In September, I had the privilege to participate in a Mission Study Tour (MST) to the Northern Territory as part of Sydney Missionary and Bible College’s gap year program, “The Bridge.” As a member of the team assigned to South Arnhem Land, I stayed with two Aboriginal communities for ten days. We originally planned to stay with three communities, but the day before we left for our first community, a death meant it was no longer appropriate for us to enter. We had come to know people close to the person who had died, and so when we came to enter the bus to go to the next community, we had already witnessed some of the hurt of these people.
According to one of the missionaries who accompanied us, at that time, there were more deaths than normal. Yet I could see God at work in his timing of us being there and what came to pass.
We often joined in with fellowship at night in the Beswick and Manyallaluk communities. Fellowship involved lots of singing and dancing, together with testimonies and Bible stories with the children in the communities. On our first night in Manyallaluk, eight Indigenous kids came, less than a quarter of the size of Fellowship in Beswick, most of whom were soon asleep. Regardless, we sang and danced and told testimonies to our group and the few awake kids. A couple of nights later, we heard that the community had been watching and listening to us from their houses. The community informed us that Fellowship had brought great peace that night and that they went to sleep without fear of spirits that usually accompanies the dark. It was almost like there was a shield of God’s presence around the community. The community called us back to do Fellowship again; this time, a large number of the community sat outside to watch us and sing along.
Through spending time with the Aboriginal children and youth, we began to understand some of the challenges faced by young people and why some of these challenges are so prevalent in many communities. One girl was terrified of the boredom of life that would resume once we left. One of the community leaders prayed over a boy, asking God for protection from falling into addiction. This chronic boredom, combined with deep familial pain, with the hurt that already exists in families, leads to many youths falling into addiction or getting into trouble with the law. I was struck when one of our leaders said that everyone, the children especially, would likely remember playing and being in fellowship with us for the rest of their lives.
Everyone, the children especially, would likely remember playing and being in fellowship with us for the rest of their lives.
Moreover, I was impacted by the way God was at work in what seemed a very tangible and practical way in the lives of the Indigenous Christians we met. The Aboriginal people were excited to talk about God’s power and how they have seen it operating in their lives. Many a time, the conversation would turn to God’s power, and their passionate testimonies displayed a deep love both for God and those around them. We were told about how a church leader, in answer to his wife’s fervent prayers, was raised from the dead after being placed in a body bag. And not only he but also his son, Ray Junior, came back to life after he died as a newborn. As two of my Bridge classmates reflected, although the local church’s situation may seem bleak and the Christian community is very much the remnant of God’s people, God is powerfully at work, even raising his army from the dead. I can now more fully comprehend how greatly God is at work across different cultures.
I can now more fully comprehend how greatly God is at work across different cultures.
God was also at work in the love that Aboriginal people express towards each other. They have an ingrained sense of belonging due to the kinship system, a system as complex as it is beautiful; the kinship system works to try to ensure that all Indigenous people, the land and animals are cared for by someone. Everyone is related, not by blood, but through kin. You call the people walking down your street your sister, aunt, cousin and father. From conversations with Indigenous Christians, we gathered that this system gives a tangible sense of belonging and, in a sense, a small taste of heaven, the only place with hope for true belonging.
Jordan, another Bridge student, and I helped with the translation of the song God of Wonders by Chris Tomlin, into the Aboriginal Kriol language. We worked with an Aboriginal couple, Junior and Aileen, over the course of a day to complete the translation. As the hours passed, their excitement grew. Junior said that the song gave him goosebumps to hear it in his heart language. He could not wait to share it with his community at church and during Forgiveness Week, a community event they were having just after we left. They wanted to record the song, as well as create actions for it, and so another Bridge student, Faith, helped us sing the song and come up with actions to share.
This system gives a tangible sense of belonging and, in a sense, a small taste of heaven, the only place with hope for true belonging.
Not only did Junior and Aileen love their community, but they welcomed Jordan and me into it. The day after we finished the translation, they adopted us into the kin system by giving us their skin names, and calling us their brother and sister. On our last night, we stood on the street under the stars to say our farewells. A large group of church leaders, friends and family were gathered with us while about 15 kids played in the street. As we sang the Kriol God of Wonders with the community for the first time, the children slowly began to crowd around us to read the lyrics, and by the end of the song were all singing loudly. We had sung the same song in English eight times, yet the kids only understood single words from the chorus. Seeing them sing loudly, having heard it once, was such a beautiful experience that it cannot quite be put into words. Afterwards, our newly found Aboriginal family stood in a circle, holding each other’s shoulders. Junior and Aileen had only known Jordan and me for a few days, but Junior said we had a place in their hearts. The love they have for us now places them also in my heart, where they will remain. They showed me what it can look like for God’s children across the world to come together as brothers and sisters in Christ and the incredible and wonderful privilege it is to come together with these people.
Seeing them sing loudly, having heard it once, was such a beautiful experience that it cannot quite be put into words.
Everyone in my team had very different experiences, all demonstrating God’s work in different ways. Georgia shared a story about God showing his power through Gideon being victorious with a small army. Loretta, one of the community leaders, told the whole church later about the story and shared with Dave just how encouraging it was. Other students, such as Abeni and Sophie, spent almost every waking minute playing with the children. Luke, initially saying he was not good with kids, ended up being the most animated and riveting storyteller of us all. We could not have functioned as a team without everyone taking on a different role, working together as Christ’s body. With God at work here, their stories became a part of mine, and mine became a part of theirs.
As we reflected upon our time in the communities, I began to comprehend the whole purpose of our trip, that is, how everything that occurred came together to bring about God’s plan for his people here in Northern Australia. If our trip to the first community had not been cancelled, we never would have built the strong relationships we had with these children and with Junior and Aileen. We would never have translated God of Wonders into Kriol.
I began the trip blind and deaf to God’s plan, and by the end, I was asking for more.
One overarching detail that stands out to me is our prayers for an Aboriginal man, Travis, who was in ICU. At the beginning of our time in community, he was in an induced coma and recovery was uncertain; however, by the end of our time, he was awake and asking for food and water. In a way, his story mirrors mine, for I began the trip blind and deaf to God’s plan, and by the end, I was asking for more.
When we first left for the Northern Territory, I did not think the Mission Study Tour would turn out the way it did. My team expected to be culturally immersed but not to have made an impact on these people or to be transformed the way that we were. Through God’s power and the testimony of the gospel at work in people’s lives, it went beyond everything I expected.
We witnessed that by loving one another we can glimpse God’s love for all his people. I want to respond by singing in praise in the words of the Kriol God of Wonders:
“God yu haibalawan”
(God, you are holy)