It’s hard to watch a grown man cry, in the middle of a busy shopping centre, near Christmas time, especially a man in a big hat, boots and a farmer’s checked shirt.
And when you hear that a widowed woman on the land is down to her last drops of water and unsure where the next drop will come from, you need those tissues you keep by the phone.
This is a reality for a small band of people bringing God’s love to life in the tiny town of Gilgandra in the Central West of New South Wales.
This farming region, 45 minutes north of Dubbo with a shire population of 4309, survives on sheep, beef cattle and winter cereal cropping. So the drought has hit the entire community hard.
That’s where the members of St John Lutheran Church Gilgandra have been able to be God’s hands and feet.
Supported through the Lutheran Church of Australia’s Disaster and Welfare Fund, the congregation is hard at work finding and helping people just like these.
It takes an eagle eye, listening ear and many an hour over coffee, to learn the stories of people battling on drought-stricken properties across the district, just like that farmer in the middle of one of the busiest shopping centres in Dubbo last December.
The listening ear belonged to Bev Purvis, a Gilgandra team member, who could offer a helping hand through funds which allowed the farmer and his family to buy a drum of fuel. Two hours after introducing herself, he and his family were still talking over their second cup of coffee, before their two-hour trek home.
Stories like these bring to life the donations from across the LCA/NZ which have fed more than $135,000 into struggling rural communities across New South Wales.
The Gilgandra congregation has distributed about $40,000, including a $1000 donation from the women’s fellowship at St John’s Lutheran Church Perth, mainly through brightly coloured Cooee Cash Cards. These gift vouchers can only be spent in Gilgandra, boosting the local economy.
Bev, the treasurer, estimates that about 90 per cent of shire residents were affected by the drought. ‘It’s not only the farmers and shearers, but the contractors and businesses that rely on them’, she says.
The congregation, consisting of mainly retirees, decided to help in February last year after the LCA’s NSW District office asked for rural congregations’ support in distributing donations to needy farming families.
The long-running drought, coupled with dust storms and bushfires, means that the 190 vouchers – ranging from $100 to $500 – distributed so far have been a lifeline for more than 70 families.
Bev and congregation chairperson Joan Jones manage regular reporting and the congregation shares the load, identifying those in need, buying vouchers and mailing them. It takes a lot of time and research to discover who most needs support and it can be emotionally tiring.
‘We begin our meetings each time with prayer, asking God for guidance as we distribute the funds’, Bev says.
‘One of the most difficult things has been to find those people who are really in great need; often they are the ones who say the least, and through embarrassment and shame they don’t like to tell people of their difficulties.’
Bev, who ran a grain and lamb property near Gilgandra for 45 years with husband Geoff, knew the local need was great. ‘There is nothing worse than driving through the district, seeing scrawny sheep in a paddock trying to eat dirt’, she says.
The team began by identifying all the farmers in the area, scouting out the contact details of all local properties and sending cards, with a Cooee Card. The response has been amazing and encouraging.
‘One lady gave us a beautiful card … sharing how she was down to her last drop of water when she received a voucher. She was alone on the farm after her husband’s death’, Bev says. ‘For some calls, you need to put a tissue by the phone to stop the tears from rolling out. There are so many; all their situations are a little different.’
The gratitude has not only been for financial support, which has provided transport to cancer treatments and children’s vaccines, but also knowing others care. As some of the thank you cards read: ‘It reached us at just the right time as we had no money left to buy any more food. We have no idea how you knew we needed it. We guess God laid it on your hearts’; and ‘It meant so much to know that somebody cares. It meant SO much!’
The drought is not over. Even though it has rained, the district is experiencing a ‘green drought’, which means that while there might be a fresh covering of green across the landscape, farmers won’t receive income until crops are harvested at year’s end. And the ground, hardened by three to five years without planting, has been stripped bare of topsoil by wicked dust storms.
The Gilgandra team just keeps on working, because it can. ‘We have all been given a job to do, and we all do what we do because we can’, says Bev.
The team is directed and sustained, as reminded by Bev and Joan’s favourite Bible verses: Bev’s go-to verse of Proverbs 3:6 is a reminder that if we put our trust in the Lord with all our hearts, he will direct our paths, while Joan’s favourite, Psalm 55:22, tells us to cast all our cares on the Lord and he will sustain us.
Helen Beringen is a Brisbane-based writer who is inspired by the many GREYT people who serve tirelessly and humbly in our community. By sharing stories of how God shines his light through his people, she hopes others are encouraged to explore how they can use their gifts to share his light in the world.
Know of any other GREYT stories in your local community? Email the editor firstname.lastname@example.org
This feature story comes from The Lutheran June 2020. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.