Even the toughest inhabitants of a tough country need help from time to time.
Visitors to Australia are often taken by surprise at its sheer size, and the way in which when you leave the city behind there are vast stretches of what appears to be empty land. Given that almost 90% of the population lives in coastal cities, it’s no wonder that we all too often forget there is more to this nation than skyscrapers and lattes.
It was once said that Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”, alluding to the dominant position of the wool industry in the economy. Throughout the years, the resource boom and globalisation have been just some of the factors that have reduced our reliance on a few rural industries, but this is still a nation built on a foundation laid by farmers past and present. Even now, despite the shift in demographics, the image that most of the world has when you mention Australia is probably of someone wearing a battered Akubra and surrounded by wheat, sheep, kangaroos and koalas, not skyscrapers.
And, as anyone who grew up in the country can tell you, rural Australia can be a hard place to make a living. Farmers are at the mercy of a harsh and unforgiving climate that can quickly go from one extreme to the other without warning, with the breaking of a drought sometimes signalling the arrival of raging floods. Those relying on a good harvest to get through the next year could lose it all through circumstances outside their control, often creating feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.
Even when nature is keeping to patterns that assist farmers and pastoralists, there are plenty of other challenges that disproportionately affect our rural industries and communities. Rising costs of essentials like fuel erode already narrow margins, while globalisation has created a constant state of competition for markets. Distance can often create a sense of isolation, exacerbating existing problems and fostering the belief that they are on their own in facing them.
On top of this, limited infrastructure often forces people to travel hours for medical care, and as more young people head to the city seeking education or career opportunities it becomes increasingly difficult for community organisations like sporting clubs and service clubs to survive.
When you combine all this, often alongside high rates of unemployment and substance abuse, it is taking a huge toll. Rural suicide rates are almost twice those in the coastal cities and, while there is an equal likelihood of mental health issues regardless of location, someone living in regional Australia will have far less support available.
It’s clear that we need to be doing more for the regional communities and families that are such a vital part of what makes this country thrive. It is essential we ensure that the expert support and care people receive isn’t decided by distance. Every Australian deserves a fair go, no matter where they live.
Majors Peter and Jean Ridley who served together as rural chaplains for 12 years.
Salvo rural chaplains show people that, no matter how remote a location they live in, or what they are dealing with, they are not alone.
The Salvation Army is committed to helping those in need across Australia, and every day our ministers, corps (churches), chaplains, staff and volunteers are making a difference in regional communities as they provide a range of programs and services to meet material, emotional and spiritual needs. People need more than financial assistance or vouchers, and that’s why the work of our rural chaplains is especially important.
Travelling tens of thousands of kilometres, they visit some of our most remote communities and families, helping fight the isolation distance can bring. For many people, they are the only face-to-face contact they have in months. The chaplains offer opportunities for people to share their struggles—often through having a chat. It’s about showing people that they aren’t alone, and that someone cares—especially God.
In the course of their role, chaplains do more than simply visit rural communities, they become part of it, working alongside people to learn how best to help where needed. They know that the only way you can understand the struggles of country Australians is to be there alongside them, and that it’s hard for someone on the other end of a telephone to see the whole picture.
It’s part of the country mindset that everyone pitches in to get things done, and chaplains are no exception. It can involve getting their hands dirty, helping with jobs while talking, and providing some extra muscle and company.
Despite limited resources, chaplains help where they can with immediate needs, working with other Salvation Army services to provide assistance to people struggling to make ends meet. They also assist with organising community events, helping to bring people together.
Rural chaplains are often first at the scene when disaster strikes, offering support in the midst of tragedy and helping people access the help they need. After the immediate disaster has been dealt with, they are there to help rebuild.
They also act as a connection between regional Australia and the rest of the country, helping people access the services they need. This might include finding a mental health provider for someone struggling with depression, or arranging transport and accommodation for someone who has to go to the city for surgery.
Communities are the heart of regional Australia, and rural chaplains work towards building healthy communities. By bringing together local businesses, service organisations, health providers and community members, the community can decide what will best meet its needs, and what they can do for each other.
At its heart, everything a rural chaplain does comes back to one simple idea—that the most important thing you can do is be there for people. Salvo rural chaplains show people that, no matter how remote a location they live in, or what they are dealing with, they are not alone.
Knowing that someone cares enough to come and say hello, to ask how you are, can be the difference between isolation and community. That’s something the Salvos believe everyone deserves, and our rural chaplains won’t let any amount of distance stand in their way.