Part two of the story of Neville Ross, a minister with an open heart and mind.
by Gay Liddington
“Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way.”
– Kingsley Amis
He was born into the Great Depression, leader of a church boys’ club at age 14, and preached his first sermon at 16. Neville Ross, a 90-year-old Uniting Church minister of Peachester, lived his life in service to others, a calling bestowed at a young age.
“It was the day when I knew life has meaning and purpose. My experience was not a religious conversion but an acceptance that there is a fundamental purpose to all beings. I committed to justice, truth, and the service of my fellow human beings,” shares Neville.
“My deepest conviction was and still is that life can only be lived effectively if one accepts that ‘love is the ground of being’.”
Named ‘the pink parson’ because of his support of conscientious objectors at the time of the Korean War, Neville Ross attended the Third World Congress Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Japan in 1957.
On his return, he was an advocate for banning the bomb. The church transferred the ‘tainted’ minister away from city influences to Laidley, 65km west of Brisbane. However, this is one man who would not be stifled.
Six years in Laidley, a Country Party electorate, included another instance of the minister’s non-conformity with his support of local policeman and Labor candidate, Bill Hayden, in his quest for federal parliament. The family also experienced the ’59 flood where over 200 families were evacuated.
“We watched as the water climbed our stairs, covered the verandah and seeped under the doors. Using a table and the top of a high wardrobe, we moved two families, four of them and six of us, into the ceiling.”
After the flood, Neville took hold of an idea after visiting Gatton Agricultural College. Turkeys would keep down the growth of grasses and weeds. He acquired two turkey hens. A gobbler visited as required. Consequently, the preacher became a breeder of turkeys!
Church camps and fostering Aboriginal and PNG children became part of life for the Ross family in support of an Australian Council of Churches program. This led to the formation of what we now know as NAIDOC.
“My next parish in 1963 was in Rockhampton. Because of my close association with Trade Union leaders during my active involvement in the peace movement, they asked me to develop a ministry for people in industry. The program was Chaplains in Industry.”
Neville Ross’s work in Central Queensland resulted in him becoming the organiser and first director of the Inter Church Trade and Industry Mission (I.T.I.M.) in Brisbane. It existed in southern states, but this was a first for Queensland. Later he took up a position as director of I.T.I.M. in New South Wales.
The Australian Council of Churches kept an eye on their renegade reverend and decided he was the ideal person to assist with a new program, Action for World Development. It was 1969.
“Some believed the Action for World Development program was one of the keys to Whitlam’s election as Prime Minister because we organised an Australia-wide petition of about 73,000 signatures to get Australia to set up a separate overseas aid organisation.
“That brought me into the notice of the Department of Foreign Affairs which appointed me director of the unit in the Australian Development Assistance Bureau later known as AusAID which was being set up to provide support for Australian voluntary agencies working overseas. I held that position for 11 years.
“I’d visited over 20 countries with overseas aid, climbed enough mountains and fallen down enough hills so, decided to come back to the Sunshine State.”
“When I finished in Foreign Affairs in ‘86, I accepted a nomination for the Chairmanship of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA), the peak body of Australian NGOs working overseas. I served in that role for four years.”
A special ceremony held just prior to the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York recognised the work of ACFOA by the award of UN Peace Messenger.
“Back in Canberra, I got to represent ACFOA at the opening of the new Parliament House by Queen Elizabeth. As usual, Esmé was well up to the occasion.”
Neville and Esmé Ross retired to Coolum in 1997. As his talents knew no bounds, Neville designed their house and built on a patch referred to as ‘the sandhill’. Eight years later the pair moved to a retirement village where, surprise, surprise, Mr Ross accepted the position as Chairman of the Residents Committee!
Regardless of age, Neville Ross is clear thinking and passionate about several issues including climate change. His stream of thought supports research by Inigo Jones, the 11-year sunspot cycle and its effect on climate.
In 2009 Neville published his book Could a Christian be an Atheist? and poses the question should we have an idea of life beyond God? More recently, another book Tales from Never Land tells of his personal journey and family history.
Grandfather to 18 and great grandfather to 18, he shares anecdotes of life and family. His youngest son Chris realised independent fame as the founding bass guitarist and keyboardist of the rock band Wolfmother formed in 2000.
“They were the first Australian rock band in 25 years to win a Grammy in America. When Chris came along, he reintroduced us to being young.”
Neville turns to the subject of his adored wife. “About seven years after Esmé and I married, she discovered she had the ability to project energy to heal people. She practised transcendental meditation and spent the rest of her life helping others but never talked about healing or brought attention to herself.
“It was because of her work in a local health centre that her most enduring project began. Many older patients moved to Canberra to be with family. However, they were often busy, and the oldies left without company or direction.
“Esmé secured a government grant to start a day care centre for seniors associated with our local church. The centre flourished. It went from one day to two and over 25 years later is operating five days a week.”
Reverend Neville Ross led a remarkable life but it’s his family he cites as his finest achievement.
“Esmé and I had an incredible partnership for 66 years and our six boys are evidence of it. They’re exceptional boys.”
From the time a young preacher sitting astride an Ariel Deluxe Roadster motorcycle spied a 19-year-old ‘vision on horseback’ their course was set. Neville concludes: “It was different from other days…a day of destiny.”