Pas­tor pro­vides spir­i­tual — and phys­i­cal — as­sis­tance to drought-vexed flock.

Pas­tor fights for his flock in farm­ing town where faith is dry­ing up

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - ARKANSAS - RICK RO­JAS THE NEW YORK TIMES

WEE WAA, Aus­tralia — The Rev. Bernard Gab­bott bumped along on a road so re­mote the as­phalt had given way to gravel, head­ing out to see a farmer who had been work­ing seven days a week, strain­ing to keep his cat­tle and sheep fed.

He pointed to an empty patch of earth. The farmer had plowed it to plant as pas­ture for his live­stock, but in­stead, the af­ter­noon wind kicked up clouds of dust.

“It’s been like that for months,” Gab­bott said as he pulled up to a small farm­house.

When he ar­rived nearly a decade ago in Wee Waa, a small town sur­rounded by scrubby farm­land, Gab­bott’s mis­sion seemed straight­for­ward. He was the vicar of the town’s small Angli­can parish. His job was to bring peo­ple to Je­sus.

But now, he has found him­self wrestling with a far more com­pli­cated re­al­ity. With the worst drought in decades threat­en­ing a way of life in Aus­tralia’s ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, he has be­come a one-man sup­port sys­tem for earthly con­cerns.

He is a coun­selor, a so­cial worker and a phi­lan­thropist draw­ing from his own mod­est funds. At times, he pro­vides so­lace; in other mo­ments, he must con­vince hard-pressed fam­i­lies to set aside their pride and ac­cept vouch­ers for the gro­cery store.

The reper­cus­sions from the drought — af­fect­ing a stretch of Aus­tralia larger than Texas — seem al­most bib­li­cal. There was the town swarmed by fam­ished emus search­ing for food. The crops over­run by feral camels mi­grat­ing to­ward wa­ter. Around Wee Waa, it has been the kan­ga­roos in­vad­ing soc­cer fields and crowd­ing road­sides af­ter dark, their car­casses lit­ter­ing the pave­ment in the morn­ing.

But the con­se­quences have been es­pe­cially bru­tal for live­stock farm­ers, who have been forced to sell off stock and take on moun­tains of debt. Hang­ing over ev­ery­thing else is the specter of harder times to come, lead­ing many to reckon with the po­ten­tial dev­as­ta­tion of their liveli­hoods and their com­mu­ni­ties.

“I think there are two droughts go­ing on,” Gab­bott said.

The farms are en­dan­gered. So is the town.

PRAY FOR RAIN

Wee Waa, a one­time cot­ton cap­i­tal a few hun­dred miles north­west of Syd­ney, is one of many ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in a part of Aus­tralia en­dur­ing its dri­est year since 1965. Sci­en­tists have shown that cli­mate change makes Aus­tralia’s droughts more se­vere, but many farm­ers said the cause mat­ters less than their im­me­di­ate needs.

Gab­bott in­tro­duced Ron Pagett, 75, a life­long farmer with thou­sands of acres on the edge of the Pil­liga Scrub, an ex­panse of scruffy wood­land. Pagett has lived through other droughts, but he fig­ures it will take years

to stag­ger back to prof­itabil­ity from this one.

A truck pulled up to the house with boxes of canned goods, and Pagett sighed. “Surely,” he said, “they can find some­one poor to give that to.”

Gab­bott said it was a re­sponse he heard of­ten: farm­ers re­fus­ing char­ity, play­ing down their trou­bles.

“I’m con­vinced he turned the tap off,” said Philip Firth, who raises cat­tle and sheep on land where Gab­bott’s young sons have been learn­ing farm work, re­fer­ring to God.

More than $1 bil­lion has been made avail­able by of­fi­cials to sup­port agri­cul­ture. More re­cently, the prime min­is­ter, Scott Mor­ri­son, Aus­tralia’s first Pen­te­costal leader, has urged the na­tion to pray for rain.

Even be­fore the rain stopped fall­ing, Gab­bott, 43, could see the fam­i­lies mov­ing away and the shops on the main street emp­ty­ing as farms needed fewer work­ers and res­i­dents were drawn to big­ger cities. He could sense the ap­a­thy that per­vaded Wee Waa, a town of about 2,000 peo­ple.

The drought has only ac­cel­er­ated that de­cline. It is tug­ging on the com­mu­nity’s al­ready fray­ing fab­ric, im­per­il­ing the en­tire town.

TIME TO UN­SPOOL

He has tried to hold to­gether what he can. He as­sem­bles a slice of the com­mu­nity on Sun­days, when he stands at the front of his brown-brick sanc­tu­ary in the cen­ter of town, reads from the gospel and de­liv­ers ser­mons that, as some of his con­gre­gants joke, he takes his sweet time to un­spool.

But these days, most of the work comes dur­ing the week. He is a con­stant pres­ence in Wee Waa, dash­ing around in a T-shirt and sneak­ers. (Long dis­tance run­ning is his di­ver­sion from min­istry.)

“I’ve got six days off,” Gab­bott said. “I think that’s the com­mon myth in town.”

Most of the peo­ple he en­coun­ters will never join him at church. In­stead they drop by his of­fice — his reg­u­lar cor­ner booth at the town bak­ery. Or they lis­ten to him teach Scrip­ture at school or they run af­ter him as he crosses the street, ask­ing to bor­row his car, which he lends them, even though last time it was re­turned badly dinged.

Some­times, in his “ex­is­ten­tial mo­ments” as he puts it, he ques­tions if he is ef­fec­tive. He has no­ticed a slight in­crease in church at­ten­dance, but the of­fer­ing is dwin­dling. In nine years, he has con­verted one per­son, a cot­ton farmer he reads the Bible with ev­ery Mon­day.

Now, he said, his church might not make it: It is just months away from not be­ing able to af­ford his wage.

“I don’t know if we made any change or dif­fer­ence in town,” he said, sit­ting in his house one af­ter­noon. “Some­one shared with me — I think it’s an ur­ban myth, — but 80 per­cent of min­is­ters who quit in Amer­ica go into con­struc­tion be­cause you’ve got some­thing to show at the end of the day.”

FARM­ING FOR GOD

When Gab­bott was in Bible col­lege train­ing for a ru­ral church, an­other min­is­ter gave him some ad­vice: Learn how to work on a farm.

A fam­ily paid him $1,000 for 10 days of work, and then he kept at it.

Over time, he found that, out on the land, men would open up, their minds dis­tracted, their eyes fo­cused on the job at hand rather than the per­son they were talk­ing to.

“You have very dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tions with men at the din­ner ta­ble and in the pad­dock,” said Kay­lene McCle­naghan, who be­came close with Gab­bott’s fam­ily while he worked on her fam­ily’s farm. “Bernard took that to heart.”

Gab­bott’s will­ing­ness to hang around has changed him, and Wee Waa. He of­fered fu­ner­als as ev­i­dence. He av­er­ages one a week, and many of the de­ceased were never reg­u­lars in his pews. Yet they re­quested him. Even Catholics in town have asked to have their fu­ner­als in his church with him pre­sid­ing.

The strength of that bond has made a de­ci­sion about his fu­ture all the more ag­o­niz­ing. He does not want to leave his parish with­out a pas­tor. He does not want to leave Wee Waa.

But on a long drive back from one of his scrip­ture classes, he told me there are mo­ments when he feels like he is run­ning out of time.

We were side by side, our gaze fixed on the pave­ment ahead. The two-lane road was sur­rounded by sun­baked fields that looked as if they never ended. Ev­ery­thing was brown. Even the clear sky seemed stained with dirt.

Mov­ing his fam­ily out of Wee Waa seemed in­creas­ingly pos­si­ble given the church’s fi­nances.

But he was re­luc­tant to go any­where else. In­stead, he was scout­ing for sec­ond jobs. Maybe he could work as a farm hand or in the bak­ery a few days a week.

Sure, Gab­bott con­ceded, he wished he’d had more than the one con­vert. But he had come to be­lieve that tend­ing to mor­tal con­cerns, how­ever mi­nor, was more than busy work.

“We’re ac­tu­ally get­ting trac­tion,” he said.

He felt com­pelled to see Wee Waa through the droughts, on land and in town. His work was not done.

The New York Times/DAVID MAU­RICE SMITH

The Rev. Bernard Gab­bott pre­pares for a Sun­day ser­vice as his chil­dren play at the Angli­can church in Wee Waa, New South Wales, Aus­tralia. The specter of harder times hangs over a ru­ral Aus­tralian town where the worst of the drought has yet to come.

The New York Times/DAVID MAU­RICE SMITH

A church break­fast is held at the Narrabri West Angli­can Church in New South Wales, Aus­tralia.

The New York Times/DAVID MAU­RICE SMITH

Philip Firth of Narrabri, New South Wales, shov­els cot­ton seed to feed cat­tle on his farm in Aus­tralia.

The New York Times/DAVID MAU­RICE SMITH Ron Pagett, a life­long farmer with thou­sands of acres, is shown on his prop­erty out­side of Wee Waa, New South Wales, Aus­tralia. Pagett, 75, has lived through other droughts, but he fig­ures it will take years to stag­ger back to prof­itabil­ity from this one.

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