Steve with Rev John Dihm at Jimblebar
Four decades ago I lived and worked in the Pilbara. I worked for a large mining company who owned half the town. Despite the heat, the iron ore dust and occasional sense of remoteness, life was good. The primary and high schools were full. The sporting clubs had enough teams to complete and the faithful went to church. Family life seemed fairly normal. Dad and maybe Mum went off to work each day and came home in time for children to play, dinner to be prepared and good conversation over a background of television and homework. Life was good, wages were high and community life seemed to prosper. There were of course some social problems. Some men drank too much. There was a shortage of single women. Marriages were strained by the demands of long hours and living away from home without mum or day, aunt or uncle in the next suburb. I lived in a single men’s quarters where the meals were great but there was not a lot to do. Some men were lonely and the lure of high wages sometimes did not seem enough compensation for the tyranny of distance. Life was not idyllic but there was a sense of community and evidence of strong family life. Enter the mining boom and the age of FIFO (Fly in/Fly out).
A radical and well documented shift has taken place in those mining towns. A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting several Pilbara towns with Frontier Services chaplain, Rev John Dihm. The first thing I noticed was the empty houses, sometimes five or six in a row. The mining decline has meant that once booming towns are now struggling. Many miners have moved back to the city or back interstate. The schools, churches and sporting clubs are no longer full of people, many have closed down due to lack of members. The fabric of the towns has dramatically changed. The small single men’s quarters of the seventies have been replaced with huge mining ‘villages’, where you need a special pass to enter. There is also a sign outside that prohibits entry to anyone who has not got the right safety gear. These mining camps are huge, with some of them housing over 1500 people. The mining companies try their best to make life comfortable for the inhabitants, with high quality food, cheap alcohol, single rooms with television, en suite and internet access. I was struck by how long and hard a day in the life of a FIFO can be. The pre-start is at 4.30am with testing to ensure workers are alcohol free. In the seventies where the unions dominated the workplace a job in a mining company seemed like a cushy job. How things have changed. Most people I talked to worked long and hard and by the end of the day were exhausted. Maybe a drink or two in the wet mess (bar) followed by dinner in the dry mess (canteen) then a call home and set the alarm clock for an early start.
I glimpsed the life of a FIFO worker. There may be big bank balances but for some men the real cost is bankrupt relationships, separations, family alienation and most tragic of all, suicide. Rev John Dihm mentioned that there had been eighteen over the past two years. It seems while as a nation we prospered economically through the mining boom, we have tended to overlook the social cost to families and individuals. Mining companies do care. I met a number of compassionate people who are serving the call to support the FIFO worker. But the FIFO concept, taking men and women away from their families and communities to live in isolation for long periods of time is not conducive to healthy marriages and family life. It depletes communities and individuals. Too often a FIFO returns home and, in the struggle for adjust to family life and the family to adjust to the returnee, relationships are strained and sometimes damaged. Too easily a FIFO returns back to the mining camp with family or marriage issues unresolved and in real danger of escalating. I thank God for people like Rev John Dihm. In God’s name, he is a listening ear and gives wise counsel. He steps calmly into crises and offers the kind of ministry that brings the possibilities of hope and healing. I was a FIFO observer for a few days, he lives each day in these communities. How I wish we could clone him a dozen times over, for the need is great. Maybe in a decade or two we will look back at the FIFO experiment and conclude it was too costly; good for the economy but bad for our well-being.
Recently I was able to attend the Metro East Regional Gathering in Mundijong and also the 162nd anniversary of the Gingin congregation. Both were extraordinary examples of how life and gospel are celebrated in the current context of apparently declining interest in ‘church’. It reinforces my interest in shifting our focus away from ‘head office’ to celebrating and enabling what is happening on the ground at the core of the Church–in the congregations. In Mundijong, the dilapidated church building has been restored and a magnificent community garden has been planted to accompany it. Yes, the congregation did get some help from the Synod Property Division but a huge amount of the work involved the local community in Byford and Mundijong. They found a volunteer group to help with the hard stuff, called MMM Australia (two of the M’s stand for Mission and Maintenance, but I can’t think of the third and it’s not on their website www.mmm.org.au or Facebook page. MMM are a group of volunteer tradies who give of their time and skills to ‘serve those who serve’. They still have a worship service once a month but they also have regular weekly meetings of all kinds of other groups (AA, Al-Anon, Arts & Crafts, gardeners etc) and they are building a community of people who were initially far from God but who are connecting more and more together as a faith community. The enthusiasm of the group, the commitment to each other and the willingness to identify with a Christian ethos are all positive elements in the group and are attractive to the community at large. They saw a vision in a broken down building and an out of control garden and are turning it into a fresh expression of church. Similarly in Gingin. One hundred and sixty two years ago, the Methodist Church in Perth sent a minister on horseback to serve the community up to 50 miles outside of Perth. He started a Wesleyan congregation in Creaton which has become the Gingin Uniting Church. It has a small well kept building and has worship services twice a month. On the other Sundays they join with the Anglicans and vice versa. After the worship service, as in all country and, it seems, small congregations, they had a magnificent spread for morning tea. Everyone came along and the fellowship was warm and friendly. They have a Home Group Bible Study in the week, they support School Chaplaincy and UnitingCare West’s Winter appeal and are planning a Women’s Prayer and Refection Day at New Norcia. A big feature of their life is Messy Church which attracts up to thirty children plus parents from the community, and was nominated for the Premier’s Australia Day Award. Every member is involved in one or more activities in the community generally and they live out their faith in the everyday of that little town. In the celebration service, their minister, Rev Geoff Lilburne, asked the question – what is the church? And what is it supposed to be? They were similar questions which arose in Mundijong. The answer was the same. The church is a God initiated community of believers which is drawn together in Christ as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. (If that sounds familiar, you are right–it’s from Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union). The Scripture texts in both places were the same too–Amos’ plumb line (getting things right with God), Colossians 1 (thanking God for each other) and Luke 10 (the Good Samaritan). In Mundijong they call themselves Good Samaritans–they are not holy or particularly religious, but they can and do show mercy to those who have fallen on rough times. Sounds to me that we have a good deal of life in our congregations!
I hate getting lost. I find it very frustrating going the wrong way, taking the wrong road or ending up not where I want to be. I thought all my troubles would be over when I was given a Tom Tom or satellite navigating system. When I finally worked out how to use it, I felt very confident that my days of getting lost and getting hot and bothered were over. Not so. While the additional technology has been a great help, and has steered me accurately to places that would have been very hard to find, this technology is not perfect. On several occasions I have typed in a Uniting Church only to be guided not to the church building but to the manse. In several cases that has added to my confusion given a number of our manses are let out on the real estate market and the occupiers have never heard of the Uniting Church!
I have always believed that God guides and that God calls and I have relied on this truth throughout my Christian life. The Bible is full of stories about God calling people: Abraham, the prophets, the calling of disciples, and the Damascus road experience of Paul. God, however, is not a GPS. The call of God and the guidance of God is not an exact science. We do have the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and wise Christian counsel as great resources, but they are not in a sense, infallible. We can misread Scripture; we can be guided by our own ego or flawed intuition, and our Christian friends can sometimes give the wrong advice. (the current Archbishop of Canterbury, candidated for the ministry and he was told he would never ever become an Anglican priest. He just didn’t have the goods. Thankfully he applied a second time and was accepted). So the sign posts to the future are not always clearly marked. Faith and trust are key ingredients in the Christian journey. When God does call it may not always be clear. Some are given guidance from God that is so clear and convincing. I am delighted for people when that happens. On other occasions the future next steps seems hazy and confusing. Sometimes there is not one clear choice but several paths before us. Which job to take, which person to marry, which church to join, which house to buy, which areas to live in, can present us with an array of confusing choices. For Christian people we pray and activity seek guidance, but we also live with some ambiguity.
As John Ortberg points out, a classic example of the lack of a divine GPS is in the book of Acts. The church had to decide if God is calling them to include Gentiles in a radical new way. After much prayer and discussion they send out a letter with these words; “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”(Acts 15:28). “It seemed good”? The future of the entire human race is at stake and the best they could do was a rather humble “it seemed”. Interestingly the church leaders were quite comfortable sending out this letter. God’s will and guidance was not precise and bold. It did not demand certainty. Rather it called for sincere obedience, an openness to the Spirit and to each other.
Part of the great adventure of the Christian life is being open to the guidance of God and getting some wonderful surprises where God ends up leading us. Just don’t expect every road to be well signposted.