Reverend Bob Rutherford at home in Goonellabah.
Reverend Bob Rutherford at home in Goonellabah.

Reverend Bob uniting the people

After seven-and-half years at the helm of the Uniting Chuch in Lismore, Reverend Bob Rutherford is getting ready for his next calling; retirement.

“I’ll be doing three days a week voluntary chaplaincy work with the Rural Fire Service and I’m looking forward to that, otherwise I’ll be fishing and working on a few other hobbies and projects,” he said with a smile.

Reverend Bob has made his mark in Lismore by getting the Church involved with community events, providing breakfast for the city’s homeless and getting behind the campaign for a homeless shelter.

Mayor Jenny Dowell said Bob has been working tirelessly to “make Lismore a place that cares for everyone”.

“Bob has made the Uniting Church the most connected Church to the community. He has been the driving force in providing support for Lismore’s down and out by providing assistance and raising funds for services that help people in a very practical way. He has really driven that and been involved in so many things outside the Church’s walls. I know that some government agencies who can no longer help someone often say, ‘Go and see Bob at the Uniting Church’, which is a bit of an inditement on them but shows how they (the Uniting Church) have been able to help so many people.”

But for Bob, working in the community is his raison d’etre.

“Someone said to me the other day that we have been out there at the cutting edge of the community. I never saw it that way, I just did what I thought was appropriate. When I had my closure service I played the Frank Sinatra song My Way but without the goodwill of the people in this congregation, I wouldn’t have been able to do it my way. I’ve always had a heart to be not stuck behind a pulpit, I was called to try and make the gospel relevant to the person in the street and I think I’ve managed to achieve that wherever I’ve gone.

“The only way for me for the Church to be fair dinkum is to get out to where the people are. I maintain it is not the Church’s role to cast a net over the community and drag everybody into a church... That’s not what is meant by being fishers of men. It’s a good image, but people are not fish. They think and have attitudes and feelings. The idea should be that the net you throw around them is an unobtrusive one, it doesn’t drag them in, it goes and meets them where they are and the in-drag comes from earning their trust and earning the right to share your faith. A lot of Christians think it is their right to Bible-bash people, but that’s not your right at all. But if you earn a person’s trust and they open up and invite you into their space, then you have a right to share. That’s been my lot for 41 years. It hasn’t always worked and it hasn’t always been accepted by the traditional Church, or even by a lot of my congregation here in Lismore, but that’s the only way I can be me,” he said.

Reverend Bob felt the calling to serve the Church from about the age of 15.

“I grew up in Swansea (in the Hunter Valley) and was a member of the Christian Endeavour group which was a very strong youth movement in the 1950s and 60s. It was a good training ground and a lot of people went into full-time ministry of some kind... I started doing my lay preacher’s course with the Methodist Church when I was still at school and started preaching when I was 15 and then became superintendent of the Sunday School.”

After leaving school Bob worked as a storeman and packer, in a men’s wear shop and as a procurement clerk for a car parts company.

“I had visions of going into the police force but they were very strict in those days and I was half an inch too short and six pounds too light,” he said.

Whilst taking on a trade as a moulder, Bob was planning to go to Bible College and become a missionary.

“Most young people in the Church in those days had visions of being a missionary to some tribe in Africa or somewhere. But I realised that wasn’t going to happen. I think there was a glamour thing that people got carried away with. Missionaries used to come back from overseas and tell you these stories and you’d think, ‘God’s calling me there’ but I think the reality is that when God calls you, God calls you where he wants you, not where you want to be.”

And it seems that God wanted Bob to be in the tiny sheep and wheat community of Wakool in the south-west Riverina district. He spent two years there as a lay pastor and was encouraged to do his HSC and go back to college.

“We contacted the Board of Studies and got all these books and then six months before the exams they realised they’d sent me the wrong book list!”

Bob soldiered on, got the right books and spent every spare moment locked away in the church hall studying.

“I surprised myself and passed all five subjects with distinction. So off I went back to college in South Strathfield and became a student pastor, which was a way of earning some money while going through college, and I was earning the princely sum of $1600 a year (in 1970). If it hadn’t been for the support and effort of my wife at the time who was a nurse, I wouldn’t have made it.”

Bob completed his Bachelor of Theology and set up a coffee house ministry called The Upper Room in Yagoona (a suburb of Bankstown).

“We ministered to fringe kids, kids off the street... We had some very tragic situations. I had one girl who was kicked out of home because she failed her HSC and was left to her own devices and ended up on drugs and died before her 20th birthday.

“It was very much a drop-in centre and we had what we called ‘conversation evangelism’. We had upturned banana cases and the girls made tablecloths and everybody just sat on the floor or on bean bags. It was very bohemian. Kids would come in and we’d serve them raisin toast and coffee and there’d be music on a little stage; and they’d listen to the music and tell us about their troubles and woes and we’d talk them through it and we’d help find them houses or go to court with them if they got in trouble with the law. Basically it gave them a place to belong and that ministry went on for quite a number of years after I left.”

Bob branched out from there and started working in Parramatta Girls Home and the Reiby Juvenile Justice Detention Centre in Campbelltown.

He was then sent to Narrandera where he set up an innovative program for young offenders.

“I got some money (from the federal government) and we bought materials and some moulds and made canoes. Then we ran canoe camps down the Murrumbidgee River. I had farmers that allowed us to land on their property and camp overnight and we had members of the Church come out with the tents and food when we arrived, then pull them down and take them to the next sight... That went well for quite a number of years and in fact a fellow told me just last year that some of those canoes are still being used.”

During his three years at Narrandera, Bob went from being a probationer to an ordained Minister and was then sent to Newcastle where he became the superintendent of the central mission.

“That was a struggle because it was a dying congregation...We tried to get out into the community and do a number of things, we employed a young bloke and he and I visited every pub in the inner city basin area of Newcastle to find out why every single Saturday night the pubs were full of young teenagers. They were packed with underage drinkers and we got this common theme that they had nowhere else to go. So we came back to the Church (hierarchy) and said, ‘We’ve got this huge big hall under the building, why don’t we turn it into an alternate nightclub and call it Somewhere to Go’, but they couldn’t catch the vision and eventually the place died.”

He then spent about eight years working as an ‘industrial chaplain’ with BHP steelworks at a time when they cut their staff from 12,000 to 6000.

“I think that meeting people at the coalface like that is where the Church ought to be. I think we’ve lost the plot when we think a successful church is one that’s got 1000 bums on seats on a Sunday morning. You might have that, but if you’re not making an impact on your community and touching them at the point of their pain, then what purpose are you there for?”

Bob said his legacy in Lismore has been as a facilitator and supporting other people to run with projects they are passionate about. He includes in there the homeless breakfasts which were started by Ray Ingram, and also a co-operative they have formed with an Aboriginal congregation known as Marmung. It was started by Reverend Dorothy Harris Gordon, who was the second Aboriginal woman to be ordained by the Uniting Church.

“When she retired she came back home to Lismore, and asked to do something and we gave her that freedom.”

Bob officially retires on February 28, but he still has one more project he is working on.

He has invited singer Barry McGuire, best known for his 1965 hit Eve of Destruction, to play in Lismore at a fundraiser for the Church’s outreach work.

“That’s happening next month! This is a real faith venture this one because I haven’t got a venue yet. We were looking at the showgrounds but with all the weather we’ve been having we don’t want a washout so I’m trying to get the Council to come on board with the town hall... It’s going to cost us $6000 to have Barry McGuire so I’ve got my fingers crossed at the moment. If it all comes together like I’m hoping then he will come and do some work with the kids in the high schools and he’ll teach them an updated version of the Eve of Destruction. Hopefully get the kids up on stage to sing with him at the concert.”

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