How God helped Aunty Donna surrender her resentment

An Aboriginal elder’s confronting journey to the tip of Australia

“God did a spiritual work for me in Cooktown,” said Aunty Donna Meehan, explaining how God had set her free from her resentment about Captain Cook’s impact on Aboriginal lives.

So began a fascinating conversation about how a white bloke had asked Aunty Donna to help set up satellite dishes for remote Indigenous families to stream ‘God TV’. Yep. It was a God thing, which could only happen in his timing, and with his purpose in mind.

Australia Day’s highly controversial origin celebrates Captain James Cook’s first landing in Botany Bay. Donna’s story is one of many I have heard about the Aboriginal response to this annual event. While I listen and learn, I have also heard tremendous accounts of Christian revivals among First Nations people in many parts of Australia.

BSA wanted to highlight how the Scriptures had helped Indigenous people navigate the trauma of dispossession.

My conversation with Donna took place as we sat by the beautiful grounds of the Lake Macquarie MAC Gallery. Her story is one of a series of recorded meetings I am collecting as I discover the profoundly moving experiences of Indigenous Christians around Australia. Just as Aunty Donna continues to learn, my own ‘songlines’ are still developing. [See footnote 1 below.]

My friendship with Aunty Donna began after I joined Bible Society Australia (BSA) in 2017. It was a big year, the Bicentenary of our organisation, which was the first to be authorised by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1817. To commemorate the year, BSA wanted to highlight how the Scriptures had helped Indigenous people navigate the trauma of dispossession.

The digital team recorded a tragically moving testimony of an Indigenous woman who was removed from her family at an early age and transported to Newcastle to be adopted by a European couple. The couple were Christians, and the girl was Donna. Originally from Gamilaroi country of the Coonamble region in NSW, she became a committed Christian whose focus is now being a peacemaker.

In the video, she shared the story of her growing faith sustained by the Bible. That story can be found here.

Since 2017, I have shared the stage with Aunty Donna as she told audiences about the impact of colonisation and how the Bible translated into Indigenous languages has brought healing and transformation. She helped me to see that ‘urban’ churches, especially those with no Indigenous people in attendance, have no idea about the history of the Indigenous people in our country. In her retirement, Donna finds more time to help and heal in unexpected places – such as Cooktown and remote Bamaga in Far North Queensland.

Donna’s story is part of another story, that of Brian Sonneman’s vision. After starting retirement, Brian went on a mission trip and came back asking himself what he could achieve with God in his retirement that would truly make a difference.

Drawing on his abilities and experience in telecommunications, he had a vision to put satellite receivers on houses in remote communities, connect the cables to their television and provide families with 24-hour free ‘God TV’.

“That was his baby – he birthed it,” says Donna.

He had heard about the high suicide rate among Aboriginal youth and wanted to do something about it. So he put together a crew with some mates, and people donated to support the effort financially.

Where the kids were watching ‘God TV’, there had been a dramatic drop in youth issues and a huge rise in spiritual growth and godly behaviour.

Originally called Chariots of Fire, later renamed Restoring Hope Australia, the crew went to regions such as One Arm Point in NSW and Western Australia and, according to Donna, “God blessed the word going out”. When they returned to some of these regions two years later to assess the impact, the results were dramatic. In many cases where the kids were watching ‘God TV,’ there had been a dramatic drop in youth issues and a huge rise in spiritual growth and godly behaviour. Donna says the Mulan community in Western Australia reports no youth suicides from 2019 to the present day!

The team that journeyed north

However, Brian had faced some issues in other parts of the country. Brian and his friend Rod Baker from the Salvation Army asked Aunty Donna to join the team as an advocate for their mission with women. They found that in very remote regions, people didn’t trust these ‘whitefellas’ turning up and knocking on their doors to discuss the installation of satellite receivers. Donna agreed to come along and talk to people as the team travelled to the top end of Queensland.

As well as Brian and Donna, the North Queensland team consisted of Rod Baker, David Jack, Greg Gannon, and Lorraine Kelly.

On arriving in Cooktown, Aunty Donna was confronted by a community celebrating Captain Cook’s visit to their town with a public holiday.

“On the first night we arrived, we went out to a restaurant, and the first thing we saw was this big picture of James Cook’s Endeavour. I just couldn’t believe it. This was doing my head in!” she recalls.

“The first thing we saw was this big picture of James Cook’s Endeavour. I just couldn’t believe it.” – Donna Meehan

As she walked through the town, she saw pictures of Cook in every window and on every street. When Donna returned to her car, she realised she needed to pray. So she went to her tent and sat down. “I said, ‘Lord, I know what you want me to do.’ I had to surrender my resentment.” She then tried to sleep but kept waking up. Every time she woke, she had to keep surrendering her resentment until, by the morning, it had all gone.

“It’s because Cook has affected Aboriginal lives. You know, we think about him every day.”

Despite this experience, Donna and Lorraine persevered in facilitating negotiations with over a dozen indigenous households in Cooktown. The installation team went further north to Coen and then to Bamaga, where Donna had a beautiful experience at a church.

“The [Bamaga] community was so beautiful and so welcoming. The region had been having interdenominational prayer meetings and combined church services for six weeks before this. The first Sunday night at Bamaga was so vibrant, with happy people and each minister taking turns to preach the word. Some Christians came from Thursday and Horn Island. Over 200 people turned up in buses from many communities.” Donna notes that the locals were saying, “we don’t need international evangelists to come here … we’re the evangelists now.’”

The team that journeyed north.

There had been a large revival two years before this, where more than 50 people came forward to commit to Jesus or to rededicate their lives to him.

“What was so touching for us was that we saw teenagers always walking and talking, and no one had mobile phones.”

Donna says it was shared loud and clear that “if you’ve come back to the Lord, come back to your first love … to rededicate their lives …. and there were children. It was just amazing!

“We had to do it every night in Bamaga while we were setting up the satellite dishes. And there were Bible study meetings and prayer meetings throughout the day.”

One night, about 50 schoolchildren turned up in their school uniforms. “What was so touching for us was that we saw teenagers always walking and talking, and no one had mobile phones. They were kind-hearted to each other and helped their younger siblings. A real hunger for the Lord.”

“I was annoyed again, and I said: ‘Lord, I take back land that Cook has stolen from us.”

Donna and Lorraine, along with Rob Baker and David Jack, then drove up to the tip of Australia. (David’s story is one of many on the website “40 Stories“.) On arriving, David climbed the peak, and Donna followed him, “I’m an old duck, and I’ve never climbed something like this!”

Brian installs a satellite dish.

Donna and a pastor friend also took a boat ride to Possession Island, where they found a monument facing the headland that records Cook saying, “I name this Possession Island.” Donna comments, “I was annoyed again, and I said: ‘Lord, I take back land that Cook has stolen from us. Break the lie spoken over our nation and release truth-telling.’

“I stretched out my arms and prayed: ‘Lord, I stand in the gap for my people. Lord, I confess and repent of the sins of my ancestors and all fathers for every generation since Cook.’ I prayed 2 Chronicles 7 and sang the chorus from verse 14, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”‘

“I felt I had the legal right after standing on the top and in the gap. We returned to the Jetty at Bamaga and Pastor Tamwoy baptised us there. We were nervous about crocodiles and I had to release my fear and say, ‘Well, Lord, if you want a crocodile to take me now, that will only add to my testimony!’ We cannot express the joy of Bamaga – baptism by a First Nation pastor, going on a dinghy and crossing two oceans. The best, the best – just too deadly!

“You know, before, I would never really talk about politics. I always focus on my testimony of Christ. But I gotta be part of truth-telling, and you know the experience that we had at Cooktown and reliving the impact of the settlement … Yes, we need to live together and have reconciliation, but we need to understand the hurt of the past,” says Donna.

“We cannot express the joy of Bamaga – baptism by a First Nation pastor, going on a dinghy and crossing two oceans. The best!”

Reflecting on her trip up north, Donna realised the Indigenous experience was a complex one.  Cook had fired the first three gunshots, and one hit an Aboriginal man in the leg in southern NSW. But as Cook travelled north up the coast, naming towns and sites, he learned something from his disastrous interactions. By 1770, when he reached Cooktown, where his boat was damaged by a coral reef and needed to be dragged ashore for repairs, he experienced people eager to help his stranded party. After this, Cook changed his approach to the ‘natives’ and the Cooktown locals’ memory of Cook is so positive that they celebrate a holiday in his memory!

Donna explains how the experiences of First Nations people across Australia are different. She believes we all need to learn the complex history of this country. Donna shares the heartbreaking story of how her own birth mother tried to find her but was told that Donna was sent to New Zealand, which was a lie. When many Aboriginal families tried to find their children, they were told that all the records were burned in a fire – “another lie”.

I often wonder, if our places were swapped, would I have the same patience they show us?

Many of us don’t know any Aboriginal people and we can be quick to judge. I asked Donna about the best ways to learn their history. She says, “Listen and learn from our history from places like NITV… and learn from many documentaries there and on SBS. Hear Aboriginal voices on Radio Rhema. Have Aboriginal speakers visit your churches,” she adds. Find out about many beautiful Indigenous Christian stories on”

Donna explains that for many years their voices weren’t heard on any media platforms.

As a whitefella, I watch, listen and learn from Aunty Donna and many others across Australia. What amazes me is the incredible humility and patience that rests on many of them. I often wonder, if our places were swapped, would I have the same patience they show us, the descendants of immigrants that have encroached upon their country? As a whitefella, I have taken things for granted. Our inherited Christianity, our wealth, our education. The recent Census shows a recovery of Indigenous people in population, alongside increasing use of traditional language in the home, giving the rest of us even more reason to learn and embrace the Indigenous culture and have discussions around historical blindness and ignorance … “and not just on Australia Day or NAIDOC Week,” says Donna.

Rather than dwelling on the trauma she has experienced, Donna says she is focused on supporting and encouraging Aboriginal women by forming a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Support Group, among other activities, “to bring healing to my people”.

Donna’s autobiography was published in 2000 and has since been republished ten times in multiple languages. If you would like to support Donna in her ministry, you can contact her through her website:

Jonathan Harris works for Bible Society Australia in the Supporter Relations department, as well as studying a Master of Theology, with a focus on Indigenous history and the Bible Society’s Indigenous translation work.

[1]  As a whitefella, I have recently been adopted back into the skin clan of the Gunbalanya families of Western Arnhem Land, where my grandparents, mother and father had worked as missionaries for many years. See my story here in this Bible Society mini-doco.

Over the past four years, I have visited many First Nations locations around Australia and have grown close to many Indigenous friends. Listening to their stories, I found that my understanding of Australian history needed to be expanded. This is also the case with many urban churches and supporters I work with. To communicate the stories of the original occupants of our beautiful land, I was encouraged to read widely. I have been exposed to amazing testimonies and experiences of our First Nations Christian brothers and sisters. Rev. Dr John Harris (no relation) encouraged me to enter a Master’s program of study with Charles Sturt University and St Mark’s Theological Centre in Canberra, in the hope of gaining research skills in communicating the Christian Indigenous stories to our supporters.