Missionary Diary: A day of dogs, death and dust

Zoe is serving with CMS under the Anglican Diocese in the Northern Territory. In her first year in community, she is focusing on learning 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.

I peer blearily at my alarm, reluctantly crawl out of the covers and stare out the window. I’m not sure what I expect to see – it’s the same brown lawn leading up to the same towering mahogany tree that frames the same hazy blue hills in the distance.

I fight off the urge to sit scrolling Instagram and take the dog out for a run before it warms up. My efforts are rewarded by the dog’s excitement. If I achieve nothing else today, at least I’ve made her happy. Half an hour of my plodding and her running helter-skelter through the bush finds us back at the car. No buffalo today, although there were a lot of tracks, and the dog did a dash at one point that I think might have been after the local mangey dingo.

We were prepped in our pre-departure training for the six-month shlump. I’m feeling it today. The initial sparky attitude and interest in everything has been replaced with a feeling that everything is an uphill push. Some days going for a walk is too much – every tree hides a buffalo ready to charge, every stick is a brown snake, every shadow is a person that my dog might chase. But I made it for a walk today, so that’s a win. I’m learning to celebrate the little things.

A funeral is really the only chance for people to get dressed up out here.

There’s a funeral happening sometime today. I scoff down breakfast and read my Bible before people start showing up at my door wanting to get into the church to set up.

By 12pm, the church is cleaned, the speakers set up and some family have decorated the church with plastic flowers. Being so far from any flower markets, plastic flowers are the only option. In town they’d look garish, but somehow they seem right here. It also means that people who can’t afford to buy their own flowers can use these ones to place on the casket.

I disappear back to my house for lunch and a sneaky episode of Gilmore Girls. I’ve learnt the hard way that being hungry, tired and hot is counter-productive to building relationships. I emerge from the cool cocoon of my home an hour later, feeling revived and ready for whatever the afternoon might hold.

People start showing up around 2pm. Some go straight into the church, others linger in the shade for a smoke. Dogs follow their families inside and sprawl under the fans for a siesta. Babies come dressed in new clothes from town; the boys in little shirts and vests, the girls in tulle and ballet flats. A funeral is really the only chance for people to get dressed up out here.

Grief isn’t private here.

A distant sound of clapsticks and an influx of people signal that the casket is coming up from the morgue at the clinic. I’m yet to figure out how to tell when a funeral is actually going to start. Today has been calm, but sometimes we’ve had 15 minutes’ warning before the casket arrives. Other times we’ve been waiting three hours or days. It really depends on when all the family has arrived from out of town.

A bush funeral is a long way from the sombre tones, printed programs and club sandwiches that I’m used to. Grief isn’t private here. Ever since the body came back from Darwin to the morgue house, the community has been quiet. No loud music, no football training, no basketball competitions, the swimming pool is shut. The whole community is united to show respect to the grieving family and stand with them.

After the Christian funeral, we proceed out to the cemetery in a convoy of cars. A decorated ute carries the casket and sons of the lady ride in the tray. It’s their last journey with their mother. We make a stop along the way for the final bungal (ceremony) that sings the spirit of the deceased back to her country.

The cemetery is a cleared area of bush on the Numulwar road. Mounds of red sand bedecked with faded plastic flowers on mostly unnamed graves. The older graves are now just rings of stones to distinguish this red sand from that red sand.

The line between death and life seems blurred here.

Some young guys jump into the hole to throw out rocks that have fallen back in and flatten out the final resting place of their relative. I watch them disappear into the depths of the grave and re-emerge. “Dust to dust, ground to ground,” the minister says, scattering sand over the casket. The dust is in our noses. It is in our hair. It is a grimy shroud covering our bodies. The line between death and life seems blurred here.

The finality of this goodbye sinks into family and friends as they look into the grave. Wails rend the air and tears track paths down dusty faces. I bow my head, tears in my eyes too. How long, oh Lord? How long?

I didn’t know this lady, she passed away a year ago and is only being laid to rest now. I’m the only whitefella here, and I feel the privilege of being invited to stand with these brothers and sisters in the highs and lows of life. But today it’s weighty, and the grief is contagious as I watch the pain of people I’ve come to hold dear.

How long, oh Lord?

I look down at my hands and glimpse my painted nails. I never used to paint my nails. But for me it’s become a final stand against the dust, the sandal tans, the baggy clothes. My pink sparkly nails seem so out of place in this context. It’s silly, but they are a circuit breaker in my spiral of vicarious grief. I’m reminded that even in the hardest times, God’s grace continues and he gives us unnecessary but nice things, like sparkly nails.

We pile into utes and return to town in dribs-and-drabs. I do the rounds, dropping people home before going back to my own house. I potter in my garden as the sun drops and the world turns redder than it already was. The dust that has driven me mad all day is now the medium of growth. Someone else planted much of this garden. I’ll keep on watering it as long as I’m here. But thankfully, it’s God who makes it grow.