When two Christians walked into a pub, they weren’t the butt of an old joke. And they weren’t there to have a drink or a flutter on the pokies. They were the new owners, and they were there to stay.
Naomi and Jarrod Egan knew that God wanted them to do something big. But buying a two-storey country hotel, with saloon bar, gaming rooms, bistro, beer garden and 20 bedrooms, was not something they predicted.
In the beginning, the Egans didn’t know quite what they were looking for, to follow God’s call. But with Jarrod’s experience at Teen Challenge and Lutheran Community Housing, and Naomi’s passion to help women considering abortion keep their babies, they had a few ideas of the kind of place that might help them continue their work on a larger scale.
“I guess we were looking for a big house, essentially. A place we could offer affordable housing and run a business to pay for that housing,” said Jarrod.
The Egans looked at the gamut of businesses that play a role in keeping a community together, thinking those would gain them a respected platform from which to make a difference.
“We looked at everything from small supermarkets to post offices to general stores. We looked at several hotels. Everywhere we looked, the doors closed quickly,” said Jarrod.
With the Blyth Hotel, things changed. Price drops on the property made it more affordable and its size was promising.
“It’s huge – and we saw the potential,” said Naomi. “God opened all the right doors and, before we knew it, we were here.”
The Egans bought the Blyth Hotel within six weeks of finding it. First, they bought the business contained in the hotel with the intention of also eventually buying the freehold – the building itself – in the near future.
Blyth is a small town of just over 300 people in the mid-north of South Australia, about 130km north of Adelaide.
Like so many other country hotels, the Blyth Hotel, built in 1876, stands proudly and prominently in the heart of town.
When Naomi and Jarrod arrived in Blyth with their two young daughters, they knew a lot of work lay ahead.
“When we got here, the building was very dark. It was dirty; there was lots of lace and black. It was run down and the rooms upstairs hadn’t been occupied in many years,” said Naomi. “We’re turning it from a house of darkness to a house of light.”
The Egans certainly stand out. The stereotype of an Australian publican is of a beer-drinking, cattle-dog toting, larrikin rather than a Christian.
“People don’t expect to walk into a hotel and find a pair of Christians behind the bar,” says Naomi.
And, far from eagerly waiting by the draught taps, the Egans are discouraging excessive drinking.
“We’ve worked really hard on the responsible service of alcohol. That’s something that’s never been done here before.”
Jarrod has driven patrons home and both Naomi and Jarrod have been known to offer water, soft drink, juice or coffee rather than a beer.
“People think we’re bizarre. We run a hotel but we tell them, ‘You don’t have to drink alcohol just because you’re in a hotel.’ ”
Not just bizarre: it’s a strategy that possibly makes very little business sense. Once they have purchased the freehold, the Egans will also be able to get rid of the four poker machines and the gaming room, another source of revenue. That plan isn’t widely known in the community, but it’s something particularly on Naomi’s heart. They will be the first things to go once the freehold sale goes through.
To compensate, the Egans are looking to build up other parts of the business, especially their bistro meal trade. In an average week, Naomi – who does all the cooking – will make up to 300 meals. She’s also making meals to give away, to people who are increasingly visiting because they have heard that the Egans might be able to help them.
The donated meals are paid for through a swear jar that sits on the bar, which Naomi says helps patrons to think about their language and behaviour. They know that when they put money into the jar, it’s going towards the ingredients to make meals donated to the community.
“The longer we’re here, the more we’re getting people walk in asking for us because they know we want to help. They might be homeless or hungry. We feed them; we let them use our shower. There are so many people here who don’t feel loved, like they’ve got no one who’s interested in them. If you can love and support them, that’s grace,” says Naomi.
But not everyone has been pleased with the Egans’ plans and changes to the Blyth. It’s been three years since they made the move to the town, and the family still bears the scars of entering a community where the majority didn’t want them, or their God.
“A lot of people don’t like us. We’ve had our car vandalised; our children have been bullied. We’ve been harassed, and the hotel’s been broken into a few times. It’s been really, really hard,” says Naomi.
“Some days you think you can’t do it any more. It’s a lot of work and a huge amount of pressure to make this idea a reality, and then you’ve got people coming in and they’re so anti-Christian. But we know it’s not really them, it’s the spirit that works within them.”
Naomi says neither she nor Jarrod was fully prepared for the attacks they would receive.
“I don’t think we really understood the spiritual side of what we were called to do. We’re taking over one of Satan’s strongholds.
“The hotel in this community has always been run to destroy people’s lives. We’re trying to change that.”
The Egans have worked hard to brighten up the Blyth both physically and spiritually. There’s new paint, Bibles in the bar, a prayer room, a Christian library upstairs and Bible study groups held each week. They started church in the pub on Sunday mornings to a warm reception, though they had to put that on hold after a few months because running a church and a pub became just too much.
“Jarrod and I were working seven days a week. Our day would start at 7am, preparing for breakfast and cleaning this huge building, and would often end at 2 or 3 in the morning. We’re financially limited, and there’s not much money to pay for extra help. We’re running everything ourselves.
“So we decided to stop the Sunday pub church for a while so we could have Sundays off to go to church ourselves. We needed to be fed by God’s word, and be part of a supportive Christian community.
We were close to burn-out.”
The Baptist church in the nearby regional hub of Clare has been particularly supportive of the Egans’ work at the Blyth, from scrubbing floors to fixing the enormous leaking roof, to serving as prayer partners.
“There’s a whole lot more people involved in helping us and praying for us than you would see if you visited us at the hotel,” says Jarrod.
The Egans have a big vision for the Blyth and they’re praying for wisdom on which part of the dream to tackle first.
On the large property behind the hotel, they have plans for a youth shed – a place for young people in Blyth to hang out, giving them somewhere to go and something to do. There are also the 20 bedrooms upstairs in the hotel which remain empty. The Egans need to get the building up to fire safety standards and complete renovations. It’s a slow process – and an expensive one – but Naomi and Jarrod are patient and trust in God’s provision.
“We’ve had weeks where we’ve had $20,000 worth of bills to pay for the hotel and we didn’t have it. We pray every morning as a family and we read the Bible before we start our day and we’ve found the more we press in to Jesus, the stronger our trust in him and the provision is always there.
“By the end of the week, enough bookings come in and the money is there. We’ve prayed and then the phone will ring and it’ll be a booking of ten or 30 or 50 people, which is just amazing.”
In three years, Naomi and Jarrod have seen fruit from their labour. Non-Christian people have sought prayer and many have asked what it is that keeps them going, opening up opportunities to openly share about their faith.
“Eventually I’d like to drop the ‘hotel’ from the business name,” says Naomi.
“Call it an inn or something that’s more like a meeting place. A place where Jesus might hang out, and he hung out with lots of different people. That’s the place for the gospel to be shared.”