Monday 25 January 2016
For Christmas, Salvation Army rural chaplain John Jackson made up several bunches of 8 millimetre super silver rope, with spliced loops at either end. The small loop fits around a truck’s towball. The larger goes over the leg of a dead kangaroo stuck in a dam. The rope – given as a gift to some of the farmers John met – makes it easier to pull the kangaroos out of the dams, which is something John has had to help his farming friends around Longreach do quite regularly these days.
“Of course, if you’ve got to drag out a beast (cow), that’s a bit trickier,” says John.
During drought, dam levels drop rapidly, and the mud that surrounds the remaining water is a bog-trap for animals. If a kangaroo, or a cow from the herd gets stuck and dies, it pollutes the water and makes other animals sick – the last thing a farmer needs to be dealing with when he’s already worried about making sure his herd has enough to eat and drink.
John’s not a farmer. He’s got an engineering background, “more about horsepower than horses, if you catch my drift,” he says. But he’s learned a lot in the last twelve months about life on the land, as the Salvation Army’s rural chaplain in Longreach.
With his wife, Karen, 60-year-old John has a mission field that spans a 300km diameter circle around Longreach, in central west Queensland. They’ve got a car and a caravan, and they travel around visiting farmers and small communities.
“We’ll do a ring around to our contacts, and travel out for a week or so, making day trips or staying overnight on someone’s property.
“You go on the run and it gives you the opportunity to talk to the blokes in the truck as you go. And it’s always handy for them to have an extra set of hands,” says John.
“On the run” means John goes out with farmers to distribute supplementary food to cattle. Supplements become increasingly necessary in drought, as the nutritional value of the grass declines or there’s no grass left. Monitoring and feeding the cattle during drought can be a daily necessity.
“Drought brings extra workload. Ordinary things have to be put on hold to keep whatever you can alive,” says John.
John and Karen have been part of the Salvation Army for 29 years. They spent 30 years in Blackwater, in the QLD central highlands but moved the 500km to Longreach in 2015. They’re meeting new people and slowly building up a reputation for loving their community.
But their primary focus is assisting people struggling in the drought that has lasted close to four years in some parts of the central west. Some areas received rain over Christmas, but John says it was very patchy. Scattered communities experienced small floods. In places like Blackall, south east of Longreach, the water reached the right places and made it into the creek beds. Other places received nothing.
“Yaraka, due south of Longreach – about 230km away – got no rain, no relief. They’re almost out of water and the locals are talking about what they’re going to do when the water runs out,” says John.
John and Karen were in Yaraka for one of the many Christmas social gatherings they attended in their travels, to meet new people they might be able to assist in 2016.
At one such gathering, John met a few farmers and chatted about the trade skills he’d picked up working construction in Mt Isa. The next week, one of the farmers he’d been chatting to gave him a call.
“The farmer had been doing some fencing as a way to make some money while the drought was still going on. His tractor was playing up and he called me to get a few suggestions on what to do. We managed to work through the issues over the phone. But what was exciting was that he felt like he could call me.”
For John and Karen, making connections is what rural chaplaincy is all about.
“People can be very standoffish in asking for assistance. I don’t think pride is the correct term, but they’re very self-sufficient. And if they can’t be self-sufficient, they feel like they’re failing.
“We know that’s just not true during drought. If there’s no grass, the business model fails. And you don’t get grass if there’s no rain. And there’s just no controlling that. It’s out of our hands,” he says.
John believes, “the Lord sends the rain”, but that can be a difficult message to swallow for farmers whose livelihoods are currently in the dust.
“But it’s not a matter of the drought being a punishment,” says John. “The Lord sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike. The Lord has a plan, and we can seek him and ask him to help us understand what that plan is.”
As the drought bears down, John says it is easy for people to forget the more important things in life.
“There’s plenty of people out here with some kind of faith, but if you’re trying to run a property, you’ve got all these issues to deal with – some of these farmers have had the land in their family for generations, they’ve got a lot invested here. If you can help them set their minds on some of the bigger, spiritual questions, and remind them that they have great value in the eyes of God, and that God has a plan, even if its hard to understand, that can help, I think.”
John asks for prayer as he continues those conversations on properties around Longreach this year. He and Karen take their own water with them wherever they go – sometimes over a hundred litres if they’re travelling for a few weeks at a time. They don’t want to take the water of others and they don’t want to be a burden. Just like the Apostle Paul suggested: “We worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you” (1 Thess 2:9).