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.
“When I was in fourth grade, I had a friend who couldn’t come to my school. I went to a private school. We could barely afford it, but her family couldn’t and I just felt an injustice,” Rachel says.
“But God appeased that sense of injustice by placing a dream in my heart when I was in fourth grade saying ‘for this reason you will run a school one day’.”
While Rachel lost sight of her dream for a while, God reignited it while she was studying arts and communications at university in the Philippines. In February 2011, she moved to Melbourne to complete a Masters of Teaching at Deakin University and in July the same year she met the man who would be her husband, Cameron.
Rachel had just four years’ primary school teaching experience when, at the tender age of just 28, she applied to run Gäwa Christian School on Elcho Island in the remote east of the Northern Territory, among the Yolngu people whom she now considers her family. At first, Cameron was dubious, but then realised that this role would offer “the fulfilment of God’s dream” for Rachel’s life.
Rachel had not even been offered the job when she and 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 I didn’t quite know how to react. I knew it would come, but I didn’t know if I had the job yet – is this allowed? She said ‘sister,’ and then Alvin pulled Cameron aside and called him ‘brother.’”
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.
“It was beautiful and, especially that first year, they visited us almost every night, taught us a bit of language, and Hannah was always proud to introduce us to their family and tell their children, ‘this is your mum’,” says Rachel on a visit to Darwin during the spring school holidays.
“For us, with no kids yet and wanting to have kids, that’s just so special. That openness and sense of family were really genuine and they even helped us through school struggles, so it was really wonderful.”
It was about halfway through their first year at Gäwa that Rachel was struck while reading some Bible verses on our adoption into God’s family with Jesus, 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.
Being an archetypal Filipina dynamo, Rachel started writing a story that very night about the links between God’s kinship system and that of the Yolngu, not knowing then that it would end up as a beautiful children’s picture book called Adopted in Love.
“I showed it to our elders first and they were very happy with the story. And then our students had a go at translating this as part of our lessons and had to go at illustrating. But it was quite basic and not a proper translation,” says Rachel.
She had hoped that Cameron’s “dad”, local Warramiri Elder Daymangu Bukulatjpi, known as “Old Man”, would translate it together with his wife, but she passed away soon after she had that idea.
“So the story just slept, but last year, a staff member came back into community who was a really keen translator and I thought, ‘Maybe this is the right time to revisit the story.’
“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.”
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.”
“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, 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.)
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 now 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 almost 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 unhealth.
“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.
Follow Rachel’s vlog here.