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'He just loved me and prayed for me'

'He just loved me and prayed for me'

'He just loved me and prayed for me'

29 April 2019

Robert became a Salvation Army officer and last November conducted the funeral of his old Sunday school teacher, Ken Pittard. He is pictured below with Ken's wife Joy. Photos: Lena Pobjie

By Bill Simpson

This is the story of a battered, abused and rebellious park Sunday school kid who ‘went wild’ for a while but returned 60 years later to personally pastor his dying teacher.

The story starts in a small park at Fernhill (now Tarrawanna), a northern suburb of Wollongong, on the NSW South Coast, in 1956.

Ken and Joy Pittard, then newly-married soldiers of Wollongong Corps, accepted a challenge to take over a sizeable park Sunday school started in a predominantly public housing area by a church lady a few years earlier. 

They soon increased weekly attendance to 120. Among the children attending the park Sunday school were brother and sister Robert and Lyn Seymour.

Robert was then six; Lyn was eight. Lyn (now Mather) stayed with the Sunday school, became a teacher and was enrolled as a Salvation Army soldier when Tarrawanna became its own corps in 1966. She remains an influential leader within the corps.

Ken and Joy returned to Wollongong Corps and continued teaching there. But for Robert ... well, Salvation Army life wasn’t for him as he moved into his teens. Life at home was not happy.

Robert and Lyn were often harshly punished by their mother. Robert was sexually abused by a family friend. “I became defiant,” Robert tells Others magazine. “When Mum bashed me, I would say, ‘Is that the best you can do?’

But it wasn’t just the physical beatings. It was also the words of humiliation. I was made to feel worthless. I became very aggressive toward God.”

Robert was expelled from two primary schools and a high school because of bad behaviour. He tried to start a fire in one school. He broke into the Tarrawanna Salvation Army hall and tried to burn it down.

remaining defiant

After he was expelled from high school at 15, he left home and got a job at a local hotel, where he started drinking alcohol – a lot of alcohol.

By 17, he was pretty well entrenched in the local illegal activity industry, driving his bosses – and a magistrate – to gambling establishments.

“I was full of fear, rage, anger and resentment, blaming everybody else for my life, which was pretty much a dense fog,” he says. “By this stage I was 26 but still acting like that 12-year-old who hated the world and everybody in it.

"But the real saints of this world didn’t give up on me. I was living just five houses from the Wollongong Salvation Army citadel. After a long Sunday at the pub or club, I would walk past the citadel on a Sunday night.

"Ken Pittard would be standing on the steps of the citadel. Every Sunday night I walked past, Ken was there. He would say, ‘Will you come in tonight, Bob?’ I never did.

I was working at a local pub. Another Salvo, Albert Shaw, came in with the Warcry. Like Ken, Albert kept inviting me to church. One day, Albert introduced a young man preparing for Salvation Army ministry. His name was Paddy Mullan. Albert told me Paddy would look after me. Paddy had a word with me every week after that.”

But Robert remained defiant. “One Sunday afternoon, I was driving home from a big drinking day, when I saw Mrs Phyllis Sampson [a then elderly Tarrawanna soldier] hosing her garden in her uniform,” Robert says.

“I stopped to say hello. She asked me to drive her to the Tarrawanna Sunday night meeting. I knew what she was up to. She wanted me to go to church with her. When we got to the church, she asked me to go in. I said, ‘no’. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘if you won’t come in here, at least go to Wollongong because it’s Paddy’s farewell meeting tonight’.”

Robert went to the Wollongong meeting. He chose to sit alone. “I couldn’t handle it. So, I left and went home. I had planned to kill myself that night. I had a loaded shotgun in the house. But I also had thoughts of how I hadn’t given God a go and I should, at least, say goodbye to Paddy.

"I went back to The Salvation Army in Wollongong. The meeting was over. People were attending a farewell supper in the church hall. I found Paddy and told him that I wanted to give God a go. He took me into the church and led me in the Penitent’s Prayer. We prayed a few more prayers because Paddy said I needed to apologise to God.

“When I stood up and turned around, there were all these people standing behind me. They had been there praying for me. There was Ken and Joy. There was Albert. As I looked around, I could see teachers who had taught me at the Tarrawanna park Sunday school. It was the sixth of March, 1976.”

Next morning, Robert drove to his sister Lyn’s home to tell her about his lifechanging decision. He and Lyn (pictured right) had not been in contact for several years. 

“I knocked on the door. Lyn answered, got a shock and asked me what I was doing there. I told her about my decision. She buckled over and started to cry. I thought, well that didn’t go well. And I left. I called in to see Mrs Sampson. She was waiting for me and invited me in. She said Lyn was on the way.

"Lyn had already been on the phone to Mrs Sampson. They showed me an exercise book. In it were the names of the kids from the Tarrawanna park Sunday school. ‘Look,’ she said and pointed to the name Robert Seymour.” Mrs Sampson told Bob that she and Lyn had been praying for him and the other kids every Tuesday for years.

full circle

Twelve months after his commitment, Robert was accepted to train for Salvation Army officership. His early appointments included managing a Salvation Army childcare centre in Sydney and commanding Mt Isa Corps and men’s and women’s refuges with his wife, Geanette, also an officer.

He returned to Sydney to work in street outreach at Kings Cross and inner-city welfare. He and Geanette separated after 15 years of marriage. They have remained ‘good friends’. Due to the marriage separation, Robert was out of officership for nine years, but continued working for The Salvation Army.

He married his second wife, Robyn Black, who was not a Salvationist at the time. Robyn became a soldier and then an officer. Robert returned to officership, with an appointment as manager of Foster House men’s hostel in Sydney and later William Booth House Recovery Services Centre, from where he retired almost three years ago.

Robyn held several separate positions in Sydney, but, close to Robert’s retirement, she was appointed Corps Officer at Tarrawanna. At first, Robert was reticent about Robyn’s Tarrawanna appointment because of the memories it would bring back for him. But he reconciled the appointment on the basis that it was Robyn’s appointment and he needed to support her.

Early last year, Ken Pittard had surgery for a heart condition. Complications followed. He was kept in hospital and then a nursing home for a total of nine months. Ken’s family contacted Robert and asked if he could visit his old Sunday school teacher.

Robert visited Ken every week for seven months, reading the Bible to him, sharing notes he had purposely prepared, and praying. “I felt an incredible affection for this man [Ken],” Robert says. “Ken Pittard represented the start of my spiritual journey ... he was there at the beginning. He never gave up on me, he supported me right through and was there at the end. I had the opportunity to do for Ken and Joy what they did for me and many other Tarrawanna kids at the park Sunday school 60 years or so ago.

“On one of the last visits to Ken, as I was leaving I kissed him on the cheek. I loved this man. Not once – despite the lifestyle I led in my younger days and the many times I let him down – did Ken ever judge me. He just loved me and prayed for me.”

Robert Seymour conducted the Celebration of Ken Pittard’s Life at Wollongong on 20 November 2018. He proudly introduced himself: “I’m Robert Seymour,” he said, “friend of Ken and an officer of The Salvation Army.”

Bill Simpson is a contributing writer for Others.

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