What sustains us?
We all have resources that we draw on: in difficult times, in isolation, and over the course of our lives. Four people shared their stories with us.
1. The remote-area minister
Robert Dummermuth is a patrol minister for Frontier Services, working in the south-eastern corner of Western Australia. He also has pastoral responsibility for the Esperance congregation. Before coming to Frontier Services he was a minister for the East Gippsland Remote area ministry and was an active fire fighter and chaplain during the 2003 Victorian bushfires.
What was it like during the fires?
I was the only resident minister in the high country and the only counsellor or pastoral carer. Nobody else was allowed in because all the roads were closed. We had almost four months solid where I was putting in 20 to 22 hours a day. There’s the physical involvement of being on the front line but then, once that’s over, everyone usually puts the fire out, goes back and has a beer and talks about it. And that’s when my real work began.
How did you keep going?
I didn’t. It was typical Australian male stuff: the work’s there, you do it, then you worry about it later on. The police and the other peer support crews for the fire brigade were a great support. But towards the end of it I crashed badly. I was suffering severe traumatic stress. So the church and I discussed it and decided it was time for me to move on.
What did you do to help you recover?
Well it’s taken a couple of years before I didn’t get on edge every time I smelt smoke in the air. I was one of very few people who didn’t get post-trauma counselling.
Mostly it was just a case of self-awareness and private reflection. I was keeping in phone contact with my old supervisor but the isolation where I am now means there isn’t anyone within easy reach.
In a way it’s set me up beautifully for the work I do now. I’m much more knowledgeably and constructively involved in post-trauma counselling. I’m peer support and a chaplain to the emergency services. Your personal experiences joined with their personal experience helps you in your reflection and helps them in theirs.
You need good boundaries, though. It does put an extra load on counselling situations — you’ve got to be aware that some of the trauma you’re feeling is your trauma, not theirs.
What sustains you now, working in such an isolated environment?
The people I visit are used to the isolation. I might only see them two or three times a year but they’re good at carrying things. You just pick up where you left off. The beaut stuff is the support you get from your local group.
Distance and isolation are just so much of a part of your life out there — and an intrinsic welcoming part, too. It’s part of you and who you are and you find comfort in that.
The only place I’ve ever felt really lonely is in George Street Sydney at half past four on a Friday afternoon. There were millions of people around and I got knocked off the pavement as soon as I stopped. Ironically, a fellow pulled me up and said, “You look a bit lost; can I help you?” And we had a cup of coffee. That’s my miracle of God’s provision.
We’re all familiar with organised desert spirituality trips but I don’t find a lot of benefit in them because that’s so familiar. For me, going to a big rally with a congregation of 1,000 people is exciting and inspiring.
The other day I was talking to a woman who lives about five hours out of Kalgoorlie and we were sitting on her veranda having a cup of tea. She looked out over the plain and said, “We don’t consider ourselves isolated. We just have expansive views.”
2. The Activist
Stewart Mills has been working to promote dialogue on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities for 12 years. He also works full-time in the public service and has a young family. Stewart worships at Balmain Uniting Church.
How did you first get involved in activism?
I went to Israel and Palestine in the summer of 2000. I was just curious to see what was happening on the ground because, as a kid growing up, Israel and Palestine was always in the news. I volunteered in a village that was intentionally established to bring Jews and Palestinians together.
For the next two years I travelled to different parts of the world, to places like London, Amsterdam and New York, to see what examples of dialogue within the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities were occurring about this conflict.
Then, when I got back to Australia, I got involved in the interfaith activities — organising visits to the mosque with Uniting Church people. My hope was to build relationships within the Islamic community and, then, get the Islamic guys to talk to the Jewish guys.
What kind of resistance did you encounter?
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006 I tried to get the Jewish leadership to meet with the Islamic leadership in Sydney to show some sense of commonality in a difficult time. This was to the displeasure of some interfaith Jewish activists. For one woman it was a red flag against my character. It meant that, when I tried to organise another event in the community, she’d put a question mark against me.
But really we’ve got nothing to fear in speaking out. It’s only name calling. You’ll be demonised but it’s not like you’re going to be sent to prison.
What impact did your activism have on you personally?
I was burning the candle at both ends. It’s a challenge as someone who’s committed to peace and justice, trying to balance your responsibilities and your competing desires. It came to a head around my wedding anniversary last year. Work-wise I had a very difficult climate. I had a young family and financial question marks. So I’d come home from work, put the kids to bed, sleep till 12, then get up and work till 5 am, then get two more hours sleep. I felt okay, and you do hear about Kevin Rudd getting by on four hours sleep.
Then, one afternoon, we were in the car coming home with Ange (my wife) and the kids. I was in the passenger seat. I think the kids were fighting and I had this real pain in my head. I just started groaning then, when we got home, I just blacked out and Ange called the ambulance. It was sheer exhaustion.
How did you recover?
For me it was about stepping back. I went “bang”. You make rules, like “I won’t work through the night.” And those rules change as you get your energy back.
What sustains you now?
I do rely a lot on reserve energy. A lot of childhood stuff. I’ve got strong memories of my folks and the values I was brought up in. The love of my parents. My Dad was great at the macro social justice picture. My mum was good at the micro — if she saw someone in front of her, she’d help them straight away.
For me, that was a balanced childhood — a good model for life. And all that coupled with strong people from the church who gave a lot of their time for the youth. It’s the foundations these past experiences give me, coupled with the family, friends and answered prayers I have now that sustains me.
Do you find it hard to be optimistic?
It’s about taking a long-term view of history and trusting in humanity. If you look at nations that have been mortal enemies, eventually reason will prevail and humans will resolve their differences. It’s not blind optimism, though. You look at activists in their 20s and then in their 30s they get jaded and cynical.
When you put yourself out there, the people who are going to hurt you most are often the ones who are on the margins. When I went to Israel and Palestine, I was near Tel Aviv on a beach and this Palestinian-Israeli kid was throwing rocks at me and spitting. Maybe he thought I was Jewish-Israeli. The whole idea of “love one another” is not expecting to get it back from the people you’re extending a hand to.
3. The long-serving
Fred and Anne Humphreys have lived in Urbenville on the Far North Coast of New South Wales for most of their lives. They’re now in their late 60s and worship at the Upper Clarence Uniting Church congregation.
How long have you been at your current church?
Anne: Basically all our lives. Fred was born here and I came here as a teacher when I was 20.
What sort of roles have you been in?
Anne: We worked in our early 20s in an Aboriginal mission station in the Kimberleys. We worked in a youth refuge in the Parramatta regional mission. Eleven years on a beach mission team. We’ve been elders in the church and, in more recent times, members of the lay ministry team. We are both local preachers.
Fred: I taught scripture in high school for 16 years or so. I only did that because I felt God say “Do it” and that he would go before me. As a result of that, and my experience of the Holy Spirit enabling me to write sermons, I have now gained accreditation to be a local preacher and lay presider.
During the past few years, we’ve spent time in the Riverina Presbytery as pastoral visitors to drought-affected farmers and then victims of flooding. Someone asked what training we had for this. We said, “It’s from the last 40 years of experiencing God.” We’ve been missionaries of some kind most of our married life, at home or away.
What kind of changes have you seen in your church?
Fred: I’ll give you one example. Before the Uniting Church came into being, the Methodists and the Presbyterians were worshipping together. We had been Presbyterians. When Union came in, the other Presbyterians went their way and we went ours. It was a disappointment for us, but it was also a catalyst.
Anne: It made our congregation a Uniting congregation. We were far more “uniting” than a lot of other places that just changed the name. We were a new church and it was an exciting, exciting time, even in the middle of the disappointment.
What sustains you in your faith?
Fred: It’s a hindsight thing. Looking back, we’ve experienced how God’s used us — a bit like the Israelites looking back on the march out of Egypt. He’s helped us before; he will help us again.
Anne: For me, it’s dependence on the Holy Spirit and knowing it’s not our own power that we do God’s work with. If it depended on us, it wouldn’t go anywhere. Our quiet times with God have a very high priority in our lives.
Everywhere in our life, we’ve had support and fellowship from some Christian group. When we worked for the church full-time another denomination has helped fulfil that role. And through one of our hardest times, when we couldn’t minister in our local church, the Anglican Church adopted us and we were able to minister with them for five years.
We have always had the philosophy that it’s up to us to get our spiritual food. So we have always sought Christian fellowship of like-minded people; through Bible studies, prayer groups and hospitality. Because our congregation is very small, at least once a year we try to go to some conference or training outside the area. We just love to learn from sharing with others about their experiences. The sustenance from dining-room table conversations is a special delight to us.
And what sustains your connection to your own church?
We believe that this is where God has planted us. That’s more important than our theological preferences and our expectations of what a church should be. We’re still in the Uniting Church because we love the people that we worship with.