David Bradbury heads up the chaplaincy programme at Fortescue Metals, a large mining group with operations across the Pilbara in Northwest Western Australia. Eternity sat down with David to ask him about his journey and the role of chaplaincy in the mining industry.
When David Bradbury first arrived in Australia he was a fitter-turner by trade. He worked in the mining industry mostly as a labour contractor. He probably would have called himself a Christian, having been baptised as a baby, but he wasn’t practising a Christian faith. When his first daughter was born in 1984, “everything changed. I became more involved with the church. That’s where my awakening erupted.”
For the rest of the 1980s, David and his wife slowly but surely got more involved with church. In the early 90s, David says he was drawn to ministry, “kicking and screaming, because I didn’t want a bar of it. That was 1992, and after a couple of years I was accepted into the formation program in Western Australia.”
Initially keen to be a chaplain in industry, he soon discovered that the body governing the appointment of industry chaplains required a minimum of five years in some other type of ministry.
So David was ordained a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Perth in 1998, and was sent out as a parish priest to Serpentine, in the outer suburbs of Perth. He and Chris (his wife) stayed there for 13-and-a-half years, and loved it. During his time at Serpentine, David became the chaplain of the local prison and also the local grammar school.
But after 13 years at Serpentine, David says, “for us, it was time to move. But we didn’t know where, we didn’t know what. We didn’t know what was next.”
After a four-day, 2700km motorcycle road trip to Broome for his eldest daughter’s wedding, David says, “the thing that hit me was I was too comfortable where I was [at Serpentine]. We decided that it was time to let go. So we came back and resigned. Don’t lock yourself in a helmet for four days with God cause when you come out at the end of it, things have changed!”
After they announced their resignation, a parishioner loosely attached to the church at Serpentine, who worked for Fortescue, approached David and said, “have you thought about getting into industry?”
“Yeah, but where? When? How?” said David.
She said, “well, come and talk to us.”
That conversation happened in 2011, and at that time Fortescue was going through a massive company expansion. A big chunk of its construction workforce was based in Port Hedland, and among the community there had been one overdose and one suicide.
“Andrew Forrest (the CEO), who is a committed Christian, he and his wife Nicola suggested chaplaincy,” says David, but he says the company wasn’t so sure.
Nevertheless, around July-August of that year, Fortescue invited David Bradbury to join them as a chaplain.
Initially they were simply looking for a chaplain for Port Hedland. But David said, “I’m really interested in what you’re doing, I’d love to be a part of it, and I’ll help you set it up. But I won’t go to Port Hedland. Number one, it doesn’t interest me, and number two, I’d be bored in six months.”
Fortescue accepted David’s offer to help set up the chaplaincy program, and started by appointing the local Baptist minister in Port Hedland as a part-time chaplain. The program was ready to be launched on January 1, 2012, and when the general manager of the rail operations heard about it, he said, “chaplaincy sounds like a good idea, I want one of them.”
So David helped find another chaplain for the rail operations. And then the construction general manager of the Solomon Hub, which is in the Hamersley Ranges said he wanted a chaplain too.
So they ended up with three chaplains, and Fortescue approached David to oversee the entire chaplaincy program.
David replied, “now you’re talking, I’m interested.”
The Fortescue chaplaincy programme went live across the company in January 2012, with a fly-in-fly-out chaplain at the Solomon Hub, a fly-in-fly-out rail chaplain, a part-time chaplain at Port Hedland and David heading up the whole operation from Perth.
Six months later as the yearly reports came out, all the general managers of the operation said they wanted chaplains as well.
David chalks up the attractiveness of the chaplaincy programme to the approach the team takes.
“As a chaplain you’re there for everybody. I may be a Christian but it doesn’t mean everybody else is. We’re into the third generation of unchurched Australians. I find that exciting! I think that is beautiful. In many ways we’re closer to New Testament times than we ever have been in this pluralistic nation. Which means we’re actually talking to people who don’t carry dogma and doctrine, but they’re still spiritual.
“Prison [chaplaincy] taught me to learn the vernacular – find out what their language is and where they’re coming from. We need to be very careful of our own jargon. That way you can meet them where they’re at, and eventually they’ll start asking questions,” says David.
There’s no magic bullet when it comes to chaplaincy in the mining industry. David insists it’s all about building relationships. “To do that,” says David, “you need to be identified as belonging. You’ve got to be integrated, so that’s what our chaplains are.
“They work the same roster as everybody else. They wear the same clothes, they’re on the same flights, they live in the same villages, they eat in the same places, so they become part of who they are. And are recognised as such.”
Mining is a 24/7 operation, the mine sites are fully operational 24 hours a day, which presents unique challenges for chaplaincy. There are two chaplains per site, with the aim that there’s always a chaplain in the village. If for some reason the chaplain is away, their mobile phone will be transferred to another chaplain, so there’s always someone available.
“Mealtimes are one of the most significant times of the day,” says David. “We’re focused on loitering with intent, being radically there.”
At the beginning David says it was hard work to get to know people, but the longer the team has been around the easier it has become to meet people. But David is thankful that most people under 35 in Western Australia have had a school chaplain, so the concept of a chaplain is not foreign.
“Once you build the relationship they get to trust you,” says David. “They know you’re not going to go in and beat them up with the Bible. You just build those relationships.”
Over time, David says, “people become intrigued. They ask, ‘why are you here? Why are you doing this?’ And that’s when the invitation comes. You can then start telling your story.
“We’re not there to proselytise. We must not go ne
ar that. We’re not allowed to. But if a question comes from them, if someone asked me ‘what’s your faith journey, how did you get here?’ I’ve got no problem telling them, as long as I’m not selling it, or telling them they should be.
“As far as Fortescue is concerned, we’re there as chaplains, not as a particular faith. So, you don’t have to be Christian [to be a chaplain]. As it happens, all our chaplains are Christians, but that doesn’t mean it has to be like that,” says David.
David says that the demographic of the site is just the same as Australia, so of course there are Christians on site.
One of the sites has a regular group who meets together to read the Bible, but David says, “it really depends on who’s around. The guys don’t have a lot of time because they’re doing 12-hour shifts.
“Some of them really miss not being able to go to church on a Sunday. For others, it’s a lifestyle decision, so they can be at church every second week, not every week.
“I got a call last weekend from a worker on site, and he was not in a good space. He was really missing not being at church. He wanted somebody to pray with him.
“For that one, there’s probably another thousand who manage in their own way.”