Betty Feith (1931-2022)

The Herb Feith Centre has announced: “With a heavy heart we announce the passing of Betty Feith. Betty was a staunch supporter of Indonesia, and strong advocate for social justice. While the Centre bears her late husband’s name, it works towards supporting her legacy of enhancing Indonesian-Australian relations too”. (@HerbFeithCentre)

Betty Feith (née Evans) passed away on 18th May 2022 after a long illness. Betty was a volunteer with the VCC for many years, especially in the library, in addition to her involvement with the NCCA (National Council of Churches in Australia).

Betty Feith was a teacher and volunteer whose work inside and outside the classroom reflected her ideals of a peaceful, just and inclusive society, and her abiding Christian faith. 

Betty was actively involved in the ACSM during the 1940s-1950s (and in 1979 was National Chairperson – Victorian Area Council of the Australian Student Christian Movement). 

In 1947, Betty met Herb Feith, whose Jewish Austrian parents had sought asylum from Nazism in Australia in 1939. Together, Betty and Herb undertook war relief activities, collecting door-to-door in Melbourne suburbs on behalf of Germans and other Europeans who were struggling with post-war shortages and hardships.

In 1950 Betty and Herb, together with a group of other University of Melbourne students and ASCM members set in motion a pioneering initiative in international aid focused on Indonesia. The main idea behind the programme – that Australian graduates would not only make available their technical expertise in response to the shortage of skilled graduates in the new Republic (in particularly in the newly formed national Indonesian public service), but also take part in Indonesian society as a whole, living and working alongside their Indonesian colleagues – had first arisen during discussions at a World University Service Assembly that year. Betty was secretary of the initial planning committee of what would become known as the Volunteer Graduate Scheme for Indonesia (VGS), the forerunner of international volunteering as it is understood today.

The VGS was officially recognised under an intergovernmental agreement by both the Australian and Indonesian governments in 1954, and later became AVI (Australian Volunteers International) which has programmes in communities across Asia, the Pacific and the world.

Jakarta was the first location to receive Australian volunteers and Indonesia continues to be the top destination under the Australian Volunteers for Development program.

The VGS scheme was designed to be an expression of unity and understanding across cultures, promoting genuine understanding of and solidarity with Indonesia. Salary equality was a central aspect of the Scheme. Volunteer graduates worked on the same pay scales and conditions as similarly qualified Indonesians – a departure from the usual custom among expatriates working in Indonesia at that time.

In January 1953, while travelling home from India, Betty visited Herb in Jakarta, where he was then employed in the Ministry of Information. They became engaged, and were married on 29 December 1953 at the South Camberwell Methodist Church, Melbourne.

From July 1954 to August 1956, Betty and Herb lived and worked in Jakarta, under the auspices of the Volunteer Graduate Scheme. Betty was employed in the English Language Inspectorate in the Ministry of Education, Instruction and Culture. 

Betty and Herb remained closely involved with Indonesia and with promoting understanding among Australians of their nearest northern neighbour. The family lived in Jakarta for a year in 1967, during which time Betty worked for the Indonesian Council of Churches.

Betty and Herb Feith and family on the left

From 1968, Betty taught English and Asian studies at various secondary schools in Melbourne. From the 1970s she taught Indonesian history and Asian studies at tertiary level, the first of their kind in Victoria. From the late 1970s Betty co-led several study tours to Indonesia in her capacity as a lecturer at the Burwood and Toorak Teachers’ Colleges.

In 1984, Betty completed a Master of Educational Studies at Monash University. For her Masters thesis, Betty wrote a history of the Volunteer Graduate Scheme, in which she documented the ethos of the Scheme as an ‘episode in education for international understanding’, underpinned by a belief in racial equality and a spirit of identification with the Indonesian Republic. This history was published in 2017 in a book entitled Bridges of Friendship.

In addition to her community involvement with refugees, Betty’s church service has focused on issues to do with peace and human rights. In 1994, she and Herb co-led an international relations workshop with the Karen Burmese leaders in Manerplaw on the Thai-Burma border. Manerplaw was at that time the headquarters of the Democratic Alliance of Burma (now Myanmar), which formed in the wake of the military regime coming into power in 1988.

For four years from 1996, Betty and Herb lived and worked in Yogyakarta, this time through the Overseas Service Bureau’s Australian Volunteers Abroad programme – the successor of the Volunteer Graduate Scheme. Betty, who gained a qualification at Deakin University in teaching English as a second language, taught English at the University of Atma Jaya.

Betty had a lifetime involvement in church and other service, including for the Christian World Service (renamed Act for Peace), the Division of Social Justice (Victoria) in the Uniting Church of Australia, and other ecumenical organisations including the Victorian Council of Churches. 

Betty described women in the Uniting Church as ‘householders (as it were) in the tents and caravans of faith and in life, as in mutuality we pilgrim together in life’s journey’ (Women in Ministry, 46). This expression of common purpose, and of ideals married to actions, reflect convictions central to Betty’s life and work as a whole.

Feith, Betty, Women in Ministry: The Order of Deaconesses and the Campaign for the Ordination of Women within the Methodist Church, 1942-1977, Kyarra Press, Melbourne, 1990.

Feith, Betty, ‘An Episode in Education for International Understanding: The Volunteer Graduate Scheme in Indonesia 1950-63 – ‘Putting in a Stitch or Two”, in McCarthy, Ann & Zainuddin, Ailsa Thomson (ed.), Bridges of Friendship: Reflections on Indonesia’s Early Independence and the Volunteer Graduate Scheme, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne, 2017.