Love, death, grief and other life lessons this summer

It’s 11.14am on a Monday morning as we turn onto a small, paved road on the south side of Yamba, on the NSW North Coast.

Immediately the landscape changes. What were green-grassed nature strips and white weatherboard houses with frangipani trees in full bloom become sandy-dirt scrub, dunes and a littering of houses, some burnt down, others in a state of disrepair.

A sign passes on our left, painted with blues, blacks and red. This is Ngaru Villiage or ‘The Mish’ (short for mission) as it’s known locally. It’s one of two locations between Maclean and Yamba where communities of the Yaegl people live.

We park the car outside the first worn-down house. Myself and my two friends get out and exchange a nervous glance. We are all wearing identical t-shirts with the acronym HBC printed in block letters across them. It stands for Holiday Bible Club, a name that can only have been dreamt up by well-meaning Christians from the 1970s. Clutched in our hands are flyers we’ve cut ourselves the night before.

I said to my friend Jazz in astonishment, “They really trust us.”

Every year in the week after New Year’s, a group of Christians travel from Sydney to Yamba to run a week-long holiday program for Aboriginal kids of the Yamba and Maclean communities. Think the usual stuff – a talk, games, craft, food, maybe a puppet here and there. While this would have seemed like hell-on-earth for 10-year-old me, the kids and their parents love HBC. Their reaction to our visit highlighted this.

As we walked up to the entry of the first house, we were greeted by a young woman warmly. “Oh, you are running this again! Yeah great!” As simple as that, she took our flyer and said she’d be sending some kids along.

The next house was no different. A young woman and her mum were sitting on their porch with three dogs snoozing at their feet. The younger one recognised my friend. “Jazz!” As she looked at the flyer we handed over she beamed, “Oh bless you guys. I loved going to this when I was a kid.” As we wandered down the hill to the next house I said to my friend Jazz in astonishment, “They really trust us.” She looked at me, a bit confused, and kept walking.

The next house took our flyer while Jazz chatted happily with the Aunty through the flyscreen. Jazz is a local here and grew up in Maclean. She’s one of those rare people who genuinely doesn’t buy into stereotypes. She’s just present. She shows up.

Kids at Holiday Bible Club

‘The kids and their parents love Holiday Bible Club!’

As we drove out of the Mish, waving goodbye to our new acquaintances, I sat in the back seat stunned. Call me overly self-conscious, but three white girls holding pamphlets didn’t seem like a winning combination with a people group who have every reason not to trust us. And yet they did. Over the rest of the week, I’d come to see that this trust had come from years of relational capital built by HBC volunteers. Years of care, of dedication, of asking for nothing in return. Essentially, years of love. I hoped we’d live up to it.

Over the week, we ran two identical programs for the two sites: Yamba and Maclean. Our team was small. After two years of COVID, the momentum for those who used to serve on HBC had waned. Jazz, who had done the program since she was a teenager, had asked around our friendship group to see if anyone would be willing to make the 7-hour drive up from Sydney to do one of only two cross-cultural beach missions run by SU volunteers in NSW. Naturally, it was a hard sell. But, as is often the case in God’s kingdom, eight adults and four kids volunteered, all of whom offered unique gifts to the program.

Kids enjoy an activity at Yamba's Holiday Bible Club

Kids enjoy an activity at Yamba’s Holiday Bible Club.

On the day we arrived, after setting up our tents on the lawn of the local Presbyterian church, we got a cultural briefing. Most of the team were studying at Sydney Missionary and Bible College in Sydney, so cross-cultural work was of interest to us.

As Jazz took us through some particulars, the thing that struck me was the familial culture of the Yaegl people. You don’t have to be related by blood to someone to call them Aunty or Uncle. Throughout the week, Aunties would always be coming by, picking up and dropping off kids. Trying to keep a record of who belonged to who was impossible and at points, met with a raised eyebrow.

“Sorry, is this your daughter?” I asked one woman who had come to the program halfway through with a little girl. She was halfway out the door, “Nah, Donna’s taking her.” I looked at the girl. “Who should we write down as your guardian’s contact number?” She looked back at me like I was nuts and ran into the hall where the puppet show was well underway. I saw her later, being ushered out the door by one of the Aunties who had seated herself at the back of the hall. She was accompanied by other kids who had not all come together. I looked down at the notepad which held our failed attempt to try and sign kids in and out – white people!

What we didn’t know was that 2022 had brought no less than ten deaths to this community.

Months before we arrived, we’d decided to teach about the story of Lazarus rising from the dead. Miriam came up with the slogan, “Jesus has the power to give life,” complete with actions, of course.

What we didn’t know was that 2022 had brought no less than ten deaths to this community. As I was writing this article, I called the local Aboriginal Land Council to ask some questions about the history of Ngaru Village and Hillcrest in Maclean. A defensive voice answered the phone. After a few back-and-forths, the woman on the phone softened. “Sorry, we can’t help you today. We’re just all about to head to a wake. There’s been a bunch of deaths in our community.”

One Aunty we spoke to had lost her husband, amongst many other friends and relatives. “He died on Australia Day. He knows how to pick ’em, that day of all days.” We asked about her health. “Yeah, there’s been two deaths recently. But everything comes in threes, you know?” I was glad I had my sunglasses on at that moment.

Our slogan, “Jesus has the power to give life,” took on a new shape after this news. As the kids arrived at the program each morning, I wondered how they were processing the deaths of so many elders and role models, Aunties and Uncles. As we told them that God’s word said that life beyond death is real and on offer, the need for this message was fresh in the air.

We continued a relationship with this community that many others before us have cultivated with care and love.

Looking back now at the week, I’m still not quite sure what it achieved. There were no miraculous penny-drop moments for kids. No one “came to know Christ” (that we knew of, anyway). But we did show up. We played, we visited, we fed, we listened. We continued a relationship with this community that many others before us have cultivated with care and love.

At first, this was observable through the unquestioning trust they had in us with their kids. Later on, you could see it in a 20-something mother, dancing along to the song Who’s the King of the Jungle?, still knowing all the actions by heart.