, talk differently and live differently – helps share the love of Christ.
“How can we step outside of our comfort zones just a little bit, so that the rest of the community see that we are here to take care and love them for who they are, rather than having to come along and be part of our program?” she said.
“You have to do it authentically because people can see right through it if it’s not authentic. You’ve got to do it in relationship and there’s got to be that give and take.”
Since Louise has begun her ministry, already operating in pilot form at Melville Uniting Church is TACO Church, a casual gathering for people of all ages to share a meal together and discuss life. Running off a model which she has seen success with in Armadale, guests are invited to bring an ingredient to make tacos with and spend time in community. It has been a very casual gathering, based around conversation and building friendships, but in its Melville context, Louise plans to provide slightly more structure to the night.
“Taco nights has been a place where we’ve invited people around and they’ve all brought something to contribute – just bring something for tacos, even if it’s a carrot. We eat tacos together and we’d have a question that we ask each other over dinner, from the littlest kids to the oldest and just chat and mingle and have some fun.
“So we’re looking at broadening that up a little bit. We still bring something to contribute and we eat together, but also engage the kids a little bit more in activities that are going to open them up to what the Bible is and who God is, but in fun activities and games while their parents are there and involved as well.
“So it’s not so daunting for those who are de-churched or unchurched to come and be a part of. It’s still church, so it doesn’t get lost.”
Louise explained that TACO stands for Thankful, Authentic, Caring, Oikos – an ancient Greek word for ‘family.’
Being Christ in the community is not just a job for Louise; she really walks the talk. Louise and her family open their lives and their home to be a welcoming and hospitable family.
One way they do this is by child fostering through Wanslea Family Services. Louise and her husband, Rick, have been emergency foster carers for eight years. Having four young children themselves, many people ask why not take that on after their children have grown-up? Louise says now is the perfect time for their family – and their children love being part of the experience.
“We’d rather our kids know no different; that part of who you are as a family is to take care of others who don’t have families. It’s a real practical way we can let our kids serve the community,” she said.
Over eight years, the Pekan family have fostered over 45 children in their home, mostly aged under three, and mostly for a period of around three months. As emergency carers, children come to their house when the Department of Child Protection and Family Support is deciding on a more permanent solution, whether that be to live with a family member, or in long-term foster care. Often the Pekan’s also provide respite care for other foster carers, which could just be for a night or a weekend.
“We’ve got four children, and we see it as we’re fostering to be a family not to build a family,” Louise said. “There are plenty of carers out there who want to have long-term children and only want to be able to provide that long-term home. There’s fewer who are happy to have kids come in and out and always have to say goodbye to a child.
“We’ve got to be known by our words and our deeds. And I think sometimes the church in recent history isn’t known in a positive light for those things. So this is one way we can be part of a community that is so different to who we are, but isn’t any less valuable in God’s eyes.”
While it is hoped that kids can return to their parents, the reality in WA is that most will not. Many will go to family members such as aunts, uncles or grandparents, however if that is also not an option, they may end up in long-term foster care or adoption.
“I do get attached and we’re supposed to get attached and it’s supposed to hurt when they go,” she said. “That’s what love is. Love is a grief when you lose someone or lose a child.
“It’s amazing when you get to send a child home to mum. That’s the idea of fostering; fostering isn’t instead of an adoption, it’s a temporary placement for children until they can go home. The majority of kids don’t go home, but that’s still the hope.”
In Melville, Louise will use these passions to create new connections between Melville Uniting Church and its local community. Through conversation, friendships, love and care, she believes we can all share the love of Christ.
“I guess at the end of the day we’re passionate about community and making sure we’re taking care of our ‘others.’ Are we going to be the people who walk past those who are hurting or are we going to be the ones who stay and help and provide that love because God first loved us?” she said.
“We’re not just here to look after each other and then walk away. We’re here to do life with people, to know people and bless people.
“And we do that through everyday life, whether it’s our sports or at church.”
Foster carers can be living in all kinds of situations; as full-time workers, part-time workers, single, married or in a same-sex relationship. UnitingCare West is currently seeking people who are able to make a long-term commitment to support children in their growth and development, through foster care. For more information on becoming a foster carer in WA, visit unitingcarewest.org.au/services/foster or contact the Futures Foster Care Service on 6279 7200 or email email@example.com.
Want to know more about the work Louise is doing with Melville Uniting Church? Contact the Pastoral Relations and Placements Coordinator, Mark Illingworth on 9260 9800 or email, firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.