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How a talking blue dog is pointing Reservoir to God

Reservoir Salvos Corps Officers Aux-Lieuts Esther and Matt Atkins involve their children in the running of services.

While some have described it as the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, the suburb of Reservoir in the north of Melbourne is a colourful place. The community boasts a large LGBTIQA+ community and a very culturally diverse demographic which includes many Indigenous Australians.

And amid this melting pot lies a small brick gem hidden away on a side street.

The Reservoir Salvation Army Corps is a long, narrow building with a basketball ring attached to the rear. Upon entering the front door, I notice brightly painted walls with photos and posters about consent and respect and a low, overflowing bookcase to the right. A closer look shows a slew of titles by radically inclusive American Christian author, the late Rachel Held Evans. Held Evans focused her writing on reaching those typically disenfranchised from the church, once famously stating that “what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in”.

Well, I think. This should be interesting.

Aux-Lieut Matt Atkins prepares the table for a community Christmas gathering.

“Who Reservoir Salvos is has shifted over the years, constantly just trying to reflect the needs of the local community,” corps officer Auxiliary Lieutenant Esther Atkins says. “And since we started [as corps officers] five years ago, our main goal has just been to provide a safe place for anyone, regardless of whatever their status is.”

She says now that emphasis is reflected in welcoming those of all ages with mental health concerns, diverse gender and sexual identities and different cultural backgrounds. Many have also grown up in the church but are looking for a different experience from what they knew as a child.

“So just across the board, a safe space,” Esther says. “We just had that as our foundation, and then sort of evolved from there what we need to do in order to create that space and meet the needs of those who come.”

But being a safe space has its limitations. Esther and her husband, fellow Corps Officer Auxiliary-Lieutenant Matt Atkins, say this has been challenging. She says, at times, this has meant turning people away who may be a threat to vulnerable church attendees for any reason.

“We’ve had to learn over the last couple of years that sometimes being a safe place means that not every single person is welcomed because they are not a safe person,” Esther says. “We’ve had to be really careful.”

The Reservoir Salvos community garden gives attendees a place to grow both food and relationships.

Another facet of this work is the difficulty of communicating across multiple cultural, economic and political divides. To bypass some of this challenge, the pair use pop culture to bridge gaps. One of their go-to shows is the wildly popular children’s cartoon Bluey. The show features a family of blue and red heelers who, together with their dog friends, explore themes including neurodivergence, fear, anger, relationship challenges, miscarriage and infertility, all packaged in a humorous and all-ages-appropriate seven-minute format.

“Adults actually get a lot out of it,” Esther says. “Any adult, whether a parent or not, can watch an episode of Bluey and find something new in it. Some of our best preaches have come from Bluey about being brave, being vulnerable, trying new things [or] how you see the world.”

The pair pepper the conversation with references to authors Glennon Doyle and Brené Brown and sitcoms Ted Lasso and Parks and Recreation. Having brought their interests, passions and personality to the role seems to be creating new pathways for the congregation at Reservoir to experience transformation.

They explain how their son conducts an Acknowledgement of Country each service to honour the traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. One church member who has been attending for several years initially resisted the idea of Indigenous Australians being honoured but now pays her respects along with the rest of the group.

Getting kids involved in healthy cooking is another feature of the Reservoir Corps.

Matt shares how some of his friends used to be in ministry roles but, for various reasons, stepped away from the church due to trauma and burnout. He says they feel comfortable attending Reservoir Salvos as it feels like a much safer environment than other church expressions.

“We always are trauma-informed first and foremost,” Esther says. “Our first year in this position, we did the trauma-informed training, which has shaped a lot of what we do.”

The couple calls the church services “chaotic, messy gatherings” where community connection happens.

“It feels like such a privilege to be able to facilitate and then be a part of these moments where this is God at work,” Esther says. “Our goal is just to reconcile people to each other, to the community and then to God, and all of us are broken and struggling. And we believe God and faith is about that connection with each other.”

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