IWD: The imperfect missionary excited by a new life

As an amputee, Zoe Creelman has an ever-present reason to insist that the gospel just “has to be true.”

When the young and active Victorian Christian lost her left lower leg in a boating accident eight years ago, she discovered that life doesn’t always go the way you want it to go.

“It was very frustrating as a 23-year-old who had been very independent and active to suddenly be so limited in what I could do for and by myself,” she tells Eternity, explaining that she had to learn to walk with a prosthesis.

“But through it, God has given me a constant reminder of my weakness, which I think sometimes we forget because in our society we can so easily provide for ourselves and go about life, functionally, as atheists, even though we call ourselves Christians.

“And suddenly I realised that the gospel really has to be good news in hard situations and that I was really looking forward to a resurrected body. And, actually, it was okay if I didn’t live my best life now because, as Christians, our hope is in the Lord, we have a great future to look forward to. And so it means that we can go through difficult things now, and we can persevere and maintain hope, I suppose, in difficult circumstances.”

Zoe is speaking to Eternity in Darwin a few days before she drove into the outback, covering the 635km to the remote Aboriginal community of Ngukurr in East Arnhem Land, where she will serve as a church support worker with the Church Missionary Society (CMS).

As we talk around the kitchen table, Zoe seems very vulnerable despite her assuring me that she has run a half marathon – twice – since her rehabilitation and that the prosthesis is no longer an issue in daily life.

“I just really pray that it’s empowering for other believers, that it’s a bit of an equaliser.”

However, as a young white woman, Zoe hopes that her vulnerability will provide a bridge across cultures and help her to serve Indigenous believers.

“It’s really helpful sometimes for whitefellas to have a visible weakness,” she reflects.

“So being single and being an amputee, there’s a bit of pity there and it’s a bit like, ‘Oh, we need to look after her’ – which I’m fine with.

“I just really pray that it’s empowering for other believers, that it’s a bit of an equaliser. It’s like my life hasn’t been all shiny, hunky-dory either. We’ve had different paths, different challenges, but we both have testimonies of God’s grace in the midst of struggles as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Zoe says her interest in missions began as a young child when her family spent a couple of years in Nepal with Interserve mission agency.

“That was just a really formative time for the family and seeing God answer the prayers of his people in pretty remarkable ways. We were in a church with a lot of very poor people. So a real poverty context, quite desperate poverty at times, and God would just pull through and provide in some miraculous ways. So as a seven-year-old, I realised he’s a powerful God, but he’s also an interested God.”

Early on she thought of working in agriculture but realised while studying theology that she preferred the pastoral side of ministry. But why did she land on working with Indigenous people in a remote part of the Northern Territory?

“It reframed the sort of mission context we were looking at when the Territory was suggested and it fit really well with my heart for walking with people for the long term through difficult things. Pragmatically as well, as an amputee, I’ll still be near prosthetists and come under NDIS, so that’s really handy,” she explains.

“Then God kind of confirmed it through a number of conversations.”

One such confirmation was when CMS put forward Ngukurr as the community. In God’s providence, Zoe had spent time in Ngukurr back in 2001.

“When I was 11, we did a Mobile Mission Maintenance trip up to paint the kitchen in the rectory at Ngukurr, and now I’m going to be living in that same rectory!” she exclaims.

“So for my family that has been helpful because they can visualise the context I’m stepping into.”

Ngukurr has a rich history as CMS’s first mission in the Northern Territory back in 1908, when it was known as the Roper River Mission. The community, about 300km east of Katherine, was founded by a team of three CMS Victoria missionaries and three Aboriginal missionaries from Yarraba, Queensland.

“The church has had a history of Indigenous involvement in the leadership quite early on, which is really precious,” says Zoe.

“The Kriol [Bible] translation work came largely through Ngukurr and there’s some very solid godly people out there.”

Zoe feels very privileged to be supported in prayer and financially by Christians “down south” who are sending her to Ngukurr with the initial purpose of forming relationships and learning language.

“That’s one of the lovely things that going with CMS and the [NT Anglican] diocese is that they both recognise anything I do needs to be driven by the church in Ngukurr. It’s really difficult when on deputation where people ask, ‘So what are you going to do?’ And you’re like, ‘I’m actually quite intentional in going with no set programs or agendas in mind so that people on the ground are empowered to make those decisions and I can support them as they lead the church’.”

Her first priority at least for the next few years will be learning Kriol, a lingua franca of Indigenous people across the Territory, especially in Ngukurr.

“Then I’ll keep learning the rest of my life or the rest of the time I’m out there, but hopefully after a few years, I’ll have a good enough handle on it to be able to be helpful.

“I’m thankful there’s a language centre out there and there’s quite a few linguists in Ngukurr, which is really nice.”

“I think there’s a beauty and a grief in getting to see the world through other people’s eyes.”

With a long-term commitment to cross-cultural mission in a remote community, Zoe has clearly made her peace with the sacrifice of walking a different path from many of her peers.

“I think there’s a beauty and a grief in getting to see the world through other people’s eyes or having a different lived experience to maybe what my life would have looked like back in Geelong,” she reflects.

“I think it’s such a privilege to be able to go into a context like this, but it also means that my frame of reference becomes quite different to my peers; and where we’ve had so many shared experiences which have been uniting, I’m kind of stepping off the track and my life will look different. My priorities and my values and experiences will be different to the people that previously had been very much the same as mine, and so I’m very thankful to God for some very supportive friends and family who will continue to walk with me and who understand that our experiences of life will be different.

“I’m also really thankful for CMS and the [NT Anglican] diocese that there are other people who have similar kind of life experiences. There are people who have years of experience in this area and have been so kind in sharing their wisdom and insight in my orientation.”