How Rachel and Cameron were adopted in love
The little picture book that could
God placed a dream in the heart of Rachel Herweynen when she was just nine years old – the free-spirited baby of a family of 11 in the Philippines. God told her that she would run a school one day that would welcome anyone, no matter whether they could afford it or not.
Having moved to Melbourne in 2011, Rachel had just four years’ primary school teaching experience when, at just 28, she applied to run Gäwa Christian School on Elcho Island in the remote east of the Northern Territory.
Rachel had not even been offered the job when she and her husband Cameron were “adopted” by a local Yolngu family.
“When we visited Gäwa in 2016, Hannah just pulled me aside and said she was adopting me as her sister … and then Alvin pulled Cameron aside and called him ‘brother.’”
it was just this realisation of all these parallels to our adoption in Christ to their gracious adoption of us into their families.” – Rachel Herweynen
During their first year at Gäwa, with Rachel as Teaching Principal and Cameron as site manager, Hannah and Alvin went out of their way to make the “balanda” (white) couple feel welcome, sharing their joys and struggles with each other.
“That openness and sense of family were really genuine and they even helped us through school struggles, so it was really wonderful,” says Rachel.
About halfway through her first year at Gäwa, while reading some Bible verses on our adoption into God’s family with Jesus, Rachel realised that this is exactly what Yolngu people do when they adopt outsiders.
“You know, through Jesus, we can call God our father, like Cameron can call Alvin’s dad his father, so it was just this realisation of all these parallels to our adoption in Christ to their gracious adoption of us into their families,” says Rachel.
That very night Rachel started writing about the links between God’s kinship system and that of the Yolngu, not knowing then that it would end up as a children’s picture book, beautifully illustrated and told in both English and the Yolngu language of Warramiri, called Adopted in Love.
The story of love, acceptance and sharing of life and culture, published last year by Acorn Press, has just been shortlisted for the SparkLit Australian Christian Book of the Year.
“A beautiful story of community love and God’s love told, illustrated and designed beautifully!” – Susannah McFarlane
“We are so thrilled this beautiful picture book has been recognised in the awards alongside all the excellent ‘grown-up’ books!” commented Bible Society’s Head of Publishing, Susannah McFarlane.
“A beautiful story of community love and God’s love told, illustrated and designed beautifully! Can I use that word beautiful too much? I think not!”
Part of the joy in producing the book was the way in which it energised the faith of Cameron’s “dad”, local Warramiri Elder Daymangu Bukulatjpi, known as “Old Man”. Rachel had asked him to translate the story into Warramiri together with his wife, but she passed away soon after Rachel had the story idea.
“And then it was a hard year losing two women elders. So another couple of pages were added to the book on grief, which is such an essential part of the family together,” she explains.
Rachel says the mortality rate among the Yolngu people is so high that it is normal for them to attend 20 funerals a year.
“Maybe that was part of God’s reason for letting that story sleep for a while because we just had to walk through more together as family,” she says.
“They didn’t realise how deep Old Man’s faith was. And I felt like this book allowed him to articulate his faith.”
But “Old Man” pushed the team of translators, funded by Bible Society Australia, to come to his house and sit under the tree each Sunday night after fellowship to finish the translation.
“I think that’s been a huge blessing and part of his pride in it is the fact it’s the first book in his own language,” Rachel notes.
“Warramiri has three dialects within it, but his is like the mother of other versions of Warramiri, so he’s so proud that this is a book in his own language.”
She adds that past staff members hadn’t realised how deep Old Man’s faith was until “this book allowed him to articulate his faith.”
The few translated Bible verses in Warramiri at the end of Adopted in Love – John 1:12 and Galatians 4:6 – are the first Scripture published in this language (though not the last – the local Bible translation team has now completed the first draft of Mark’s Gospel in Warramiri.)
“They didn’t realise how deep Old Man’s faith was. And I felt like this book allowed him to articulate his faith.” – Rachel Herweynen
The community reaction was rapturous when Bible Society’s Remote and Indigenous Ministry Support team helped publish a bilingual softcover version of the book earlier this year.
“A particular highlight was when [Daymanu’s] grandson, who only started reading this year at age 11, read the book in Warramiri. It had got longer words than English but he chose to read in Warramiri and did an awesome job,” Rachel said.
Inspired by the warm reception, Rachel approached Bible Society to see if it would publish this resource as a hardcover for schools around the country as a way of educating non-Indigenous children about Indigenous language and culture.
The resulting book – which is available through Koorong – features gorgeous illustrations by Salome Moes and her daughter Katinka, which were painted by the students at Gäwa.
“Sal and Katinka did the faces and then our kids helped paint and then Sal did the final zhush,” Rachel explains.
After five years at Gäwa, Rachel and Cameron feel their faith has been strengthened through sharing life with their adopted Yolngu family.
“I definitely feel a lot closer to God just because, in our lives in Melbourne, you’ve got friends, you’ve got family. Everyone’s probably got lots of problems, but in Gäwa it’s such a small community that you can’t hide from each other.
“That’s brought us a lot of pain, brokenness, and raw violence. It breaks our hearts, but we are so grateful for the opportunity that you can actually be in it together, be in it with your family in all the grief and all the unhealthy. So through the hard stuff, I think I’ve never felt more alive – even though it breaks you, but it brings you closer to God.”
Proceeds from the sale of the book will go back into the community to encourage further translation work in the future.
Adopted in Love is available at Koorong, in store or online.