Around a scarred wooden table, Reverend John Dihm with a property owner, his wife and two station hands are breaking bread together. A radio plays in the background. There’s no wine because it’s just gone midday, but the little group is finding rest and refreshment together – body, mind and soul. And there is no doubt, John says, that the spirit of Christ is present.
“I said to them, this is doing church!” John recalls. “Here together around this table, talking and sharing a meal, the Spirit is with us and we’re ‘church’. It’s a different way of thinking, that’s all.”
As Parkin Patrol Minister in the Flinders Ranges for the past eight years, Reverend John Dihm has come to a ‘different way of thinking’ about a whole range of issues. In communities where the closure of a bank is a fight to the death, where stock have died in threadbare paddocks and only now are returning to walk in long grass, where the night sky is as vast as any ocean – John has taken the time to think long and hard about where God might be found and how best to communicate God’s love.
“I came here from ministry with cancer patients – people I was close to and then had to bury,” John says. “I thought to myself when I took up this role – ‘I won’t get close again. It’s too difficult.’ But I find myself closer to people than ever. It’s that kind of ministry – it drives you toward people, into a deep connection. St Paul talks about ‘bringing everyone into the tent’ and that’s the kind of ministry it is. When John Flynn started the work, I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of image he had in mind.”
The people of the Flinders have been doing it tough in recent years – drought decimated the local pastoral industry, families despaired as their farming businesses went under and small towns struggled to stay afloat. But John says he detects a new spring in the step of the people he visits on stations as cattle return from agistment, tourism picks up and rain falls regularly upon the soil. And over the last eight years, the relationships he’s developed have allowed him more freedom to talk openly with people far and wide.
“I think the role of the Patrol Minister is quite unique and people really value it in these kind of communities,” John says. “People feel they can call on me when they’re in a tight spot, or when they just need to talk. They say- ‘we know you’ll be there, John’. At one place, I’m known as Poppy Minister to the kids and we’ve become great friends. That relationship began after the death of their baby to SIDS. Out here there aren’t the same networks and resources to work through a tragedy like that.”
John regards Patrol Ministry as unique because it can truly put the needs of people and relationship before anything else. He believes he has the flexibility to go where people are and meet them at their point of need without feeling any pressure to make them conform to expectations about formalised religion.
“When you’re a minister in a Parish you’ve got a goal and that is to get people to come into your building and support the structure that you’ve got set up,” John says. “In a way people feel that you’ve got a relationship with them in order to keep ‘backsides on seats’, if you know what I mean. And you’ve also got a mission to preach to people – it’s just part of the job. But out here, you don’t have those strings. You go into these relationships uncompromising and open.”
Surely that lack of structure is intimidating or maybe a little frustrating? Like the wide open country itself, without borders it must be hard to know when one is achieving things and certainly hard to measure effectiveness.
“It’s beautiful to be part of this ministry,” John asserts. “It’s not for everyone but there’s a certain freedom to it. Within limits, we have to be as creative and as flexible as we can to work with the Spirit to get the job done. I’m quite sure that John Flynn felt this freedom and creativity – even though he had to front the Board to report on what he was up to, as we do! St Francis said: “Take to the Highways and byways and go with nothing except a prayer in your heart. Ask for nothing, but you will be given a lot.” That’s been my experience.”
John Dihm can be found lending a hand on properties, conducting baptisms, wedding and funerals, having a drink in the pub, attending parties with his wife, chatting in the street, organising men’s breakfasts and frying up a steak over a campfire he probably split the wood for himself. He says the bulk of his work is listening – day in and day out – to those who have much to share.
For those who know John and the Parkin Patrol, the whole concept of being part of a ‘church’ is redefined through the steady and determined presence of a man who takes God’s love to the world in practical ways. It might not be orthodox, but it works.