The Crusaders (CRU) campsite at Lake Macquarie is usually brimming with energetic school kids, engaged in outdoor adventure activities or learning skills in leadership, studying or Christian ministry.
But these days, the sprawling conference centre on the shore of Lake Macquarie – an hour north of Sydney – is mostly empty.
“When COVID-19 hit, we wanted to give something back to the community.” – Rachel Billington
Apart from the kitchen, that is. Here, chefs and kitchen hands are still hard at work. But rather than preparing the home-cooked meals (on which the centre prides itself) for students, these meals are going to local families in need.
“We are Christians, and when COVID-19 hit, we wanted to give something back to the community who were going through difficult times,” explains head chef Rachel Billington, who has been managing CRU camp’s kitchen for the past three years.
She began brainstorming with campsite director, Brett Taylor, and other staff.
“We thought, we have staff, we have a catering kitchen. There’s going to be people in the community that normally would be able to go out and get meals and now suddenly they probably can’t. Living on Lake Macquarie where we are, there are a lot of seniors and retirees,” says Taylor.
They came up with the idea of the “CRU Food 2 U” meal delivery service. At first, they charged a small amount to cover costs – since CRU had lost all income from camps – and advertised the service on local community Facebook pages.
“It was a case of trying to think of something that we could do that wasn’t going to cost a fortune, and could help the community in a practical way,” says Billington.
Taylor adds: “It’s also given our staff some work – for those in our organisation who weren’t eligible for the JobKeeper payment, we could still get a few shifts for them as well.”
CRU Food 2U has now been running for 10 weeks in total, but the last month of this service has been altogether different.
Wanting to offer some biblical love along with the meals, Billington contacted Chris Melville, head of mission at Bible Society Australia, to ask if the organisation could supply biblical literature to put in the bags which meals were packaged in.
Not only did Bible Society offer free bibles, but they also donated $10,000 to the project.
So, for the past four weeks, CRU has been using this funding to offer meals for free – in a pack containing around ten single-serve meal portions, kids Bibles, contemporary English Bibles or gospels, as well as trauma healing cards printed by Bible Society Australia. The cards feature Bible verses and advice for those experiencing trauma.
Local churches have got on board to help distribute the packs to families and individuals to those who need them. The churches order meal packs in bulk, pick them up from CRU camp and deliver them to recipients.
Billington notes their partnership with Lake Mac Evangelical Church, in particular, which has “really got on board.”
“They’ve had volunteers ringing people who have come to an evangelistic Christmas event the church holds every year. They’ve rung around 60 families – some of which have said no because they’ve been upfront about the fact that it comes with a Bible, but most have said yes.”
So far, CRU Food 2 U has cooked around 1,500 meal portions, which have been distributed to almost 300 homes – including families and singles.
Billington describes the range of people who have received the meal packs: “Some of the contacts were with a local rehab – so people who have just come out either from prison or drug rehabilitation and are trying to get on their feet … ”
“Others are people who’ve lost their jobs through COVID or people who’ve had their hours quite substantially reduced; the elderly who haven’t been able to get out to the supermarket; as well as young families who are trying to juggle working from home with schooling from home.”
CRU received many thanks from recipients, some of which has been put in writing. Billington notes the response from one mum who has engaged with her church’s outreach service but is not yet a Christian: “Just want to say a big thank you to all of you wonderful kind people for the wonderful meals and the books. Thanks you so very much! This week has been so hard, it’s just me and I’ve felt so overwhelmed and it was a really lovely surprise so thank you so much, I am so grateful to you all. God bless all of you.”
Local churches have also relayed the impact this service is making in the local community. Phil from Green Point Baptist Church wrote to CRU, saying: “We’ve distributed eight meals so far: two to an older gentleman connected with our church who has recently lost his job delivering papers for the local newsagent, and another six for a family connected with the school whose father severed his fingers with a circular saw on the weekend (he is a musician so faces a long time out of work). Both have received Bibles with their meals and were super-appreciative of the love and support.”
Tony from Morisset Baptist Church wrote: “In the past week I distributed 24 meals to six households where there were particular needs at this time. Everyone was truly grateful for the meals and touched by the sensitive generosity of folk at Bible Society. All committed themselves to either using the New Testament provided or passing it on to another person.”
Taylor describes the Bible Society funding that has enabled them to expand this program as “a real blessing”. When the funding runs out – which is likely to be soon, given the need for this service in the local area – he holds out hope that CRU Food 2 U might continue in the future.
“I can’t make any promises,” says Taylor, “but I’d like to continue this post-pandemic if possible.”
“I’m not sure what that would look like or if it’s even possible. But we have built some relationships now and created some amazing opportunities to offer community welfare, as well as evangelistic outreach.”