Missionary Diary: a day in the life of a remote church worker’s truck

Zoe Creelman is serving with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) under the Anglican Diocese in the Northern Territory. As she focuses on learning the Kriol language and building relationships, she prays that God will use her in her role as church support worker to encourage Indigenous church leaders in Ngukurr (in southern Arnhem Land) and surrounding areas.

This is not so much a diary of a missionary as it is of a missionary’s car. I confess that, at times, I get frustrated with the hours spent driving in circles around the community or dropping people at billabongs for fishing. A fellow remote CMS worker, Steph Mackenzie, reminded me the other day of the relational importance of those hours spent weaving the streets of Ngukurr or bumping over bush tracks.

Here 4WDs are called trucks, which I feel is a more appropriate name than ‘car’ for these faithful workhorses of modern bush life. This article is a nod to the remote worker’s truck – to honour the thousands of kilometres they cover each year and the conversations they host. Here is a sample of typical conversations that take place in my truck.

1.     Language lessons

We’re driving back to Ngukurr from a funeral in Numbulwar. The drive would normally take two and a half hours but the road is very rough after the wet season and it will take us three and a half hours instead. Pulling up at a creek crossing, we’re greeted by a row of baby freshwater crocs, sitting with their mouths open, facing upstream. Maybe it’s the lazy dinner option, the croc version of eggs on toast?

“Dat alligator im nyangarri dis crossing,” one lady says. Nyangarri, nyrangarri … I was sure that word meant chasing something away, but these guys are just sitting stock still. I ask her about it. “It’s more like you’re greedy for something and don’t want to share it. Like if somebody asks you for smokes and you don’t want to share them, then you nyangarri that somebody.”

2.     Family trees

On the same trip, I’m getting an in-depth family history of everyone in Ngukurr connecting them to Numbulwar and Minyerri, even as far as Borroolola and Maningrida. I’m thankful for people’s patience with my confusion and slow learning. Folk here have incredible mental family trees, storing huge amounts of information that can be accessed and cross-referenced at a moment’s notice.

Unfortunately, I’m tired by this point, after having sat through five hours of a funeral program and driving two hours already in the dark trying to converse in a second language. My brain turns to a puddle when one of the ladies tells me that the lady she stayed with in Numbulwar was my sister, but because her mami’s cousin married that lady’s brother and I call her mami ‘sister’, it makes that lady my aunty. Or something like that. It’s a complex connection that doesn’t follow usual family patterns because someone in her family is not following traditional marriage lines.

In my overtired state, I stifle a giggle. But I am complimented that she thinks me capable of understanding her entire family tree. Hospitality takes many different forms. A beautiful, albeit confusing, form of hospitality is people telling me how I’m connected to people through my adoption into the kinship system.

3.     Cultural lessons

We’re driving down the Stuart Highway, passing ant hills that someone thought funny to dress up with old Fluoro work shirts and Bonds singlets. It’s a weird trend but a common sight on tourist highways. The newer shirts shine brightly against the subtle colours of the bush, but as time passes the mounds grow to distort and envelope the clothing.

An older church leader is in the car with me and she tut-tuts as we pass them. “Those people have no respect. That termite has a dreaming. It’s so disrespectful to do that to their homes.” I’d never thought of it that way. In my Western consumerist mindset, I’d thought of people kind of possessing their dreaming, having power over it. But really, it’s a caretaker role with consequences if you disrespect your dreaming. I look again, and this time I see through her eyes the cathedral-like ant hills degraded to disfigured, grotesque mounds that people laugh at.

4.     Life stories

The front passenger seat is kind of the ‘boss seat’ for the car. They often carry most of the conversation, making decisions on where we’re going and are the first to spot buffalo disappearing into the scrub. Even when I’ve known someone for some time, if they’re in the front seat, I’ll hear new life stories.

On a drive to Darwin with some ladies, I discovered that a lady I thought I knew fairly well had grown up in Pine Creek. She regaled me with stories of walking cross country with her family and pointed out every place along the Stuart Highway where you can catch turtles.

5.     Sing-a-longs

Normally people get in my car and request Christian music. I’m not sure if they think that’s all I listen to because I work for the church or if they genuinely want to listen to Christian music. I’ve downloaded several playlists now so I don’t just have to listen to the same Sovereign Grace album on repeat.

But today, my adopted mami is in the car and she wants Celine Dion. She’s in luck because we’re still in reception as we leave Katherine to drive back to Ngukurr. We manage to fit in three songs before dropping out of range. It’s a memorable time driving down the Stuart Highway with my dignified 60-something-year-old Aboriginal mother belting out My Heart Will Go On.

6.     Respite

“Zoe, you busy?” is the call I get almost daily from one friend. With an elderly invalid husband and hordes of grandchildren, she’s after any excuse to get out of the house. I’ll go pick her up and we drive around town to find the various people she’s looking for. She enjoys the air conditioning and comfortable seat compared to the mat she’d be sitting on at home. I enjoy the company of this sassy olgamen (a respectful term for old ladies).

My faithful truck delivers us back to her house an hour later. We’ve gone to the shop, top camp, middle camp, language centre, bottom camp, a nearby billabong and back to bottom camp. The conversation ranged from some family tensions she’s worried about, to a Bible talk she gave at a funeral, to laughing hysterically at a Kriol phrase I used which I was unaware had rather rude connotations. She slides down from my truck, the worried look on her face replaced by a cheeky grin.