"Education is the soul of a society passed from one generation to another", wrote the English intellectual GK Chesterton. He was referring to the bequeathing of literacy and numeracy to the young, yet his words apply even more to Christian faith formation where the soul is more than a literary metaphor. But what children absorb in the classroom, adults pursuing faith education must work hard to attain.
Jennifer and Scott Rumbel live on a dairy farm in Eccleston, a hamlet in the Hunter Valley about 100km from Newcastle. As a mother and wife, Jennifer knows all about giving to others and being there for her family, yet at the same time her need for spiritual growth keeps pushing her to new places. When her daughter, Ellie, tore the ligament in an ankle just before enrolment at Newcastle University, it was Jennifer who drove her down to the UoN Open Day and stayed around to listen in on the courses on offer. When they left that day Ellie had enrolled in a Bachelor of Visual Communications Design and a Diploma of Latin and Jennifer in a Diploma of Theology.
"The reading for theology is at times challenging but extremely rewarding in revealing its treasure," says Jennifer Rumbel from her Eccleston home. The balancing act of being a full-time Mum and part-time student is apparent at a glance at the family dining table. One end is set with place mats and condiments; the other is stacked with books and printouts.
Jennifer sits here surrounded by materials assembled for her latest assignment – a 1,000 word essay on the third century theologian Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. The essay is a component in the subject she’s currently studying, ‘Christianity: The History of a Global Religion’. Theology at UoN is currently undergoing a renaissance, in part from the recent partnership with Catholic theological provider, The Broken Bay Institute. The result is an array of theological and spirituality courses on offer to UoN undergraduates.
Jennifer says she’s a beneficiary of this academic enrichment. “The choices are good and there’s flexibility in the different modes of delivery.” Two-hour drives to Newcastle for face-to-face lectures alternate with Internet streaming received via the satellite disk on the farmhouse roof. “I didn’t think I’d like going online first up but it’s fantastic!” Jennifer says. “It’s everything you’d get in the classroom plus access to the library. I’m reading research material online, or printing it out at home.”
Besides going down to Newcastle to stay with Ellie, when she’s at home Jennifer says she likes “to bounce off ideas” in phone conversations with her friend Bette Diver, a mentor in Dungog parish. Jennifer also has a special affection for the Jehovah’s Witnesses who make the long trip out to the farm. “Whenever they come calling I always make time and we go into these great stimulating conversations.”
Her studies, she says, have exposed her to the writings of the founders of the Church, which in turn have deepened her appreciation of the early Christian experience. “Having a window on the past really enables me to better chart how and why the Church is where it is today; that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that there is much hope for the future of the faith.”
In recent years the struggle in Dungog parish has been dealing with the removal of a number of priests over sexual abuse allegations. These developments have nonetheless brought stunned and hurt parishioners closer together in faith, says Jennifer. Lay-led liturgies are not uncommon these days. She says her theological studies have given her perspective on the crisis.
She draws an analogy with the earliest days of the Church where deacons were common and the community was always struggling. “We’re here for the long haul. Someone once said that religion is something you do to receive a reward but spirituality is where you know that you are constantly in the presence and grace of God. I am very much of the latter belief.”
Originally from Goulburn, Jennifer moved to Eccleston when she married Scott. They have three grown children– Melinda, Ellie and Alexander. Scott is a third generation dairyman in Eccleston. His grandfather settled here after World War II. His father and mother are neighbours. Dairy farming is hard, constant work and the well-publicised supermarket discount ‘milk wars’ have served only to reduce the margins of profitability for farmers. Scott begins his day at 5am in readiness for milking the herd. There are visits back to the house for breakfast and lunch, and then back to work with a dog at his side.
The double tragedy in his life was losing his first wife Noelene, who died of cancer at 28. She was pregnant and that baby, Allison, born at 23 weeks, outlived her mother by only ten months. Left to care for his daughter Melinda, aged 5, Scott, understatedly remarks, “It was a very difficult time.” He acknowledges “the great support of my family” for getting him through his grief.
Meeting Jennifer was a new beginning. The couple has been married for 22 years and it’s easy to see that they are still very much in love. They too have had to brace themselves against life’s storms, or as Scott says, “We’ve been rolling through it a bit.”
It was shortly after they married that Melinda fell sick. The second month of marriage found Scott and Jennifer by her bedside at Camperdown Children’s Hospital. A brain tumour diagnosed at 18 months had become active, requiring surgery. Because adolescence was ahead of her, radiation treatment was delayed, so the following years were spent in a cycle of anguished waiting and medical checks before further treatment. Today, Melinda, aged 26, is well, working part-time and living an independent life, although the legacy of the tumour is that she is visually impaired.
“Yes, we’ve had plenty of stresses in our lives,” agrees Scott. What holds this couple together against such adversity is the bedrock of family. “I think we agree on the same things. We have the same values,” says Jennifer. “We don’t very often fight,” adds Scott. “The only argument we had was before we married,” says Jennifer, “about my driving.”
“Family is central to everything we’ve faced together. We’ve cried through heaps of stuff and we’ve supported each other. It doesn’t have to be a deeply religious thing; it’s just that you’re there for each other.”
Ellie, who has returned from uni for a visit, makes a statement she wants included in this story: “Everything I know about values and family for the most part comes from my parents. I admire both of them enormously.” She also adds, “And as a fellow uni student I’m also very proud of Mum for getting distinctions in all her theology assignments.”