Beyond the farthest fences
Frontier Services celebrates one hundred years in the heart of Australia.
In 1902, explorer and geologist John Gregory coined the phrase “The Dead Heart of Australia”, which was the title of his book written after an exploration trip to Lake Eyre.
To the first settlers, this was how Australia’s inland was seen — an arid no-man’s land, a “dead” heart. Only a few robust pioneers tackled the seven million square kilometres of Australia’s heartland.
Soon, forging a reputation of being tough and self-reliant, those settlers were still vulnerable to the stark, harsh realities of natural disasters, sickness, injury and isolation that came from the great stretching distance of the Australian Inland.
It was the Rev. John Flynn’s reasoning that a thriving environment could not be achieved in the inland without a real community — women working alongside their husbands and fathers in the bush.
To create a better life for people in the outback, the establishment of communication and medical help was high on the list. That coincided with the goal of making the inland outposts more hospitable to women in order to create the all-important sense of community.
In Flynn’s report to the Presbyterian Assembly in 1912, he described that need as critical in the establishment of what he coined a “Mantle of Safety”.
“The first thing to do in any effort to uplift the tone of the bush life is to give women a sense of security; in other words, to make childbearing comparatively safe at the outposts,” said Flynn.
The “Mantle of Safety” Flynn envisaged consisted of the provision of medical and aged care services, communication and transport to ease the distance and isolation of the settlements which, all too often, was the reason that illness resulted in death.
Opening his arms to women to join the ministry in active roles was typically Flynn — a practical but revolutionary step. Many were attracted by the opportunity to play a vital role alongside men that was previously not encouraged or sought.
The media agreed with Flynn’s approach and, even from his early steps, was encouraging of Flynn’s efforts for the inland communities:
“The presence of the hospital and its conveniences has encouraged the men to bring their womenfolk to the settlement, and the result is an immense improvement in the comfort and social conditions of this pioneer township. With no fear of sickness, the womenfolk are going to Maranboy, and there is no greater hope for the field than in this progress” (Northern Territory Times, 1917).
A network of support
While people who live in remote Australia are still facing the inequalities that exist between the city and the bush, they maintain a reputation for stoicism and resilience.
Over the past century the inland has changed dramatically. No longer a “dead heart”, communities in the centre are, compared to earlier years, thriving and economically stronger.
John Flynn’s “Mantle of Safety” however, has gone a long way to pave a network of support.
Changes, such as advances in technology, the economy and communications have also changed the way people work on the land. In order to adapt to the people’s changing needs, Flynn’s initial vision, the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) and its legacy, Frontier Services, has subtly changed to address the shifting needs of people in remote Australia.
In 1998, due to the mining boom exploding far beyond the capacity of local labour, the Australian government increased immigration for skilled migrants.
With small mining communities swelling with migrant workers — many whose wives do not work, drive or speak fluent English — the need for basic family and community support services is high.
John Flynn’s “Mantle of Safety” however, has gone a long way to pave a network of support.
Frontier Services Community Migrant Services has seen a 50 per cent increase in clients.
Community Migrant Services provide support and information to help migrants settle in to their new lives. Silloo Darukhanawallwa, who came to Kalgoorlie-Boulder from Mumbai, India, ten years ago, said learning a new language was a big challenge for many migrants.
“Also, there is the difference in culture. Indians like to drop in and talk. Everyone is so busy here; you have to check that the person is available at your time and would also like to spend time with you.
“I like to help. Knowing that a person is from the same country, we can understand each other and I can relate to what they are feeling as well. I want them to settle down well and realise that people here are very good and they will be happy in time.”
Community Migrant Worker Elizabeth Coghill says migrants in Kalgoorlie-Boulder came from many different cultural backgrounds with varied needs.
“Kalgoorlie has many strong and supportive cultural groups but it can take some time for new migrants to establish those networks,” she said. “It can be an isolating experience.”
Migrants who visit the service can access information on English classes, legal rights, community services, health issues, immigration support and other matters.
Ms Coghill is also there to support migrants as they settle in, assisting them to complete documentation, make appointments, look for a job and apply for an Australian driver’s licence.
“It’s a big ambition for these women to get their driver’s licence. For these women, it is very daunting to receive a big book of road rules and have to try and interpret those rules.”
The first men to support those in the rugged country of the Australian inland departed on camels or bicycles with bulging saddle bags and a bush-savvy, handy knowledge of how to get on with the bush folk.
In 1912, the outback was not a place for the city formalities of church life. Very few people were practising Christians due to their isolation. Padres gave spiritual consolation to those who sought it but never preached and the minister provided physical aid to people of all faiths and of no faith.
Taking Christ to the people
Over the years, Flynn’s vision for a “Mantle of Safety” became synonymous with the non-judgmental friendship offered by the churchmen, both lay and ordained, who he appointed as padres.
Frontier Services continues to provide patrol ministry across 85 per cent of the continent. Today, 21 patrols reach out to over 15,000 families, extending the hand of friendship. Every year, Frontier Services patrol ministers cover more than a million kilometres by road and plane visiting people who live in isolated locations.
“Much of their time is taken up simply listening to people who face the daily challenges of isolation,” said Frontier Services Associate National Director David Buxton.
Over a century of service, hundreds of people have served as patrol padres and ministers and thousands of stories about the support they have given families reverberate through the generations.
As Frontier Services Cunnamulla Patrol Minister, Dennis Cousins’ job is to spend time with individuals and families in their place. Dennis’ patrol stretches from the New South Wales-Queensland border, 230 kilometres north to Wyandra, east about 100 kilometres and west to Nockatunga — a patch roughly 150,000 square kilometres in area.
“There is a great respect for Frontier Services because we have been there during the tough times, during the nine-year drought and more recently the Queensland floods. People feel comfortable to talk and sometimes they will ask you for a quick prayer before you go.
“And then, when someone needs a minister to conduct a wedding or a funeral, people will say, ‘Dennis, you’re our church bloke out here.’”
For Dennis it’s not about preaching religion or taking advantage of people’s hospitality. As a Frontier Services Patrol Minister, people feel comfortable to approach Dennis during those times of life when they need someone to call on.
“Often people will say, ‘I’m not religious’ and I say, ‘I’m not either, but I have a faith in God’ and they will say, ‘Well I suppose I have a faith too. You can’t get by out here without it.’”
“It’s a great privilege, just being alongside people … taking Christ to the people instead of expecting people to come to a church building — somewhere that is quite unfamiliar to them.
“It’s about going where people are familiar and taking Christ to them there … that’s what this ministry is about …
“To me, people sharing their lives, opening their homes and recognising Christ in the work of Frontier Services, is the abundance — the life overflowing abundance — that you get in this ministry.”
Frontier Services has carried Flynn’s ethos and vision for the safety and welfare of an entire inland population with it for the past 100 years.
Stories about Flynn often mention that a noticeable trait about him was that he was a practical man. More at home fixing chairs, clocks and baby carriages than wedded to politics and paperwork, he simply liked to make things work. And he had practical approaches to his large vision.
Lending a hand
It was in this spirit of practicality that Frontier Services set up its volunteer program Outback Links, which aims to support people who are struggling to cope with the extremes of outback life and the resulting sense of isolation and hopelessness. Outback Links “lends a hand” at their greatest time of need.
On the one hand Outback Links is about utilising an untapped workforce of willing volunteers to alleviate the struggles of many isolated families and individuals. It is also about providing people, who, for the most part have only known an urban existence, with the opportunity to experience the heart of our nation, the real Australia, and make a valuable contribution by helping other people in the process.
The program matches the particular skills of the volunteers to families who are currently in need of support on their properties.
Today, Outback Links touches the lives of hundreds of families and volunteers each year. Recipients often report that they have made lifelong friends and that the assistance supported their families, homes and livelihood in a difficult time.
Volunteers also say how caring for others has made them feel a sense of worth, a way of giving back and to form friendships which span the country.
It is a practical, non-judgmental service, which, following in Flynn’s footsteps, provides a service that is not about a handout or charity but about the enduring spirit of mateship that characterises Australian culture.
It’s about lending a hand when your neighbour’s finding the going tough.
Shan Sharp, a recent Outback Links volunteer, says that often it is not big things that are needed but the little things that really count to an isolated family.
“It is the companionship and just being there, the conversation around the dinner table and hanging the washing on the line. Just having an extra pair of hands makes a massive difference.”
Over the last 100 years there have been monumental changes to remote Australia but the character of John Flynn is still deeply embedded in Frontier Services.
The organisation has always been part of the spirit of the bush. In 100 years of service, Frontier Services has never faltered or walked away and continues to strive to go “beyond the furthest fences” to lend a hand to those in need.