JOHN VAN GRONINGEN
PASTOR, SPORTS CHAPLAIN, FRIEND TO ABORIGINAL COMMUNITIES
10-07-1960 - 23-12-2012
By DAMIAN PURCELL
John Van Groningen, known mostly as John VG or JVG, was a Baptist pastor and qualified commercial pilot who expressed his Christian faith through enriching the life experiences, health and opportunities of others, especially remote indigenous youth.
He embodied action, adventure, inclusion and fun. He was best known as the vibrant sports chaplain for the Western Bulldogs AFL team and the National Basketball League and founder and managing director of Red Dust Role Models, a health-promotion charity connecting sporting, artistic, business and academic leaders with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote communities.
Following the example of Jesus, John saw the best in every person and gave respect, time and energy to relationships regardless of status or standing. He had the gift of the gab, but ministered as a well-tuned listener and astute observer. He responded with action rather than words, giving his best equally to rich or poor, to strugglers and stars.
John had a happy childhood filled with family camping trips, horse-riding, basketball, swimming, singalongs, gardening, water-skiing, rock-climbing and every outdoor activity possible.
He arrived in Melbourne in 1974 as a 14-year-old from rural California with his parents, John and Jeanne, his younger sister Jerri and brother Jefferson. John's father was recruited as superintendent of Malmsbury Youth Detention Centre and became a long-serving commissioner of corrections, and later professor of criminology at RMIT and Monash University.
The family settled in the Woodend-Mount Macedon area and John briefly attended Kyneton High School and Rupertswood college in Sunbury before joining Braemar College on Mount Macedon, where his mother taught domestic sciences from its inaugural year in 1976.
In country Victoria, John was a cultural curiosity, but "the Yank" quickly learnt that shared playground sport brought understanding and equality. He taught fellow Braemar students basketball on a rough netball court without a backboard. In return, he learnt Australian rules football on a hockey pitch without goalposts.
In his school years he was a highly adept student, without sacrificing time from his preferred focus on social interaction, practical jokes and hatching plans for adventure. Elaborate quests were developed, such as the first around-the-world balloon flight. He developed detailed balloon designs and logistical support plans, even negotiating sponsorships with multinational companies that stalled only after they realised this adventurer was not old enough to pilot a car.
Despite his ballooning dream not getting off the ground, it did spark his desire to become a pilot. This was galvanised after he heard adventurous tales of missionaries flying in the wild highlands of Papua New Guinea.
In 1979 John travelled back to the US and studied for a bachelor of science degree with honours in aviation science and technology at College of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, Missouri. He kept busy with additional theology studies and a job in the college power plant. He also played basketball for the college's team, the Bobcats, competing with success in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics league.
During a visit back to Australia between semesters, John noticed the blossoming Jennifer Purcell, younger sister of teenage friends, during a joint family camping trip to Kennett River on the Great Ocean Road. They started writing.
After graduating in 1983 with a commercial pilot's licence and aircraft maintenance certificate, John promptly returned to his bushfire-ravaged community in the Macedon Ranges.
He took a position as a pilot with Mission Aviation Fellowship, based in the remote Northern Territory Aboriginal community of Lajamanu, flying people and supplies to remote communities throughout the NT.
John found a strong sense of purpose in the desert. He had a deep respect for the Warlpiri people and developed connections with their youth through sport and activity, with the limited facilities available. Shared play was a forum for him to demonstrate his integrity and respect for his indigenous brothers and sisters.
He felt strongly that his calling was to serve the needs of the remote indigenous communities. He spent as much time as possible there, bringing huge energy and excitement with each visit. He sometimes flew in low to buzz the community before landing with a plane filled with extras, such as sports shoes, basketballs and uniforms for community teams that he enlisted. This early involvement with remote community sport later blossomed into an athlete role model program, ARMtour, and later Red Dust Role Models.
His energetic engagement with the communities of Lajamanu, Yuendumu, Titjikala, Areyonga, Walungurru/Kintore, Papunya, Nauiyu/Daly River, Milikapiti, and Nguiu led to the Lajamanu community accepting him into the Warlpiri tribe in the Japangardi skin group.
John would return periodically to his family in Victoria to supplement his subsistence salary with a variety of casual jobs and to visit Jennifer, who was now studying nursing. After a lengthy courtship, Jennifer accepted John's marriage proposal, but they faced two hurdles. Jennifer's father wanted his daughter to wait until she was fully qualified as a nurse, in case they needed her income when married. More important was that the Lajamanu elders should accept Jennifer into the same Japangardi skin group as John. Both barriers were cleared, and they married in April 1986.
In the early years of marriage, John reduced his time in the Territory and mostly stayed in Melbourne with his new wife while completing his theological studies and serving as youth pastor at the Armadale Baptist Church. In 1987 they settled in Marysville, where John was program manager for the ESA youth camp organisation. He went on to complete a diploma in theology from Kingsley College, specialising in urban ministries. And at the end of 1990 his son, Austin, was born.
With a growing family to consider, John moved to Geelong in 1991 and took a position as a youth worker and pastor at the Fenwick Memorial Baptist Church. He met up with American recruits at the Geelong NBL basketball team and, like a moth to a flame, he started to help out at training sessions, using his considerable playing and coaching skills. Between the births of his two daughters, Miranda in 1992 and Jacqueline in 1995, he periodically visited his indigenous brothers and sisters in the Northern Territory, but now taking star basketballers such as twins Darren and Jason Smith along for the trip.
John's interactions with NBL basketballers and, progressively, footballers from Geelong and Footscray-based AFL teams evolved into a formal sports chaplaincy role, initially with the Victoria Titans. He was well suited to minister to the complex issues facing the sporting elite, especially indigenous footballers grappling with the enormous cultural differences they faced, first as strangers, then as celebrities in the big cities.
John learnt his pastoral approach from the remote communities he loved: first listen and learn, then act with respect and integrity, giving your utmost.
John was appointed chaplain to the Western Bulldogs in 2002 and returned to the Macedon Ranges to settle with his young family in 2004. This family stability gave him the opportunity to turn the informal visits with various athletes to remote indigenous communities into a structured organisation.
With support from his great friend Ray Minniecon, an indigenous pastor in Redfern, NSW, and a statesman, he hatched the first iteration, named ARMtour. This worked brilliantly, with corporate sponsorship and strong support from athletes from various sports and codes. It opened a respectful dialogue with his beloved remote communities.
After changes in ARMtour's governance in 2006, John started Red Dust Role Models as a new entity. Ray, the loyal athletes, musicians, artists, sponsors and volunteers joined John's new venture. Red Dust established a robust corporate structure, with a board of like-minded directors ensuring that its enormous energy and activity worked only to the benefit of indigenous communities.
Recognising the importance of family in remote communities, John took his wife and children and encouraged his role models to bring their children when possible.
During 10 years of operation, the outcomes from the combined endeavours of ARMtour and Red Dust were astounding and proved that actions speak louder than words. Improved school attendance and health in visited communities were particularly pleasing. Funding support for Red Dust continued to build from philanthropic, corporate, government and non-government organisations. In recent years programs have expanded to India and Fiji, showing that the format and simple messages have global appeal.
With this success and escalating activity, John decided late in 2012 to step back from Red Dust's day-to-day operations and allow the well-formed entity to run with its established leadership and programs. Realising that Aboriginal culture had a great deal to teach about life and happiness, John enrolled to study for a PhD at the University of Melbourne's school of population health.
He wanted to fully understand what aspirations, expectations and obligations motivated people in the remote indigenous communities, especially the youth. He questioned whether Western cultural expectations and motivators were capable of bringing purpose and happiness to remote communities.
Sadly, John died from a bacterial sepsis as a complication of chemotherapy for lymphoma, at the age of 52 and before he could start the next chapter of his life's work.
He leaves behind a beloved wife and a great legacy - his children, the scores of people touched by his passion for life, an improved two-way dialogue between the first Australians and our recently arrived population, and the vibrant Red Dust Role Model program, which continues to inspire those who participate and those who attend.