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Minister all over the shops

By Andrew Humphries

In Australia, we use many wonderful words to describe talking to someone. We might chew the fat, have a natter, a chinwag, a yarn or just a good old-fashioned chat.

And for one Melbourne Minister, the rewards gained from the simple art of conversation have become something quite special in a world turned upside down since COVID-19’s emergence early last year.

Once a fortnight, Plenty Valley UC Minister Rev Dhirendra Narayan wanders around his local Westfield shopping centre with a simple message for anyone who happens to stop him and say g’day.

“I’m here to listen, have a chat and help in any way I can,” is how Dhirendra describes his interaction with shoppers and shop staff throughout the centre.

“I call it my mobile ministry and, for me, it’s ministry at its most basic level.”

At its heart is the art of communication, something Dhirendra says has never been more important as we battle the unseen enemy called COVID-19.

When historians come to write about the pandemic and its impact on families, they will no doubt focus on deaths and illness, and of family breakdowns and the pressure on children of home schooling in lockdowns that seemed to go on forever.

However the focus should also be on something much harder to quantify and measure, but no less important: the serious toll it has taken on our mental wellbeing and overall state of mind.

Dhirendra sees those impacts every time he talks to people on his shopping centre “beat”, and has come to realise that sometimes something as simple as a brief interaction can be the first step towards a positive mindset for many people.

He also knows what it’s like to be scared, to live with uncertainty, and to have your life unravel due to unforeseen circumstances.

In 1989, Dhirendra made the decision to leave his home in Fiji and move to Australia, as two coups in 1987 split the South Pacific nation in two and made life extremely tough for Fijians of Indian descent.

“It was a very difficult time for us all,” Dhirendra says. “There was a lot of uncertainty there and the coup really divided the Indian and Fijian nationalities, whereas before that we were as one.

“When political instability comes, it doesn’t affect some people, it affects everyone, so like a lot of Indians from Fiji I came to Australia for a better life.

“But, yes, I do feel it has equipped me to understand the difficulties that many people have to deal with in their everyday life.”

After arriving in Melbourne, Dhirendra found a spiritual home at Blackburn North UC, and the welcome its congregation provided was the spark for his own journey towards the Ministry.

“Blackburn North had a Hindi service once a month and it became our home church and we felt a real part of the fellowship there,” he says.

“A Synod employee at the time worked with various ethnic groups and one Sunday I asked him, ‘how do I train for the Ministry?’.

“He talked to me about it and then one day he arrived at our home with the forms required to begin the process. I was accepted into theological college as a mature-age student in 1996 and did five years of study before becoming a Minister.”

Rev Dhirendra Narayan loves engaging with people during his shopping centre visits.

Placements in the eastern Mallee district, Rosanna and Box Hill followed, before his most recent move to Plenty Valley.

Dhirendra’s own background and struggles, and a calm and easy nature, mean he is perfectly equipped to be a sounding board for anyone he meets as he wanders around Westfield Plenty Valley.

What also helps, he admits with a laugh, is the fact he loves nothing more than meeting people and having a chat with them.

“I just walk around the shopping centre and talk to various people, from shoppers to workers,” is Dhirendra’s under-stated description of what his visits entail.

“It’s all about saying, ‘hello, how are you going?’, and just explaining who I am. I just support and encourage people and it seems to work.”

The idea came to Dhirendra in September last year as Melbourne residents were enduring their second lockdown and his thoughts turned to the many people, including those trying to keep their businesses afloat, who were struggling badly during a time of such uncertainty.

Who, he wondered, was offering support to them?

It was time, he decided, to find out and, while not all shopping centre businesses were open during lockdown, those people employed in the ones that were all had a story to tell about how the pandemic was affecting them.

“Obviously lockdown was such a difficult time for everyone, because it was such an alien thing,” Dhirendra says.

I thought to myself, ‘I wonder how those people still working in shops are getting on’, so I decided to go and visit some of them and say hello.

 I would explain that I was a local church Minister and that I just wanted to say g’day and hope that you are keeping well.”

For many, Dhirendra’s simple but heartfelt enquiry was the signal to open up about how they were coping.

“People wouldn’t just talk about how their business was going, they would often also open up on a personal level,” he says.

“These were people who would tell me that they were unable to see their loved ones, or who had been unable to attend the funerals of people close to them who had died.

“There was a worker who had lost her mum and she was in tears as she explained to me that she had not been able to say goodbye to her physically, but only via Zoom. That was something I could relate to as I could only watch the funerals of relatives in Fiji, including my aunty and a cousin, via Zoom.”

Dhirendra says his role as a church Minister is often the bridge that encourages people to engage with him.

“I wear the clerical collar and people then understand who I am, they immediately think ‘here is a man of the church’, and that really connects us,” he says.

“But I’m not recruiting people to come to church or anything like that, it’s just a way of breaking down barriers and, for me, there is a real joy in being able to connect with them.

“There is something special about being able to stand alongside people, hear their stories and share their burden.”

While Victoria has returned to a sense of normality and, hopefully, said goodbye to lockdowns forever, Dhirendra plans to continue his shopping centre visits, where he has become a familiar sight for many.

“These visits are my mobile ministry and I will definitely continue because it is something important that is worth doing,” he says.

“We all have issues to deal with and it’s nice to be able to talk to someone about them. When you meet people and talk to them, amazing things can happen.”

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