Wongan in the Wheatbelt

Early February I had a phone call from a good and long-time friend and colleague: Would Helen and I be free and willing to spend March “looking after the shop” while he and his wife went bush for the month?

Knowing what kind of shop he keeps meant it didn’t take us long to check our commitments and give the green light.  And so, after some email traffic to get us informed, in tune and trained, we were winging our way across the vast distance between Adelaide and Perth.

The federation of Christian Reformed churches to which I belong has defined its Mission as a Fourfold Task.  The second of these tasks reads as follows:

To enable local churches to expand numerically, equip and nurture their members, and become the mother-churches of as many fellowships and congregations as possible; and also to take further initiatives to create fellowships by penetrating structures of society with the gospel.

The Lord our God has given my colleague and his wife the heart, gifts and means to commit themselves to an unusual way of carrying out this task, one that’s not open to my wife and me, nor to most of my colleagues.  With his home church taking on the role of “mother” (as per Task 2 above) and with funding largely generated by themselves, my friend has been working to build up or strengthen communities of people for Jesus in an area of the Western Australian (WA) Wheatbelt, that vast stretch of agricultural land stretching several hundred kilometres out from Perth from the NE to the SE of the Capital.

As a couple, they made their home in Wongan Hills in 2006: this is a town of about 800 people some 185 NW of Perth.  Like numerous other small towns in the vast Wheatbelt region, “Wongan” is a supply and service centre for surrounding farms, and it’s well supplied with roads, railway lines and businesses supporting the community as well as the grain-growing and wool industries.

It was a wonderful privilege for Helen and me to be part of this community and work as a month-stay visitor, to be welcomed into churches, homes and lives, as well as into the local shops and businesses.  We met and swapped notes with the locals, explored the town, its neighbours and the surrounding country, and we took in several national parks and large nature reserves well-supplied with interpretative signage.

We were also able to spend five days in WA’s beautiful South-West, where the Indian and Great Southern Oceans meet, where the karri trees are among the world’s tallest living things, where there are land-locked sand dunes among the largest in the southern hemisphere, and where we could cruise for several hours on a free-flowing river inaccessible by road.

We were also able to enjoy time with family and old friends in Perth, 2 hours’ drive away, and to fulfil a long-held dream to spend an unforgettable day in New Norcia, surely one of the top “must see” Catholic missions in Australia.  More about this community another time.

But to get back to the work Jesus is doing in some of WA’s country towns… we were somewhat surprised but also heartened by what we witnessed.

  • It seemed to us that the most “alive” church in Wongan Hills was Anglican, and that its most “alive” members were young mums.  As a “Mothers’ Union” they run a quietly but clearly Christian program called Mainly Music in the town – and it was clearly widely loved and supported.  Mainly Music was started across somewhere in Australasia in 1990 and its website makes clear that it’s grown strongly and has sprung up in at least 4 other countries.
  • My friends’ work started in Wongan Hills because a good number of South African families of Reformed background had settled there.  But as often happens, the “settling” was temporary, and God’s path (not unusually – it helps to be a bit “open” and flexible) turned into different directions.  Among these –
  • A school and youth ministry sprouted: Christian religious education in the classroom, a growing involvement with the town school chaplain’s work in five regional schools, and the development of regular town Family Fun Festivals along the respected Australian Fusion model.
  • Recently my colleague has been invited not only to join the local Rotary Club but to serve as its President; this is already proving to be an open door!  Not only does it signal and serve the greater recognition of the Christian element in the local community’s life, it’s one of very few ways to reach country menfolk.  It’s also an invitation to help rejuvenate the Rotary brand and a God-given opportunity to relate to the community’s leaders and movers as a recognised, respected and “ok” Christian leader.
  • Although my friend’s aim remains to build a distinctively Christian Reformed community in this Wheatbelt region, the work is being done in friendship and partnership with other Christians and Christian groups in the town.  This is vital, as in such small and vulnerable communities, it is even more imperative than in the city that Jesus Christ be seen to be not divided despite the obvious and sometimes important differences within the Body of Christ.
  • Every 2nd Sunday Helen and I drove 75 km to another town to worship with a local Baptist church there, and to speak.  This is what my colleague does regularly, and we very quickly came to love this church, in a town no larger than Wongan Hills, as a healthy and vibrant one.  Its membership is relatively small (50-100) but well-balanced in age terms; it is deeply committed to God’s work including local evangelism and to missions and missionaries far away.  Although the church belongs to the Baptist Union, its members vary in Christian background, and they welcome my colleague’s preaching and strongly support the work he is doing.

For several reasons, my life has been relatively straight-forward and restricted.  I have belonged and have chosen to stay belonging to several stable and secure ways of life: my family and marriage, my faith, church and traditional values, my rich mix of Dutchness by birth and Australianness by adoption, and my love of cities and their amenities.

It was a small but delightful and significant adventure to spend a month living and relating in a small country community, far away from some of the above.  And to see God at work there!

I’ve posted more photos of our month in WA and in Wongan Hills in particular on my Flickr site.


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