They’re the unofficial chaplains of basketball in Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia. Three Avondale University ministry and theology students are helping pastor and hoops fan Raymon Paletua create safe places for children. In doing so, they are building the reputation of Seventh-day Adventists as being community minded.
When not in COVID-19 lockdown, Paletua and Cedric Peniata practically lives at the town’s indoor sports stadium. Paletua coaches the top under-14 girls’ team in the Western League, and Peniata the under 12s. The church also hosts monthly basketball nights. “The kids know we’re Adventists, they know we’re pastors, so they’re often asking questions about God,” Paletua said. The four are training with Sports Chaplaincy Australia. Accreditation “will solidify our relationship with the basketball families in our community.”
Many of those playing basketball or hanging out with the guys at the skate park for an activity Bathurst Regional Council asked the church to run are students in the public primary schools where Roger Afele, Abel Afele, and Peniata are chaplains. The three are changing the perceptions of teachers who’ve seen chaplains as “tired pastors who couldn’t connect with kids.” Darren Denmead, principal at Bathurst West school, introduced Abel Afele to the school community thus: he’s “always positive and leads by example, helping students share the journey of developing strong life skills.”
Abel Afele joined Roger Afele at Bathurst West earlier this year; Peniata is at Lyndhurst and East Orange schools. As part of their ministry, they offer parcels from the Central Tablelands Food Pantry to the students, building trust and opening up opportunities to address mental health and well-being concerns. “We serve needs until the students ask why,” Roger Afele said. His relationship with Bathurst West is good enough that the school is funding extra hours so he can work full time this year.
“My role is to be present, to help the students feel like they belong. I still have principals of other schools calling and saying, ‘I heard your chaplains over at West Bathurst and Lyndhurst are doing some great work, so how do I get one?’ ” Paletua said.
The team in Bathurst had a boost in June, hosting four other Avondale ministry and theology students completing an externship. One of their tasks: helping members of the Lions and Rotary clubs and the Men’s Connect Group from the local Neighbourhood Centre to pack more than 100 food parcels. The community groups told Paletua it was “refreshing” to see young adults wanting to serve with no strings attached. The students then worked with the team to distribute the parcels to families in the suburb of Kelso. “People in the community are very willing to get on board with good ideas,” extern Jesse Duperouzel said. His experience with classmates Ben Cowley, Jesse Curnuck, and Gabbrielle Shaw broadened his perspective about what ministry could be, he said. “I learned how to leverage what I already have into something more, to be always open for the next opportunity, no matter how small it seems.”
Duperouzel told, as an example, of the principal from a school Paletua and the team had yet to meet who dropped by the pantry to pick up some parcels. “Another connection, another community.”
Paletua, Roger Afele, Abel Afele, and Peniata represent only about 50 Adventists in the Central West area. “Even though we’re small in number,” Paletua said, “we’re punching well above our weight.”