Have wheels ... will travel

How the first Women Van Missioners went far to serve the few

From its early days The Bush Church Aid Society sent out Van Missioners to regional, remote and rural Australia to reach people with the lifesaving message of Jesus Christ. They were always warmly welcomed by the locals.

To celebrate the centenary of BCA on Sunday, May 26, 2019, we publish this extract from Never Too Far, Never Too Few: 100 Years of Bush Church Aid, a coffee table book by Robyn Powell tracing the 100-year history of BCA. This is from Chapter 7, which looks at the travelling nature of BCA ministry over the years.

In keeping the historic nature of sending men into the outback in a van, it took only a few more years for the executive officers of BCA to realise that the women of the outback needed a special kind of ministry… one which only other women could provide.

In March 1926, Deaconesses Grace Syms and Madeline de Labilliere became the first two to leave Sydney in the Women’s Van. While they certainly kept supporters updated with reports in The Real Australian [BCA’s magazine], we get a much more personal picture of the life of a Van Deaconess through the diaries of Kathleen Northcott.

Miss Northcott was another of the adventurous Englishwomen (in the mould of Edith Reece) who left the cool comfort of the Old Country to serve Christ in ways they could never have imagined.

On 23rd December 1928, she recounts visiting a woman who lived on the New South Wales/Queensland border. The woman is astonished at the sudden arrival of two women who drive a van with the word “church” on the side, and is sorry her little girl is down at the almost completely dry stream, scooping up the thick brown water at the bottom.

She timidly asks them to stay for a cup of tea, but is afraid it won’t be very good, being composed mainly of mud.

Miss Northcott and her unnamed travelling companion agree to stay a while. They enter to house to find it papered with newspapers, which have been carefully coloured-in by the little girl. They ask if she has any playmates, and the mother sadly replies that she is able to play with the four-year-old son of a local station owner about once a month, but there is no one else.

She timidly asks them to stay for a cup of tea, but is afraid it won’t be very good, being composed mainly of mud. But Women Missioners are made of strong stuff and, with the temperature that day hovering around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, [48.8C] liquid – no matter what its viscosity – is liquid! They enjoy their tea, and the little woman begins to talk about her childhood Sunday School experiences.  She is delighted that the Deaconesses will now arrange for Mailbag Sunday School lessons to be sent to the little girl.

“After tea… we had a Bible reading and then prayer together, and as we got up from our knees, I was surprised to see tears in her eyes. She said ‘That is the first time I have knelt in prayer with anyone since I left home eleven years ago.’”

Sister Kathleen Northcott is on the left.

Before they leave, the ten-year-old daughter arrives. As it is so close to Christmas, they ask her to choose a gift from their supply, kept for just such visits as these. The girl passes over the dolls and other toys and chooses a book and a box of shells. She plans to make patterns of the shells and stick them on boxes in which to keep her ‘treasures’.

As they prepare to leave: “Mother came out carrying a parcel. ‘Do you have a Sales of Work in the City for your funds, Sister? Here is a tea cosy I made during the winter, it might bring in a bit’. And putting four shillings in my hand, ‘I had saved this for something but will you take it? Your visit has helped me so much.’”

While Miss Northcott’s diaries are full of acute personal observation, they lack a few details. The biggest missing piece is that she never mentions the names of the towns or even the districts they pass through. A best guess is that this exciting week happened somewhere in Northern Victoria.

May 14, 1929 “We were having our tea when we heard a timid knock on the side of the Van, and looking over saw two lads. ‘Oh, it’s only two women’!”

“She said ‘That is the first time I have knelt in prayer with anyone since I left home eleven years ago.’”

One suspects that this was the kind of comment the Deaconesses got more than once, so they pressed further and discovered that the boys were hoping (when they saw the Van at the church) that someone had come to take a mission. ‘The Romans are having one, but no one troubles about us.’

Upon further enquiry, they discovered that the Roman Catholics of the town were, indeed, having a mission and the Protestants wanted one too. This, of course, was too good an opportunity to pass up, so they found the lads, and ‘have given our promise to do our best.”

May 20: “This has been a full week. We have had lessons with the children in the school in the mornings, visited the homes in the afternoons, and had a Service each night, but it has been a wonderful time… We were very anxious to help a group of lads who came every night and listened intently, and the joy was almost more than we could bear when at the last service, on appealing to re-dedication of life to God’s Service, the lads all stood up as if eager to give themselves.

“After the Service was over, they waited to ask what could they do to help? We believe that it will mean a Sunday School and perhaps a Sunday Evening Service, with the help of the Police Sergeant who confessed to being a Lay Reader, but had grown slack.”

By the end of the 1950s when roads had improved and vehicles became more reliable, the Mission Vans gradually ceased to be needed. But it is obvious that the kindly comradeship, willingness to talk and to listen, and an unbeatable desire to work, work, work did wonders for two generations of lonely men, women, children, and even the occasional slack Police Sergeant.

Many centenary celebrations will be held all over Australia on Sunday, May 26.

Rev Neville Naden, BCA’s indigenous ministry officer, will preach at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral in Sydney (all services- 8.30am, 10.30am and 5pm); Revd Canon Brian Roberts, former BCA National Director, will speak at St David’s Cathedral in Hobart (2.30-4pm) and Rev David Crain, interim director of BCA, will preach at Christ Church Cathedral in Newcastle, NSW (6pm). 

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Never Too Far, Never Too Few

Robyn Powell

Available from BCA

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