By the time Boxing Day rolls around, Rev Rowena Harris will have travelled up and down the hills of the Snowy River region for a flurry of festive celebrations. She will have led the singing for countless carols, enjoyed many a Christmas spread and played a big part in bringing communities together to share in the Christmas spirit.
It’s all part of her role as the Frontier Services Snowy River Patrol Minister. Rowena’s pastoral flock extends beyond the Orbost Uniting Church to supporting people across the region, visiting families on isolated farming properties and in tiny villages.
“I’m a community services facilitator, a spiritual leader, a non-judgemental listeningear and someone who has experience in how other communities find meaningful ways to celebrate,” Rowena explains.
These celebrations at Christmas time are particularly important to the isolated communities in the high country of East Gippsland that are experiencing economic depression, the loss of services and a decline in population. At Christmas time, however, there is a sense of community connection which builds resilience.
“It is a fun thing to do. People enjoy getting together to sing songs. Even if they are not particularly religious, it brings moments of hope, joy and memories and promises of future. Any moment of joy is significant,” she says.
Rowena began as the Snowy River Patrol Minister in May and over the past seven months has been busy getting to know the communities which make up the Patrol, from Marlo and Cape Conran on the coast to Bonang, Bendoc, Tubbut and Buchan in the high country.
The connections she has forged in this short time have no doubt contributed to her busy Christmas calendar.
Already she has led the first ever Christmas Carols in the tiny township of Tubbut on 6 December. The Primary School, which has just nine students, led the singing for 40 members of the community in the afternoon sun outside the Neighbourhood House.
Rowena was MC at the Christmas Carols in Orbost on 9 December hosted by the Uniting Church for 300 people. It was an ecumenical event with schools, regional bands and choirs involved. Rowena stepped in to lead the singing when the guest singer didn’t arrive. “I’d never sung with a brass band before but by the end of the night I could do that,” she says.
Last weekend, the community gathered in Orbost for “A Very John Flynn Christmas”. This year Frontier Services celebrates 100 years since John Flynn began its work in remote parts of Australia. Flynn’s first parish was in Buchan, just 50km away. The celebration included Aussie Christmas carols and a BBQ lunch, while Rev David Buxton, Frontier Services National Associate Director, blessed the new car port, aptly named the “John Flynn Shelter”. He spoke about the vision of a ‘mantle of safety’ and how in a small way there was a mantle of safety at the church for many to use. Later that day, a service and dinner was held in Buchan.
On Sunday 23 December, a combined Uniting Church and Catholic Christmas celebration will be held in a little church in Bendoc led by Rowena and Sr Madeleine White. It will be the first big ecumenical service for some time at the church with 20 people expected to attend and enjoy dinner afterwards.
On Christmas Eve, Rowena will again be MC and lead singer at the Carols by Candlelight in Buchan. Christmas Day will start with a service in Orbost then Rowena will attend the Police Christmas Day lunch in Mallacoota. She is also a police chaplain.
While many would be overwhelmed with so much to do, Ms Harris is bursting with joy and enthusiasm for bringing the community together.
“There is a real sense among the community of wanting to show they can still have meaningful times. The focus on loss and hardship has really inspired people to have a go at being a community.”
This is precisely what Rowena is there to do and what Frontier Services is all about – building strong communities across remote Australia.