Acclaimed Australian writer Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh has published a collection of stories about faith in the outback, including many tales from Frontier Services’ Patrol Ministers, past and present. In his book, Amazing Grace, Bill presents an array of first-hand stories from (and about) priests, pastors, preachers and ministers working in remote and regional Australia. The stories are funny, honest, irreverent, and touching. Together, they paint an authentic picture of life in the bush and illustrate the wonderful difference that this “ministry of friendship” makes to people’s lives.
Bill travelled across the country interviewing people for the book and stopped in at the manse of many Frontier Services Patrols from Kununurra to Alice Springs, Katherine, Jabiru, Charleville and Broken Hill. There are at least 10 Frontier Services Patrol Ministers in the book, and many of them feature in more than one story.
Frontier Services had the opportunity to speak with Bill about the book. When asked about the common thread in all the stories, he replied: “Definitely faith.” However, not just religious faith, but the spirituality which is characteristic of people living in the outback.
“If you are a farmer out there, you’ve got to have some faith,” said Bill. “You work 24 hours day and if weather doesn’t turn, you are up against it.”
“They call it the centre of Australia. In a funny kind of way, it is the soul of Australia. In the outback you live in that environment of creation. I think that’s where faith comes from – you have to work with the environment rather than against it.”
Bill gave the example of Frontier Services Centralian Patrol Minister Colin Gordon sitting with a farmer under the stars. He quotes from the book:
“This bloke was holding some seeds in his hand and he was telling me how those seeds, with just a little bit of moisture, will spiral into the hard soil, and when it does, it starts to grow. Then given enough love and care, it will produce. And that’s the joy of creation, isn’t it? Simple as that.”
Bill says it’s people like the Frontier Services Patrol Ministers who compound faith in the outback, not just by sharing spirituality, but in the way they do whatever they can to help, and support people through good and bad.
“In some of the stories, the ministers talk about sitting down, chatting around tables during drought times, as well they are there for a christening or a wedding. The padres become part of the fabric of the bush.”
Bill points out that it takes the right person with the right qualities to work in the outback.
“Personable is at the top of the list. They have to be able to get along with people. They can’t put their faith before them. They have to be accepted as a person, before their faith. It’s the ones that go out there and try and push a particular faith that get ignored.”
The other prerequisite, of course, is to tell a good yarn.
Bill says former Kimberley Patrol Minister Bruce Gallacher sums up what it means to serve remote Australia in the final story: What will happen when I die?
Bruce tells the story of how he gradually built a relationship with a farmer. On his first visit, the man pointed a gun at him and tried to tell him to leave. But as they got to know each other, and through many visits and chats, and being there to support the family through the toughest times, a friendship grew. In the end, as the farmer approached the end of his life, he was able to speak to Bruce about life, death and faith. The man died a peaceful death, with Bruce at his side.
The book ends with this paragraph:
“See, that’s when you know you’ve done a good job; a job well done. It’s not about accolades. It’s not even for a pat on the back. That sort of stuff’s not important. What’s important was that, when this old guy died, he died well. All that terrible fear of death had gone, and that’s not done by waving a Bible under people’s noses. It’s done by care, time, patience and understanding, it’s certainly got nothing to do with how many souls you’ve converted to Jesus. ”
Amazing Grace is for sale in book stores or you can buy it online from publishers Harper Collins