Mining boom to bust: financial stress leads to hope
Populations halve across the Pilbara, but those who remain find real community at church
Church ministries in remote mining towns of Western Australia are struggling with a tide of stress. This has been caused by the outflow of core members who have lost their jobs due to the downturn in the mining industry.
The effects have been most dramatic in the towns and townships in the Pilbara region, which rely on iron ore miner Rio Tinto. The mining company has tightened its belt with the slowdown in the export trade.
The purpose-built mining township of Paraburdoo, about 1530km north of Perth and 470km south of Port Hedland, has suffered a drastic loss of people laid off by Rio Tinto. Where there were once 1600 residents in the town, now the estimate is about 700 to 800.
“Wherever you look there are people leaving the towns; the values of houses have dropped; the numbers of congregations has dropped,” says Gary Nelson, the Anglican Bishop of North West Australia. “It’s difficult enough in our diocese, where people are fairly transient anyway; to then have a range of people leave at the one time is very difficult.
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“A lot have been people that are core members and so, where you might have had five people on parish council, suddenly three have left. Straightaway, the administration and organisation for ministry things has fallen away.”
20 church members have left in the past 12 months – more than half of the congregation.
Those remaining in Paraburdoo are feeling “real sadness” about the exodus of residents, says David Morgan, a field staff member of Bush Church Aid.
He says several of the people who have left town were heavily involved in running community groups – and no one has taken their place.
“There’s real grief. My friend isn’t here, but also my other friend – and my other friend,” he says.
“It’s really hard, especially in a community like this, where your family is not here. Friends become your surrogate family, but you’re constantly saying goodbye to them.
“We’ve also had four fatalities on the road and one at the mine over the last nine months – much loved members of the community. That has certainly upset people and that grief continues to be felt.”
Across the townships of Paraburdoo and Tom Price, where David and his wife Priya serve with BCA, 20 church members have left in the past 12 months – more than half of the congregation.
“Only one original family from church is still present in each town,” David says.
The reality is that church communities in the Pilbara shrink to a small cell group every time the mining industry experiences the low point in its normal life cycle.
Paraburdoo is likely to be hit again as Rio Tinto has announced it will no longer employ new workers below supervisor level, but will only take them on a contract basis. “That’s a real sacrifice to move to a community like this, with little security,” says David.
“I think many more people are just going FIFO (‘fly in, fly out’) rather than bring their families to live here, which means a smaller community.”
The reality is that church communities in the Pilbara shrink to a small cell group every time the mining industry experiences the low point in its normal life cycle, according to Gavin Douglas, pastor at Tom Price Baptist Church (who also grew up in the region).
“…now we’re getting locals and new Christians coming to church; people who have fallen on hard times; they say they have to look for hope somewhere, so out of misery, there is a positive.”
“But we’ve seen growth in our congregation. Life is that bit more frail, so people don’t know what the future holds. They have more debt, and they’re turning to God.
“Every year, you get transfer growth from other towns but now we’re getting locals and new Christians coming to church; people who have fallen on hard times; they say they have to look for hope somewhere, so out of misery, there is a positive.”
He sees it as a plus that local people have had to come to terms with the fact that they had developed a sense of entitlement to support from Rio, for their clubs and community projects.
“Now many clubs and churches have to stand on their own feet, so that puts pressure on them,” Gavin says.
One of the most devastating effects of the downturn has been the collapse in house prices, says Les Gaulton, who has served with his wife Jenny at Karratha Anglican Community Church for the past 14 years.
There are reports of 300 houses in receivership in Karratha, 850km southwest of Broome, where 25 per cent of residents work in the resources sector.
Many of the people who bought houses at boom prices, thinking they would continue to rise, have gone bankrupt. One house that a buyer paid $1 million for, was recently passed in at auction for $250,000. Les’s church has lost 12 families in the past 12 to 18 months, leaving just 18 families who are regular attenders.
“Many of those who have left were in leadership positions and were also tithers, so that has made life a bit more difficult,” says Les.
“Town-wise, the downturn has produced the adjustment we had to have in that house prices and rental prices were totally out of control and [they] are now far more normal.
“Those who bought houses at the top of the boom have lost $600,000 to $700,00 when they tried to sell them.
“As far as the town is concerned, it has probably hit rock bottom – I doubt that prices will come down any further.”
On the other hand, he says, those who have survived have been able to buy a house or move into a bigger house, “so it’s been good for some people – and terrible for others.”