Nils von Kalm
23 November 2023
When the Reverend Ruth Newmarch emigrated with her family to Australia at the age of 17, she had no idea how much her Indian upbringing would shape her in later years.
Raised in the bustling city of Bangalore, and the daughter of a minister in the Church of South India, life for Ruth was full of engagement with people of different faiths.
“Where we lived, there was a mosque very close by, so I woke up every morning to the call to worship. That was just part of the music of waking up,” she said. “I would also be woken by the chiming of the church bells. There was a Big Ben-style spire on the church, very much like an English church, set up by the Church of England for British soldiers and their families who lived in the part of Bangalore where we lived.”
There was also a Hindu temple in the street where she lived, and lots of places in the street where people would do puja, the Hindu worship.
Being surrounded by other faiths was a normal part of life for Ruth, and many people played a significant role in shaping the type of person she would become. “Missionaries who taught me had a significant influence on my faith as well as my sense of responsibility to the world,” she said.
The Reverend Vinay Samuel, for a time her father’s curate, was probably one of the most significant influences on her. He later taught developing leaders in the majority world through the Oxford Centre for Christian Studies.
The way that Samuel and his wife, Colleen, lived their life impacted Ruth deeply. Starting a church plant in a slum area of Bangalore, Ruth said they had an enormous effect on their community. “They touched a lot of people through their ministry, including workshops on mechanics, school tuition, sewing for ladies and many other ministries to the poor,” she said. “Out of that grew a school, an orphanage for babies who were often left at the train station, and an industrial kitchen that provided meals to a Muslim stone-cutter community. It was the church reaching into the community.”
The organisation of Vinay and Colleen’s ministry and how it built over decades struck Ruth most strongly. They believed in the church as the centre out of which came societal transformation. Added to that was the effect of the relationships that their ministry cultivated. “The violence that often erupts between Muslims and Hindus rarely happens in that precinct,” Ruth said. “When people asked why, it was found that Vinay and his team had great relationships between every group in the area. The centre also serves the community, so no one would touch that area because they were a place of peace. They were an enormous influence on me in terms of the dynamic nature of the church.”
With all this in mind and the influence of Vinay and Colleen Samuel, Ruth came to Australia wondering where it would all lead. It was quite a culture shock for her. “Having to reinvent yourself where nobody knows you was a challenge,” she said. One part of that challenge was that she never met any of the original inhabitants of Australia. This was vastly different to growing up in India. So, on a personal pilgrimage of sorts, she went to Groote Eylandt, off the coast of the Northern Territory, to live in Angurugu, the Aboriginal community on Groote. “It was a way to connect with the real owners, as I saw it, and feel some peace about being in a land that belonged to somebody else,” she said.
Eventually ordained after many years in children’s ministry, Ruth became the vicar at St Philip’s in Mount Waverley. She sees her current ministry at St Philip’s being influenced by her time in India. Knowing nobody when she arrived in Australia caused her to want to make her faith relevant and mission-focused here. “If God has a vision of vibrant communities of giftedness and the care of the lonely, the lost and the marginalised, and the dynamic of community and mission being generated and flourishing, I want to be a part of that,” she said. “I am always looking for the blessing of the other and how we can be in it together where all are cared for and have compassion and connection and a joy in the other.”
Ruth is excited by the idea of building, creating and imagining community. “I have lived experience of this in India, so I have an antenna that sees it out there,” she said. “I love the way cultures can be refreshingly different and I want to find out about the connections between us all. I have seen compassion before my eyes, and I want to replicate that here. In India, I saw the power of the gospel not just done on Sundays but done in real life throughout each day.”
Drawing her inspiration from the Scriptures, Ruth is passionate about replicating that same power of the gospel at St Philip’s. “The Bible keeps drawing us to a good dynamic, flourishing like a wedding feast, but it is not specific,” she said. “The specifics are very minimal in the Bible, but it is leading us towards something very exciting. Putting flesh on the bones of that is what churches and Christians need to be all about.”
It’s a long way from the streets of Bangalore, but Ruth Newmarch is doing all she can to be part of that flourishing.