How a group of gap students learned to trust God

There were lots of tears when plans went awry for a group of students who were scheduled to visit several Indigenous communities in the Top End as part of The Bridge Gap Year program at Sydney Missionary and Bible College.

And yet, God was working through these challenges, even among tragedy.

Everything went smoothly for the 13 students on the Northern team, but the 12 students on the Southern team were unable to visit the planned communities on their trip.

The students are completing a 2-unit subject towards their Diploma of Theology called Cross-Cultural Mission Immersion in which they learn from missionaries who are engaged in cross-cultural mission. Before COVID, the Bridge students would visit Southeast Asia and Cambodia for their Mission Study Tour, but this year, they stayed in Australia – and ended up learning a lot from Indigenous people.

“We didn’t know whether we’d even be getting into community at all.” – Luke Sadler

“We had our schedule of what was meant to happen, but quite early on in our trip for the Southern team, we had a lot of unforeseen problems that arose almost all at once,” explains Luke Sadler as we sit at Darwin Airport to discuss their adventures before the group flies home to Sydney.

“One of the people who was supposed to be our guide was sick with COVID, and so that changed some things. Then there was a tragedy which fell upon a family who were meant to be leading us into the community. And all of a sudden, we didn’t know whether we’d even be getting into community at all.”

The Milingimbi crew were blessed to take part in ‘fellowship’ at Milingimbi, held behind a family’s home during a funeral, a ceremony that can last up to two weeks. Also in the shot are tents that house family members who gather together for the funeral.

For two days, the students were stuck in Katherine, grieving for the family and wondering what, if anything, was going to happen, with pastoral care worker Taani Kriuk called upon to dry the tears of students who were distressed that God seemed to be blocking their efforts to learn about Indigenous Christian communities.

“But what eventually happened was, we were able to somehow find some connections to get us into the towns of Beswick and Manyallaluk. And even though we were meant to have this big schedule of going through three or four other towns, never staying anywhere longer than four days, we ultimately stayed in those two locations for a much longer period of time,” says Luke.

“It struck me that if we hadn’t been able to spend that longer period in those communities, I don’t think we would have felt the profound effect and learning that we had in the small instances we were able to serve the kids there, and the older Christian leaders, in ways which ultimately became more missional, like helping translate a song.

“And I was struck by the fact that, even through what seemed like the impossible, through things which were full of suffering and hopelessness, God is still good and was working to get us where we needed to be, in a way that would help us, that would encourage those in the Indigenous communities – and ultimately it was all to God’s glory.”

Translating the song God of Wonders into Kriol.

The experience of helping translate the English song God of Wonders into Kriol with people in Manyallaluk was a highlight for the whole Southern team.

“It was just really special to see their excitement at having a song in their own heart language. Then singing that with them and then teaching it to some more of the community and teaching it to the kids,” says Faith Spriggs.

“It just showed me how important having Scripture and songs and things in your own language is with understanding. The Kriol Bible is the only whole [Indigenous] Bible that’s been translated, but there’s just so many other languages, and they’ve only got portions of the Bible in their own language. So just seeing this little experience, and hearing them pray in Kriol and getting to kind of understand little words, it just really showed me how important heart language is to understanding the gospel.”

“There was the bigger plan that only God knew …” – Faith Spriggs

Faith also enjoyed getting to spend extended time with a few Indigenous people who travelled with them into a couple of the communities.

“We got to spend lots of time with them, talking with them about their role in the community and how they became Christians, like their faith journey.”

Like Luke, she was also heartened by how God was able to work out his purposes in even the toughest of situations.

“When things got cancelled because of the tragedies in the communities and just a whole bunch of other things that happened, God still made a way for us to achieve things that we needed to, to meet the people that he wanted us to meet, and to spend time with who we could encourage and who were going to encourage us,” she reflects.

“There was the bigger plan that only God knew, but we just had to trust God so much more. We got to see so many beautiful things in learning just to trust and not trying to figure everything out in our own strength. God can work in us.”

The two teams back together at Litchfield National Park

For Beth Chavez and Katie Greenwood of the Northern team, a big highlight was being given skin names on the Yolngu kinship system at Maningrida.

“That just really opened up a whole new level of connection, which was amazing,” says Katie.

“Their kinship system tells them how they should relate to everything. And so if you are not part of that kinship system, it’s like they don’t know how to relate to you. But then because we were given these names and included into their kinship system, they’d come up and be like, ‘Oh, you’re my grandmother,’ ‘you’re my aunt,’ ‘you’re my cousin’ or whatever … It creates that connection that we didn’t have before. Before, you’re just ‘balanda’ – which is not-Indigenous – but now we’re included in that system that is their world.”

Beth adds: “It was a really special connection, being able to see like, ‘Whoa, this is kind of related to what it’ll be like in heaven when we’re all one big family.’ And I feel like it just helped relationally with everyone. You get to talk to them and they’re very accepting.”

Katie said she noticed that the Aboriginal Christians she met emphasised unity in Christ, so that even when they sat next to someone they shouldn’t (because of avoidance relationships in the kinship system), “they don’t care because we’re still one family in Christ.”

“It was just really encouraging to see that the way they praise God seemed so wholehearted.” – Beth Chavez

For Beth, the biggest takeaway from her experience was understanding that there are many ways of praising God.

“We don’t have to be shy about how we praise God, like the way that they were singing and dancing,” she says.

“Some of it could be just a cultural thing, but it was just really encouraging to see that the way they praise God seemed so wholehearted and everything was related to God. Some people were talking about healing. If we go to the doctor, it’s like you get maybe a needle and you feel better.

“But for them it was actually God’s grace that you were healed or felt better – that was just bringing everything back to God. And praise being something that you do with your whole heart, not just a ritual.”

Fellowship and fun with kids in Beswick.

While the students loved the evening fellowship sessions, they did find it challenging going to bed so late.

“Their sleep schedule is so different. We would do fellowship from eight at night to one in the morning. And then we would be like waking up at 6.30am because it’s too hot. But they would wake up at 11am and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, the day’s half gone,’” says Beth.

“So the lack of sleep made it hard, but it was honestly a really beautiful trip, and although there were difficult things, the Lord gave us strength in every one of the struggles and we were able to see more of God in it.”

For Katie, the significance of the trip was seeing God at work in such remote places.

“You hear this a lot when people do trips, but it has really created in me real gratefulness to God and real joy in him.

“Something that stuck out to me was, when we were at Gove, I jumped on a plane with MAF [Mission Aviation Fellowship] and got to visit some of the homelands, where they have three or four houses. When I got there and I mentioned that I go to a Bible school, they were just so excited that I was a Christian. And so, it’s like God has reached out to all of these places and he’s working in so many ways. It’s just created real joy to see that.”

If anyone would like to learn more about The Bridge cross-cultural gap year program and meet the team, there is an online info evening on Monday 10 October. Click here for details.