Robert Seymour’s story with the Salvos starts in a park at Fernhill (now Tarrawanna), a northern suburb of Wollongong (NSW) in 1956.
Ken and Joy Pittard, soldiers (members) of The Salvation Army Wollongong Corps (church) were running a Sunday school in a park located in a public housing area. Among the children attending the park Sunday school were six-year-old Robert Seymour and his eight-year-old sister Lyn.
Life at home was not happy. The children were often treated harshly by their mother and Robert was sexually abused by a family friend.
Lyn stayed with the Salvos, enrolling as a soldier when Tarrawanna Salvation Army corps was established in 1966, but not Robert. He was expelled from two primary schools and a high school and left home at 15. He worked at a hotel, where he started drinking. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he was “full of fear, rage, anger and resentment, blaming everybody else for my life”.
“But the real saints of this world didn’t give up on me,” Robert says.
“I was living five houses from Wollongong Salvation Army. After a long Sunday at the
pub, I would walk past the citadel [church] and Ken Pittard would be standing there
on the steps and he’d say, ‘Will you come in tonight Bob?’ I never did.
“Another Salvo, Albert Shaw, would come in to the pub where I worked, with the Warcry. Like Ken, Albert kept inviting me to church.”
Albert introduced Robert to Paddy Mullan, who was preparing to become a Salvation Army officer.
“Paddy had a word with me every week,” Robert says. “One Sunday afternoon, I was driving home from a big drinking day, when I saw Mrs Phyllis Sampson [an elderly member of Tarrawanna Salvos]. I stopped to say hello. She asked me to drive her to Tarrawanna Salvos. I knew what she was up to — she wanted me to go to church with her. When we got to the church, she asked me to go in. I said, ‘No’. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘if you won’t come in here, at least go to Wollongong because it’s Paddy’s farewell meeting [service] tonight’.”
Robert went to Wollongong Salvos. “I couldn’t handle it, so went home,” he remembers.
“I had planned to kill myself that night. I had a loaded shotgun in the house. But I also had thoughts of how I hadn’t given God a go and I should, at least, say goodbye to Paddy.
“I went back to Wollongong Salvos. The meeting was over and people were attending a supper in the hall. I found Paddy and told him that I wanted to give God a go. He took me into the church and led me in the Penitent’s Prayer and a few more.
“When I stood up, all these people were standing behind me. Ken, Joy and Albert, and teachers who had taught me at Tarrawanna Park Sunday school. It was 6 March, 1976.”
Next morning, Robert drove to Lyn’s home to tell her about his life-changing decision. They had not been in contact for years, so she got a shock when she answered the door.
“I told her about my decision and she started to cry. I thought, ‘Well, that didn’t go well’ and left,” he says.
He went to see Mrs Sampson, who said Lyn had been on the phone and was on her way. When Lyn arrived, the two women showed him an exercise book. In it were the names of the children from the Tarrawanna Park Sunday school, including his. Mrs Sampson and Lyn had prayed for them all every Tuesday for years.
Twelve months later, Robert started training as a Salvation Army officer. He and his wife, Geanette, also an officer, had several appointments, including Mount Isa Corps and men’s and women’s refuges. When they separated after 15 years of marriage, Robert stepped out of officer ship for nine years, but continued working for the Salvos. He returned to officership after his second wife, Robyn Black, became an officer. He retired almost three years ago, but not long after, Robyn was appointed corps officer at Tarrawanna.
Early last year, Ken Pittard had heart surgery. Robert visited his former Sunday school teacher every week for seven months, reading the Bible to him and praying.
“As I was leaving on one of my last visits, I kissed Ken on the cheek,” Robert says. “I loved this man. Not once — despite the lifestyle I led in my younger days and the many times I let him down — did Ken ever judge me. He never gave up on me; he just loved me and prayed for me.”
Robert conducted the celebration of Ken Pittard’s life at Wollongong on 20 November 2018. He proudly introduced himself: “I’m Robert Seymour, friend of Ken and an officer of The Salvation Army.”