Friendships, Storytelling and a Thriving Community

16th June 2020

It all started with a friendship—with a Syrian woman I met in Shepparton in December 2017. When I asked her how I could help her and other Syrians recently arrived in Shepparton, she said they needed help practicing conversational English.

From that I began to teach classes, creating a program called Thrive Shepparton, with a plan for a creative expansion called Shepparton Story House. When students began to ask for writing and grammar alongside conversation, I knew it was time for Story House to begin.

Only it didn’t begin right away. Unable to secure a new working visa, I went home to the U.S. for nearly a year, during which time Rev Richard Horton at Shepparton Baptist Church contacted me. He’d read my plans for the Story House program and he wanted me to return to Shepparton to begin this program at his church.

In the year and a half since he contacted me, Shepparton Baptist Church has become home to two Congolese fellowships, an Indonesian fellowship, and continues to have an English service each Sunday and a Chinese service fortnightly. In mid-2018, Thrive Friendship Café launched at Shepparton Baptist Church, and friendships began to form between volunteers and close to a dozen Syrian families in our neighbourhood.

My working visa to begin Shepparton Story House at this already diverse church arrived the same week as COVID-19 restrictions. Not wanting to let down our expectant students, in term two we launched our three levels of English classes online, as well as our Bible Story & Chat program and Creative Writing Hub. With God’s grace, these programs have all continued through the past three months, growing despite launching online. Now we’ve also launched our program’s Story Platform with an online storytelling series: “Coming to Australia” which aims to show the diversity of migrants in our city and pave the way for our future story platform program at the church.

These programs aren’t just for our Syrian friends, but for those in our own church and all of those in the community around us who are learning English. So far our program participants have been from over a dozen countries.

It all started with a friendship— and as we hear and tell our own stories through our programs, we are blessed with many friendships across our beautifully diverse community.

Lacey Lengel
Teacher of English to speakers of Other Languages