Felipe Beltran reflects on our wonderful Uniting Church bush chaplains who minister to those living in remote Australia.
I caught up with Frontier Services bush chaplain Pastor Cain Hartigan and his wife Jacki at the Birdsville Races earlier this year. We talked about the needs of people in the Cunnamulla-Burke and Wills Remote Area, where rural communities are losing key services such as banks, schools and medical practices because of the ongoing drought.
Farming families in the region, who have endured several years without an income, are dealing with a never-ending cycle of hand-feeding their animals, paying ever-increasing prices for feed and culling their livestock.
It is as exhausting as it is heartbreaking.
As we sat by the campfire Cain reflected on one of the earliest visits he and Jacki made when they first hit the road. They had been referred to a particular station and were on their way there when they passed a property gate with no name or identification.
“We saw about 20 goats standing on top of some old cars, which gave us a laugh, but we kept driving,” Cain recalled. “Then this feeling crept in that told me we needed to turn around, so we did.”
Arriving at the property, they unlocked the gate and drove down the dusty driveway. A lady approached when they got out of the car.
As they introduced themselves, she fell into Jacki’s arms sobbing, saying, “I thought we’d been forgotten. Nobody’s ever visited us before”.
Cain and Jacki learned that the woman and her husband had been in drought for 10 years. They were struggling to feed their animals and were dealing with the trauma of destocking. But that wasn’t all. The lady had recently had surgery for throat cancer and was the primary carer for her husband.
It is hard to imagine how anyone can cope with this much hardship whilst living in isolation. Cain and Jacki spent a few hours listening and promised to visit again soon.
A fortnight later they returned and discovered that their first visit could not have come at a better time.
Sharing stories over cake and morning tea, the husband revealed to Cain how close he had been to taking his own life. Their visit had given him hope that people did care.
Before leaving, they handed the couple a food voucher for the local grocery shop. There were tears of appreciation. Cain and Jacki continue to stay in regular contact with the couple.
Time and again at Frontier Services we hear stories of hope like these from our bush chaplains; how a simple conversation can help to overcome the feelings of loneliness and isolation among those in remote Australia—and even save a life.
Continuing our Birdsville legacy
Located 1600km west of Brisbane and 11km north of the Queensland-South Australian border, Birdsville is a town with which Frontier Services has strong historical links.
In 1923 the Australian Inland Mission (as Frontier Services was previously known) established the state’s first mission hostel in Birdsville, later replacing it with a purpose-built hospital in 1937. When fire destroyed the building in 1951, construction of a new hospital commenced and the new hospital opened in 1953.
Today the hospital is a museum offering visitors a glimpse into what it was like for medical personnel to treat patients in the most arid of desert climates.
The Birdsville Races
From its humble beginnings in the early 1880s, the Birdsville Races have grown to become an iconic Australian event that attracts more than 6000 visitors by air and land every September.
My role at the event was to make local connections, introduce our new bush chaplain to the community and to remind people about our ongoing work.
“We think it’s vital for people in remote Australia to be able to gather over an event like this,” says Cain. “It’s good for their mental health because people can see fresh faces, hear different stories and get some reprieve from the hardships of their day to day.”
How you can make a difference
You can make a difference by visiting rural and regional towns across Australia. Spend some money at the local store, fill up your tank or stop by for lunch and a cuppa at the town café.
And don’t forget to say hello to the locals! Spending a little time and a little cash out bush can make a big difference.
Felipe Beltran is Frontier Services’ Fundraising Coordinator
To support Frontier Services bush chaplains this Christmas, visit frontierservices.org/donate