Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Serving The Fringe

God can use any situation to give life to a dream in our heart. For Brent and Celia Southcombe he used a Pastor from the other side of the world, who was speaking onscreen at the Global Leadership Summit in Brisbane.

Pastor Dave Gibbons of Newsong Church in California was speaking about ministering to people on the fringes of society. As Celia listened to his message she became increasingly excited because for the past few years, she and her husband Brent, a chef, had felt God speaking to them about opening a multicultural restaurant in which they could train and equip refugees and other people in need, but that after looking into the logistics of opening such a restaurant, and trying for about a year to get it off the ground, they realised ‘a venture as big as this required a whole team of people.’ But they had never lost their burning passion, saying ‘God it’s over to you, it’s your idea.’

Disappointed that Brent had missed this talk, Celia bought Dave’s book The Monkey and the Fish for him to read. Brent couldn’t put the book down and was so inspired he emailed Dave to share their restaurant vision.

Brent shares ‘before I had a relationship with Jesus I was driven in the area of cookery to the extreme. When there was a competition I set out to win and if I got second I was bitterly disappointed. God needed to do a good work in me, which he did! Five years ago, while Brent was recovering from a kite-surfing accident he ‘heard God say “Brent, what’s the next part of the journey? Is it going to be about you or about me?”’

Whilst recovering Brent completed a Certificate 4 in Teaching Cookery, which led to a job teaching in a maximum security jail. ‘I went in there to teach, but I believe God was teaching me.’ After several months in recovery, Brent was strong enough to resume his catering business, but by then Celia shares ‘our hearts had turned towards the poor and needy people.’

A few days after Brent had sent the email he received a response back from Dave’s PA who said ‘Dave really loved your email and wondered if he could have a Skype chat with you.’ A date was set for a few months later.

It was just before this Skype chat that Brent suffered a heart attack. Celia shares ‘it was a mild heart attack, but it caused a lot of disturbance in our household, and we went through a deep, dark valley. Everything looked bleak, we were stretched health wise, financially, it seemed like everything was unravelling. I used to lie in bed at night, praying the verse in Ephesians 3 “now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly more than you could ever hope or imagine.” And as we all know God is faithful, and praise God he did!’

In the midst of this, the day of the Skype meeting with Dave Gibbons arrived. ‘After sharing all that we’d been through and our vision, Dave advised Brent to reduce his stress and not to try and start up something new. His advice was to “use what’s in your hand”. That was a really significant word for that time.’

Following this conversation they received an invitation to the Newsong Church staff retreat. After initially declining, they felt compelled to ask for more information. Dave felt strongly that they needed to be there and even contributed to their travel costs.

Likening their experience in America to being on a treasure hunt, they reflect back explaining how they felt at any moment they were expecting God was going to talk to them.

Arriving at the Newsong staff retreat, they were looking forward to hearing Dave Gibbons speak. ‘We thought we might get some great word of wisdom from him. [But] on that first night, Dave got up and said “we’ve some special guests here from Australia, and I’d like them to come and share their story.”’

Speaking about their restaurant vision, Brent and Celia shared the complications and limitations, and how in the end they couldn’t make it work. After this time of sharing Dave invited his leaders forward to pray and share if they felt God was saying anything. They found themselves surrounded by people, sharing words and pictures such as ‘ I see you on the edge of the cliff and  God wants you to jump;’ ‘don’t worry about the business skills, just come forward, use your skills, God will meet you there’; ‘God sees you standing under a waterfall, you’re holding a net and it’s just spilling out with fish.’

Celia explains how immediately after this time, a woman named Tara Russell came up and said she just couldn’t believe their story. Two years earlier, Tara had started a not-for-profit business in Boise, Idaho, called Create Common Good, which trains and equips refugees. ‘Out of all the people at the staff retreat, Tara and we were among the only ones who weren’t from Newsong Church.’

Brent continues ‘Tara explained they were running a farm [that] employs refugees, grows organic fruit and vegetables, and their vision had been to take that produce and open a multi-cultural restaurant. They had been praying for a chef; their vision was exactly the same as ours. We were dumbfounded.’

On their first Sunday back in Brisbane, a visiting speaker at their church, Gateway Baptist ‘opened his message by saying, “God wants to take the props out of our lives so that we rest solely in him.” And he sticks this picture up on screen of this giant cliff and says “God is telling you to jump!” We couldn’t believe it,”’ Celia laughs.

The vital link in making their dream a reality was the work visa. In exploring this avenue, four of the five categories for work visas required a minimum of a Bachelor of Arts degree, which Brent didn’t have. The only category left, called the ‘extraordinary artists’ category, required you to prove you were of national or international acclaim in your field.

But even here God had provided a way. Before Brent was saved, he had this passion for cooking, and started going to competitions, and won. Therefore he had awards and medals to prove he was an extraordinary artist. Celia explains ‘Brent won a competition called ‘Chef of the Nation’ and I truly believe that got us the visa. It’s amazing how God put’s all the pieces of our life together.’

Arriving in Boise, Idaho, in late February, Brent and Celia share ‘we have been blown away how God has gone before us on this journey!’

They are enjoying being part of the team at Create Common Good, where Brent heads up the STIR culinary arts program. Being a not for profit business, they are now raising the funds needed to open the STIR restaurant. They have already employed their first refugee, an Eritrean man named Awot, who is working alongside Brent. ‘His story is unbelievably sad, but you would never know it from his beautiful smiling face and 'can do' attitude,’ Brent says. More refugees will come on board to train with Brent in the coming months. 

Brent and Celia are excited that Dave Gibbons is visiting in early May to check out STIR, and has also invited the STIR team to Newsong Church in California to share what God is doing in Boise amongst the refugee community.

Brent and Celia feel so grateful that God has led them on this amazing journey and are excited at all that lies ahead. They are thankful for their home church, Gateway Baptist in Brisbane, which is supporting them as part of their missions program. ‘Our salary doesn't cover our living expenses here, so we are extremely grateful for our church family,’ Celia adds.

‘It is a real venture of faith for us!’