Missionary Diary: What one day taught me about the Indigenous Church

Rachel Shipp is a language worker with Wycliffe Bible Translators. She lives and works in Maningrida, a remote Indigenous community of 3000 people, in the Northern Territory, with her husband Greg and two kids. They’ve been there for two years.

It’s late dry season and most of my Indigenous translator friends are out of town. Some are just enjoying the last weeks of freedom to be on Country before the wet season rains flood the roads and cut us our community off from the outside world. Others are on Country to grieve with family – dry season is also funeral season. Funerals are always held over – sometimes for many months – until the whole family can be present (and until the money can be raised to release the body from the morgue), so there’s always a backlog going into the dry season, and a rush to get through them all before the next Wet. Translation work naturally slows down at this time of year.

It’s also school holidays and we’ve just come back from a week in the ‘city’ (Darwin, population 160,000). With no childcare and no family network of our own, it’s my turn to look after the kids. So it’s a slow work day attending some Zoom meetings and catching up on admin between parenting.

While I was away, two young people committed suicide, bringing the total to four in a month.

I troubleshoot some phone problems for a neighbour. (The technical term might be squatter who’s set up camp under our house, thanks to the housing crisis.) Someone rings me asking to buy some English Bibles, so I make a delivery. Someone else needs a lift to run an errand. Another friend just rings for a chat. She’s the first person to mention that while I was away, two young people committed suicide, bringing the total to four in a month. Why is this not the only thing everyone’s been talking about all day??

Around 8pm my kids are off to bed and I head out to Fellowship (the local name for church, which is held almost every night). We sit around on the grass in a huge circle – about 100 of us – in little groups. While people dance in the middle of the circle or take a turn singing karaoke style, I chat with the group near me about something they heard at Fellowship last night, about the fact that human brains are too small to understand God completely. They want to check with me that they’ve understood correctly, as this is new to them and kind of mind-blowing. The woman who shared the message told me she’d learnt this just the other day and it made her cry.

Rachel and Greg Shipp with their daughters Elodie and Marieke

A man shares his testimony that, Praise God, He performed a miracle and healed him from a stroke. I was nearly dead, says the man. The doctors said it was a very small chance I would live, only 50-50. I am chastened as, always by my own thought, “Oh 50-50, that’s not such a miracle”. It is so typical of Christians here to attribute healing to God first, always, and for me to attribute it only when medical means are exhausted. Another woman shares that her family was sick, she read the Bible with them and they began to feel better. Praise the Lord.

A young man gets up to share his thoughts about a single Bible verse. He doesn’t speak in English so I don’t know what he says, but I’m so encouraged by the way multiple voices are encouraged and heard. Anyone is welcome to take the microphone and share what God has been teaching them or doing in their life.

It is so typical of Christians here to attribute healing to God first

A five-year-old I barely know is climbing all over me. She’s babbling away, but I can hardly understand her English. “Look, it’s Jesus!” She suddenly yells, pointing to the sky. “He’s coming!” I have no idea what prompts this, but I love that she knows to look out for Jesus’ imminent return. This is another lesson I’ve learnt consistently from the Christians here – the immediacy and daily relevance of our hope that Jesus is coming back to make everything right. I think maybe I’m so self-sufficient and so sheltered from how much of this world is not right that it’s more of a distant reality for me.

I leave Fellowship early, around 11.30pm, after organising with a friend of my kids that I’ll pick her up tomorrow morning to come over to play. When I get home, there’s a buffalo in my yard. It hangs around town and is pretty tame, but I give it a wide berth. I can still hear Fellowship blasting through the speakers. It’s just a regular night, nothing special, so will probably wrap up around 1am, but only when everyone is done – time and space are made for anyone.

I call the Grandma of my kids’ friend the next day at 12pm to see if she’s ready to come over. She’s still asleep.