Everyday Christian: hospitality and dancing in Arnhem Land

On holidays recently in Nhulunbuy, a remote mining town on the east coast of Arnhem Land, I was reminded yet again of how wonderfully lavish and warm Christian hospitality is.

Soon after our arrival, my husband and I began debating which church to go to the next day, a Sunday. There wasn’t an Anglican church in town (we’re Anglicans) but there were three other churches within a few minutes’ walk of our hotel.

In the end, we decided to walk to the Baptist church that meets in Nhulunbuy Christian College on the recommendation of a woman I had met that morning out at Yirrkala, a nearby Aboriginal community.

Well, this small band of worshippers encapsulated Christian hospitality. From the moment we arrived, we were treated as honoured guests, being greeted first by the pastor, David Brooks, then local teacher Catharine and her husband Noel, a pilot with MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship). Noel immediately invited us back for lunch at their place after the service, which was unexpected but extraordinarily welcome.

Noel first took his sons home, then came back to pick us up while Catharine shopped at Woolworths. Once we were all ensconced in their book-lined home, Noel rustled up a plateful of toasted sandwiches and jaffles and we enjoyed a great time of fellowship around the table.

The author chats with Noel Carpenter at the river in Yirrkala

How brilliant, I thought! A simple meal that doesn’t break the bank or cause undue stress! Why don’t I do this instead of putting off inviting church friends over for Sunday lunch because I feel daunted by the amount of food preparation involved? That was a lesson for me.

Magpie geese at the Town Lagoon in Nhulunbuy

After lunch, Noel casually inquired if I would like to go on a MAF flight the next morning. As a writer with Eternity, I jumped at the chance – despite my terror of flying in light planes. How could I pass up such an opportunity to see how this respected missionary organisation operates – and see the beautiful sea and land from the air?

With MAF pilot David Chandler

Noel immediately logged on to his laptop to see what he could tee up for us the next day. He thought we should be able to hitch a ride to Gäwa Christian School on Elcho Island, 120km west, but he would let us know.

Before driving us back to our hotel, Noel took us to the river at Yirrkala to see if we could spot the resident crocodile there. We didn’t see him, but we enjoyed gazing at the beautiful river and the landscape ablaze with purple flowers, which I later discovered are called turkey bush.

Principal of Gäwa Christian School Rachel Herweynen with pilot David Chandler and a young student.

Later that afternoon, the pastor’s wife Allana picked us up from our hotel and brought us to their place for a tour of the Town Lagoon. Pastor David Brooks runs guided tours of the freshwater lagoon and coastal rainforest each Wednesday. Hearing that we would be gone by then, he had offered to give us a private viewing.

What a privilege! David’s knowledge of native bush foods and bush medicine of the area was phenomenal. Among the many plants he showed us, the most alarming was the crab eye seed, an attractive red seed that contains enough poison to kill a person when eaten. Again, we felt so blessed by the generosity of Christian fellowship.

Early the next morning, a jovial MAF pilot called Marijn, from the Netherlands, picked us up from our hotel and took us to MAF’s Gove HQ. We had met a couple of the MAF staff at the Baptist church already, so we felt immediately comfortable. The ground staff made everything happen seamlessly and by 8.30, we were on board the eight-seater GippsAero GA8 Airvan with two other passengers and the young pilot, David Chandler.

Floating in the air

Well, I thought, if we die, at least we die together – doing what we love, in that painful cliché! But surprise, surprise! Thanks to the blessedly calm morning, with barely a cloud in the sky, I felt completely stable and comfortable once airborne. All my past trauma of bouncing around in light aircraft vanished as we floated in the air, marvelling at how perfectly God had made everything I could see. The trees looked like heads of broccoli among the snaking rivers, while the sea looked like aquamarine frosted glass.

After a perfect landing at Gäwa on Elcho Island, a truck took us up to Gäwa Christian School, where the young, vibrant principal Rachel Herweynen gave us the warmest welcome imaginable. And this despite the fact that she was expecting a delegation from NT Christian Schools later that morning!

Rachel and Sarah, a former student turned teacher, showed us their beautiful new music room and library before introducing us to the children and teachers in the classrooms, who also gave us a warm welcome. Education here is bilingual in English and Djambarrpuyngu and Warramiri. We witnessed the intermediate class learning plurals in English before the teacher got everyone up to dance, roping in not only my husband and me but also David, the MAF pilot – who loved the opportunity to interact with the students he often ferries around by air.

A sense of joy pervaded the whole campus, with dancing integral to the school curriculum. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for our “balanda” (whitefella) schools! We were overjoyed by our wonderful welcome at this happy school with beautiful kids and parent helpers!

You can read more about how Rachel and her husband Cameron were welcomed into the Gäwa community by reading her book, Adopted in Love, which was shortlisted for the Australian Christian Book of the Year.

You can watch a video of Gäwa children dancing here.