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Over 30 years of service in South Auckland

Ross Richards of Manukau Community Ministries

Senior Salvation Army staff have paid tribute to an ‘unsung hero’ of The Salvation Army in Auckland after more than three decades of work.

Ross Richards worked with the Army for 33 years, almost all at Manukau Community Ministries, and was among a group who established the East City Corps.

The son of Salvation Army officers, Ross said he felt a calling to serve God during a time when he had wandered from his parents’ faith and was living in Australia. ‘I had an experience when the Lord gave me a kick up the backside and a smile and turned my life around. After I got back here I couldn’t do anything else but work for the Lord in helping people—wild horses couldn’t have kept me away.’

Ross began working with the Army on an employment programme in 1983. In 1984, Major Campbell Roberts hired him in his first role at Manukau Community Ministries—to convert a 50-seater bus into a mobile Salvation Army centre with offices, computers, a shower and a kitchen, and take it on the road in a pioneering venture in South Auckland.

The centre connected people with Salvation Army services such as food parcels and furniture assistance, and Ross ran courses from the bus, including some of the first computer courses in South Auckland, Campbell said.

After that, Ross worked in a variety of roles, including emergency housing coordinator, centre manager, director and service manager. He also set up and managed the Family Breakthrough Programme—a mentoring programme connecting young mums with older women mentors. ‘I had a great team. It was something I really enjoyed, because you’re at the grassroots with people. It was a pleasure to help them.’

At times the work was frustrating when clients did not make or maintain changes, but Ross said he was extremely grateful to the Army for the opportunity to live out his calling, and to have been a part of God’s life changing work in the community. ‘I am continually amazed how active God is outside the church in the community. Miracles have happened and lives have been changed. All that is good or of value that has taken place is purely of God’s doing and it been a joy and a privilege to have been a small part of his work. I remember [Major] Heather Rodwell saying to us our work is to undo the works of Satan and bring God’s will on earth. Only God can do this with our help.’

Ross was typical of the often unknown, but crucial people who made The Salvation Army what it is, Campbell said.

‘It’s people like Ross, who has engaged every day with the deep troubles of people and has never failed to continue to show them respect and never said, “There is no hope.” He kept giving hope and encouraging people to better things.’

Manukau Community Ministries office manager Raewyn Heke said it had been a privilege working with Ross for 17 years and that he was a humble and caring man.

‘Many clients attribute their survival, wellbeing, family happiness, life turnaround and faith to the work Ross has played in their lives over the years. Much of it is the hope, belief and genuine caring for people that Ross imparted to many without them even realising it, and the fact that he journeyed and walked alongside you.’

As well as his work with clients, Ross was a strong friend to staff at Manukau and always supported them emotionally and spiritually, encouraging, praying for and listening to them, Raewyn added. ‘I see the love of God practiced through Ross.’

Territorial Secretary for Personnel Captain Gerry Walker said it was Ross who convinced him to take up his first role with the Army, at Manukau Community Ministries in the early 2000s. Ross was quiet and extremely humble, but often led pioneering roles for the Army and was highly respected among staff and the community, he said.

‘Ross was the face of The Salvation Army across much of South Auckland. People would do anything for him, because he’d probably already helped them many times. We’ll never know how many people he helped.’

Ross never gave up on anyone and people always came first, even at the cost of other things, Gerry said. ‘It was a standing joke that if toast was burning in the kitchen it was always Ross. He’d get talking to someone and forget, and then you’d get the smoke and the smell. Every Monday we had a giant wooden spoon we’d give out to the person who’d done the silliest thing during the week and Ross won it many times, for just being Ross—forgetting to go to meetings, losing his car keys or cell phone. But that was because people came first.’

Ross was a practical man who also put a lot of work into the Manukau building, Gerry added. ‘He was always on the roof. The ladder was always up against the wall and Ross would be on the roof, cleaning a gutter or patching a hole. He’d pitch in and do anything. If the cleaner was away, Ross would step in and clean the toilets—he’d do whatever was required.’ Leaving his job had been hard, Ross said, as the staff at Manukau were his friends. But they haven’t seen the last of each other; he’s still on the property management team and has signed up as a centre volunteer, while he works out how to continue serving God in ‘retirement’.

By Robin Raymond (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 1 October 2016, pp 14-15
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.