How Providence saved a pioneering radio man

It’s rare to meet someone as honest about his faults as Ross James. Especially one whose achievements are substantial enough to be chronicled in a beautifully crafted memoir of the highs and lows of mission service around the world.

In Ascent, Crest, Perspective: The Making of a Bamboo Camel, Ross recounts his long and winding ascent from journalism in commercial radio in Australia to training and coaching international shortwave radio program producers in the Seychelles and India before going on to reach and benefit whole communities through radio broadcasting in Pakistan.

And all this from a guy who left school at 15 expecting to spend his life as a third-generation funeral director in Geraldton, Western Australia.

Instead, his travels involved sharing a meal of entrails in Kenya, writing his masters’ thesis on a wobbly picnic table while seated on a cardboard packing box, lecturing postgraduate seminary students during the People Power Revolution in Manila in 1986, and lying unconscious after a bomb blast soon after arriving in Pakistan in 1988.

Described as a pioneer and a maverick, Ross also set up a not-for-profit organisation, Health Communication Resources, which equips communities to improve health and wellbeing through community-centred media in Asia and Africa. And at an academic level, he gained a PhD for his research on cross-cultural methods for training radio producers in health promotion.

“We said, ‘Okay, we will just see what God has for us.’”

“I started out in life, after I left school at the age of 15 in Year 10, as it was in those days, to become a third-generation funeral director. After a few years, I felt a sense of restlessness after a fairly dramatic dream or vision that I had,” he explains.

“I decided to leave the family business for five years. I fell into radio broadcasting in a way that was at that time a bit odd, but I now see it as providential. That then led very quickly to journalism, which surprised me, but I’d always been quite skilled and interested in words and how they are used.

Ross began his radio broadcasting career in Geraldton WA.

“And that then got us to a point, my wife and I, where we were just six months away from going back to my father’s business. And we heard, again in an amazing way, the story of a Christian radio station in the Seychelles islands that needed a journalist for just six months to stand in for a missionary who had gone home for furlough.

“So we applied for that and while we were there in the Seychelles, the journalist decided not to come back and we were asked to stay for a longer period. Jill and I had experienced enough of what God had been doing with us and saying to us in that time that we said, ‘Okay, we will just see what God has for us.’”

“I was overwhelmed by the culture but found that I was able to offer something in a way that I hadn’t before.”

The next step of a year in India proved pivotal in terms of developing a mission to use media for health and community development.

“In India, I was overwhelmed by the culture but found that I was able to offer something in a way that I hadn’t before. I went to a one-day seminar on communication and community development that was just mind-blowing because previously I’d been a journalist taking news releases and stories to create and telling something about the story. But now here was somebody telling me that media could be used for taking an idea and looking at other people’s lives and fitting that story into their lives. I mean, we always assume that people are media consumers, and now I was hearing that they were participants in the creation of a message – I’d never heard that before.”

Ross and Jill found the Taj Mahal awe-inspiring and, truly majestic when they visited it in the late 90s.

This revelation helped Ross to see how his journalistic skills, advocacy tendencies and social justice values could come together by involving communities in the process of making the messages, not simply telling them what to do.

“So that was really pivotal. And then, providentially, I’d heard about this cross-cultural communication and media course in Kenya and that’s where things just really changed because I began, for the first time, to have some kind of academic input into my thinking.”

Ross and his wife Jill were transformed by their experiences in India and Kenya, which “sparked a sequence of professional twists and turns that, far from being haphazard, steadily ascended to higher levels of learning, productivity, and purpose,” as Ross writes in his book.

Jill with daughter Amy during the People Power Revolution in Manila

Back in Australia, Ross completed a master’s degree in health promotion with the hope of eventually returning to India. But instead, he and Jill were sent to the Philippines, where Ross headed up an experimental master of theology and communication program – against a backdrop of the People Power revolution that overthrew the regime of Ferdinand Marcos and the subsequent political chaos.

Once again blocked from returning to India, Ross was dubious when asked to join a pilot partnership project, a collaboration of radio studios, in Pakistan. He initially dismissed the idea. But after spending time with Jill in prayer and reading the Bible, he decided to follow God’s leading.

“And that’s where everything came together, in Pakistan. To do research on cross-cultural training which was clearly needed, and that led to the PhD and laid the foundation for what happened in the next 20 years.

“What I really pioneered in Pakistan was producing and framing a way where we were getting people of non-Christian faiths to accept the fact that the Christians had something to offer. And we did that by going into the community and finding out what it is that they wanted to hear. So that was pioneering. That was up close and confrontational in some ways; it was quite dangerous in some situations.”

“That was up close and confrontational in some ways; it was quite dangerous in some situations.”

But Pakistan is also where Ross’s life unravelled. The day after their arrival in Islamabad, there was a massive explosion at an armaments’ depot, which led to rockets raining over the area, flattening houses, killing 100 people and injuring 1250. The devastation, he noted, defied description.

“Thousands of munitions were flung in all directions, falling on school playgrounds, homes, streets, and open spaces. Entire military transport trucks lifted into the air, twisting and turning before crashing to the ground. Bodies were hurled hundreds of metres away, some landing in streets, others in the yards of houses,” he writes.

In the political turmoil that followed this Ojhri disaster, the “foreign radio station” came under parliamentary investigation because of its proximity to the armaments’ depot. Thankfully, the investigation was abandoned when military dictator General Zia ul Haq dismissed Prime Minister Junejo, dissolved parliament, and declared fresh elections.

Ross and Jill with their adopted daughters at the Khyber Pass, the gateway between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But the radio partnership was in disarray and Ross’s attempts to solve its logistical problems and associated tensions exacerbated a downward mental spiral that had begun while he was working long, relentless hours in the Philippines.

He writes: “In Pakistan, Jill one night announced she was thinking of going home with the children, unable to bear my behaviour any longer. I was stunned. If Jill, of all people, was driven to that decision then I was behaving in a seriously problematic way. For many days after, my earnest prayers were about my role in our marriage and trying to show Jill the patience I would readily give to others. Jill was the resilient one. It was she who persistently coaxed me to get out of bed on some mornings and enforced rest and recreation on weekends.”

After leaving Pakistan and continuing his work from Australia, he travelled frequently – all the time trying to cope with his mental ill health. “On a couple of occasions in the transit area of Changi Airport, Singapore, on the way to Australia after intense times on projects, I found myself fiddling with my air ticket, pondering how I could change a flight to another country and simply disappear. I once sat in my car and considered how easy it would be to drive off the edge of the harbour into the sea.”

“How did my family put up with me? And how did I achieve what I did in this condition?”

In June of 1997, after struggling for so long with symptoms of worthlessness, sadness and guilt without intervention, he reached breaking point and was diagnosed with clinical depression. “A few weeks later I was a changed person due to antidepressant medication,” he writes.

After writing an account of his long and eventful career, Ross was left with two questions: “How did my family put up with me? And how did I achieve what I did in this condition?”

While re-reading the journals he had kept over 40 years, and pulling the threads together, he came to the conclusion that it could only have been the work of Providence, which he describes as “the power sustaining and guiding human destiny, through works of providence (lower-case p).”

“It was only after I went back to my journals to find some facts and refresh memories of some of the details, that I began to explore the part that started to talk about the depression and I came to this big question in my mind of ‘how the heck did I manage to do all of this?’” he says.

“Because I’ve got enough ego to know that I’ve achieved something that God wanted me to do, and it’s made an impact on various people and communities throughout the world. But I hope I’m humble enough to realise that it was in spite of my very many faults.

“And so that was the question, ‘how on earth did this happen?’ And it was then that I began to look at the various themes and so on and came to realise it could only have been Providence that had pulled it all together because I was just overwhelmed with my weaknesses, overwhelmed with the pieces that were falling apart.”

“Partway through that walk, I was beginning to wish that she’d given me a pair of undies and a tie!

Confused about how to move forward with this new understanding of the arc of his life, Ross decided to walk the Bibbulman Track in WA – which is 1003km from end to end. His wife Jill decided to join him on the adventure as a 65th birthday present in 2019.

“Well, partway through that walk, I was beginning to wish that she’d given me a pair of undies and a tie! It’s not easy walking 1003 kilometres, but while we were on that track, I had an opportunity to begin to put together a whole range of perspectives and pull together those themes and see things in a way that I had not anticipated before,” he says.

Ross and Jill trudged through many wet days on the Bibbulmun Track.

The result was that Ross shaped his memoir into three parts – Ascent, Crest and Perspective. Ascent tracks the years of preparation to follow God’s purpose for his life, beginning with meeting Jill, and his trajectory from teenage rebel with an interest in civil rights and social justice to quitting the funeral business and forging a career in radio in Australia and overseas.

“I began to see that the 20 years of career were all about preparation; the second part is about the crest where we arrived at a point where the 20 years made sense. The preparation now became performance and purpose and suddenly for another 20 years, there was a purpose when we were putting into place all of those things that had happened in the previous 20 years. Then perspective is really just the part where I begin to reflect on that.”

Truths that emerged from retelling a narrative of his life began to impose their narrative on him. He saw that a key reason for his ability to endure through stress, depression and opposition, was the quality of steadfastness, or unshakeable core.

“I began to see that God had designed me in such a way to be able to deal with a whole range of things and I began to look at things that have kept me anchored in being able to do what I did,” he said.

For many years, Ross travelled with two shirts, two pairs of trousers, three pairs of socks and underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, laptop, portable printer, mini-shortwave radio receiver, camera, diary, a Bible and a couple of books fitted in a carry-on bag.

He sees steadfastness as a more useful  approach to challenges than the popular term of resilience, which implies that people can return to the condition they were in before they faced adversity, which is clearly untrue.

“When a limb of a tree gets broken or some kid comes along and breaks off a twig, it will grow back in the short-term, but it won’t be the same as what it was before. There’ll be scars and so on, but it will grow back. So that’s a short-term response and that’s what helps you to deal with things perhaps on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis,” he reflects.

“Steadfastness is something that, for me, has taken on more meaning in that it really does focus on the end goal, your eyes are firmly fixed and you manage to ride the waves and deal with the buffeting as you go.

“And it means dealing with things and moving on with an unshakeable core, just knowing that this is the right thing that God wants for you. Steadfastness doesn’t mean that you’re just powering on and ignoring all the signs indicating this might not be the right decision that you’re making at the time or that God might have another plan. Steadfastness is all about being flexible, but being focused on the particular.”

Ross also gained new perspectives from a book about the mystery of Providence by John Flavel, a 17th-century English clergyman and prolific author.

“In that book, he just made the point that it’s good for people to record what Providence had done in their lives, so that they can be a blessing to themselves and others and I really resonated with that. That was, in fact, the seed of me realising that I had to write another part of the book. And so I went back to my journals with greater intensity and intention and developed the part on perspective, which helped to bring it all together. So Flavel was important to me in realising that my traumas actually had value.”

Ross James likens his nature to that of a “bamboo camel”

He now sees his depression as a gift – like Paul’s thorn in the flesh – because it made him depend on God while becoming more aware of his weaknesses.

“I really did spend time feeling hopeless and helpless. So it forced me to depend on God in a way that I would not have otherwise,” he explains.

“But the other thing too, and now, as I move on in life, is that when I was diagnosed with clinical depression, me being me, I was happy to start talking about it. Somebody described it to me some time ago as having a ministry of presence as a spiritual gift.

“I have an ability to come alongside people and just simply ask questions and they talk … So I think that that is another reason that it’s a gift is it’s helped me with a bit of a ministry, especially to men.”

As for why he likens his personality to a “bamboo camel”, Ross explains that he is inspired by the camel, which is his favourite animal, and the bamboo.

“The camel is just an amazing animal that is designed with all kinds of physiological features to deal with a harsh environment of sand heat, dust, desert, and wind and sun. I began reflecting on how I was like a bamboo, quite flexible – I could adapt to different situations.

“And I’m very much like a camel, I can be cantankerous when people bother me. I was able to plough on through deserts of despondency and despair and being misunderstood, yearning for oases of emotional refreshment, but always with confidence that Providence was at work.”

If you are experiencing mental health challenges or supporting someone who is, check out this comprehensive list of services, resources and support options from Mental Health Australia.

Need help now? Call 000 in Australia or the number for emergency services where you are. 

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