Missionary Diary: Living in two worlds

Ruth Walton is a member of Bush Church Aid field staff working at Nungalinya College in Darwin. She arrived in Darwin in late 2020 from Burra, NSW with her husband Lee, who is the property manager for the Anglican Diocese of the Northern Territory.

Sitting under a shady tree beside the Stuart Highway, I took a pause. It was a moment to step from my world of calendars, plans and appointments to an alternative world, one built on different priorities and worldview. My lift would arrive sometime in the next hour or so. It was time to wait and ponder. What would the next few days bring? How would I respond to this other world? So I waited.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will grow faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

“God can both use limited resources to feed 5000 people and also fit too many resources into a car!”

My lift arrived; the car already had plenty of bags squeezed into the boot. The welcome from my three travelling companions was warm and genuine, and the bags and books I had brought were delicately placed in the small spaces available. We were on our way. There were stories from previous trips, fostering an excitement for this adventure – who we would meet, the stories we would hear, the places we would see the hand of God at work.

Our first stop was Werenbun, a group of about ten homes a short distance from a beautiful tourist spot about an hour north of Katherine, to pick up Wendy, a Christian leader who has been part of these Nungalinya road trips since about 2015.

“We were here before they discovered the falls,” affirms Wendy as her family helps carry her various bags to the car and carefully carry her paintings from her final art course (there was no way these could have travelled with her on the bus). I looked with consternation at Rachel, our host and driver. The car was emptied and, after some effort, successfully repacked. “God is so good!  He can use both limited resources to feed 5000 people and also fit too many resources into a car!”

As we arrived in Katherine for the evening, it quickly became clear that this alternative world would not run according to the same rules as the world I am accustomed to. One of our travelling companions had two young ones to pick up and take home with her; another had family needing to conduct business in Katherine, but no way of getting there. But we had a schedule, a plan. We were tasked by Nungalinya College to drop students home and visit remote Aboriginal communities in Central Arnhem Land, connecting with existing and potential students for the college. Our budget did not include picking up additional passengers (where on earth would they fit anyway?) or assisting family travel from home (some 1.5 hours away) to Katherine and back.

This alternative world runs by different rules, rules where relationships and the needs of others are paramount.

But this alternative world runs by different rules, rules where relationships and the needs of others are paramount. So, the car was unpacked. The young ones picked up in Katherine and taken home to Barunga and the family picked up from Manyallaluk and brought back to Katherine. Dinner was late, but it was so good to eat dinner together at the end of the day.

The following day we ate breakfast together. Then there was time to pause and reflect, once again laying down my plans for the day and recognising God (and my travelling companions) might have different ideas. Intriguingly, the systems of my world make it so difficult for those from an alternative world to accomplish what should be simple tasks: the bank could not see the family today (despite the fact their only means of transport needed to leave town at lunchtime); the money transferred from one place to another “got lost”, so no food could be purchased – no matter if you don’t have a well-stocked larder or even a shop nearby.

Manyallaluk is a 30-minute drive from the nearest shop, assuming you have access to a vehicle. No wonder plans are fluid. No wonder we need to wait. But this gives time to listen. There are always stories to hear, so often of God’s goodness and provision, his faithfulness to us all. And we slept so well at the accommodation booked each night.

There was ample time for my agenda too; we did meet students, new and old – in the supermarket, waiting outside the bank, in the café. Time to chat, tell the Nungalinya story, and fill in the inevitable forms. God is good!

Ruth and Lee Walton at Wangi Falls in Litchfield National Park, NT

Finally, we climb back into the car, with the family from Manyallaluk (don’t ask how we got everyone and everything in … remember the loaves and fishes?) and head for the Central Arnhem Highway – to Manyallaluk, a small settlement of about 15 homes arranged around a beautiful shady area; Barunga, a slightly larger community of around 350 people; Beswick, the largest community on our trip of about 550 people; and, eventually, to Bulman, a group of 30 homes situated about 3km from the tiny community of a dozen homes at Weemol.

We met with church leaders, new Christians and family in each place, sharing more stories and pausing to listen again and again. Stories of what God is doing for young and old; stories about dreams for the future of church and people; stories of studying God’s word, caring for one another, and being God’s family together.

And, of course, there are swimming holes … and water buffalo wallowing in the creeks, jabiru hunting for fish and the joy of being out in God’s creation with time to stop, listen and reflect.

Returning to my world is not without its challenges. The pace of life picks up; there are deadlines to meet and schedules to adhere to. But the waiting has done its work. There is enormous value in slowing down, responding to the needs of the day rather than the agendas that drive tomorrow; remembering that for our God, a day is as a thousand years; there is always time for God to complete his purposes for me, in me and with me – always being conscious that whichever world I am living in the Lord remains as the everlasting God, the Creator of all things. God renews our strength in both worlds, if only we wait for him.