IT’S Friday night. Burger patties and onion rings are sizzling on the barbecue hotplate in the grounds of Maroochydore’s new Stella Maris Church.
Seminarian Josh Whitehead is strumming his guitar and singing, as some of the regular patrons start to arrive – men, women and children – in need of a free meal and some good company.
Maroochydoore’s barbecue ministry for the marginalised was borne out of tragic circumstances, and is already attracting dozens of “friends” (as patrons are called) to its weekly get-together.
Stella Maris parishioners were shocked when a 31-year-old homeless man was found dead on the church grounds.
He was found by another homeless man.
“Letting someone die, out on the streets, cold, wet – I blamed myself at first, but I realised it is our society which is to blame,” Mr Whitehead said.
“I knew we couldn’t let that tragedy go without something good coming from it.”
It spurred Mr Whitehead to create a ministry that could serve the Sunshine Coast’s homeless and vulnerable.
“We have homeless and vulnerable people on our doorsteps throughout our parish communities who need our help. What can we do as a parish to assist them?” he wrote in the parish newsletter.
There was an overwhelming response from parishioners, and from the wider Sunshine Coast community, wanting to volunteer.
There is now a full roster of volunteers.
“Right from square one it has been about supporting our friends who come to us. It gives them dignity, it gives them a sense of belonging,” he said.
Mr Whitehead said the barbecue ministry had also benefited the volunteers – including students from Siena Catholic College, Sippy Downs – who could be nervous at first, but warmed to the challenge of making others feel comfortable and welcome.
“A lot of them have never had contact with vulnerable people on the margins before,” he said.
“Our friends who come down here – just to have someone who knows them and remembers their name, just makes them feel welcome.
“It is about restoring respect and dignity and relationships. Relationships are fundamental.
“We are not made to feel isolated.”
Mr Whitehead has spent the past year working in the Stella Maris Parish and will leave after Christmas to prepare for his sixth and final year of study at Brisbane’s Holy Spirit Provincial Seminary, to become a priest.
Many parishioners have commended his enthusiasm and sense of purpose serving the homeless and vulnerable.
“I’ll be sad to leave this ministry,” he said.
“Together we’ve been able to establish something that is viable in the long term.
“It’s got a firm foundation of financial support from the parish and we’ve got five teams, each led by a dedicated team leader, that spreads the workload each Friday night.”