After decades as a miner, Ian Yates decided to put on a different hat to become a mining chaplain. But he's certainly no 'God Bloke'. Here he tells his story ...
Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to become a chaplain?
A: I commenced working in the underground coal industry in 1969. I moved into contracting in the mid 1980s and eventually formed my own company which went on to employ around 140 people. In around 2005 I went through a legal battle which lasted until 2008 and nearly ended everything for me. During this tough period my wife and I got back into church (I had not been since 14). I had plenty of time on my hands as I was out of work during the legal battle, so I started working a day a week in a community restaurant. I also joined the Red Cross to be trained in disaster relief and went on to be a team leader. Later I was introduced to chaplaincy and found this to be a very practical way to learn and develop skills to help people when they were doing it tough. I did not want to be a Christian only on Sundays (and generally sitting around feeling sorry for myself). I wanted to get out and be a Christian where it counts.
Q: How did you become involved in mines and disaster relief?
A: The Red Cross training first prepared me for disaster relief, which means various different things including going door to door checking on people during fires, floods etc and setting up and managing relief centres. Due to my experience in the mines, I got to know a lot of people particularly in coal mining in NSW and QLD, plus the Northern Districts of the CFMEU had a share in my little company so my contacts in that area were strong. After completing the Certificate 4 in chaplaincy training (Booth's College and Chaplaincy Australia) I realised there was a need inside mining for workers to offload from time to time, so I approached the union.
Q: How are you able to help in these situations?
A: I like to think I can help to place people in a position of comfort whereby they can eventually offload. Because I know my way around mines, it normally takes only a little time for miners to accept me. I can understand people, and because chaplaincy is based on empowering people to help themselves, I can quickly assess how they are progressing.
Q: From your experience, what are some of the most important things an individual can do after facing a critical incident such as a mine disaster?
A: Talk. Talk. Talk. It is import to allow plenty of time and space for the individual to come around to talking about their experience, but once they start to open up every single word is important and it is absolutly essential the person feels and knows every word is being heard in a non-judgmental way. Time is then needed during the recovery period, and lots of tangible support.
Q: Are there other situations where utilising a chaplain is beneficial?
A: There are many ways: a chaplain can be used in policy planning; in community issues; in union-related matters; during disbutes or job cutbacks; or at times of accidents and fatalities.
Q: What advice would you have for mining families who are finding the FIFO lifestyle a challenge?
A: It was actually the FIFO lifestyle that first made me realise a mining chaplain might be helpful - not so much the actual flying-in and out, but relative to QLD coal miners working on a 4/4 roster or similar. From being a miner myself and also employing miners, I have come to recognise that this game is a real paradox: you can form lifelong friendships with people who will stand by you no matter what, and at the same time you can be ostracised for showing any sign of weakness. I have seen men suffering battles from rumours about their wives, or maybe they are playing around. I've seen men on the drink and on the pokies. They miss out on family events, their kids get into trouble. All these things add to the pressure. I know how tough it is for men in particular to talk things through. It is bad enough for anyone to be waking up at 3am in cold anxiety and worry, but add that to going underground at 6am and ... well anything can happen. My advice in all cases is to seek openness, and to seek help should drink or gambling etc be involved. People under these forms of stress need the oppurtunity to express their concerns without fear of judgment.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: People within the industry, who have known me for years, initially wait for the punchline when they hear I am now a chaplain. But I am pleased to say that they all quickly see what I am about and generally accept there is a need for this support. Red Cross has trained me to work with people when they are at their worst and most fragile. Chaplaincy has extended that training and has brought a spiritual dimension to my approach. It is important to know that this is not a licence to be the "God Bloke". Chaplains are not there to preach but to listen, support and empower ... and if asked to do so, then to explain their faith.