Tears of joy as Gumatj people receive their new Bibles

The excitement had been building all day around the Uniting Church in Yirrkala on the Gove Peninsula in East Arnhem Land on the long-awaited day of Dedication of the Reprinted Gumatj New Testament earlier this month.

Keen to have the church look its best, the “church ladies” had put white cloths on all the tables, swept the floor and collected flowers from around the community for display in vases on the altar.

“The church filled up with standing room only and there were many more sitting outside under the shade of the trees on blankets as children ran around,” says Louise Sherman, Bible Society Australia’s Production Coordinator – Remote & Indigenous Ministry Support (RIMS), who had brought in boxes of freshly printed Bibles for the event.

Just before 4.30pm, a large contingent of local elders carried in the boxes of Bibles to traditional chanting and clapsticks. Women and children danced and did Bible readings as a fire was lighted near the entrance as a symbol of the importance of fire to the Gumatj clan as well as representing the Holy Spirit.

The Gumatj translation team: from left, Felicity, Gulumbu, Mutilŋa, and Joyce

A two-minute silence was held for all the translators who had dedicated their lives to this work but passed away before seeing it come to fruition, notably the two main Gumatj senior women, Gulumbu and Mutilŋa, who were involved in the earlier work of the Gumatj Bible Translation.

Messages were then read from people who had been involved in the Gumatj translation over the years but were unable to attend the dedication including the original Bible translator, Joyce Sharman, and her assistant, Felicity Field, who have retired down South, and Margaret Miller, the Uniting Church Support Worker who oversaw the reprint.

A Bible Society report of the original Gumatj New Testament

The family of Euan Fry (Bible Society Translation consultant from 1967 to 1988) told how their father enjoyed working with the Gumatj translators on the first edition of the Gumatj New Testament, which was published in 1985. It was the first New Testament to be completed in a Yolngu Matha language, but over the years, copies had become as rare as hen’s teeth.

“When it came time for me to open the box and hand out the Bibles, all the translators and their families came down to the front,” Louise says. “As I gave each person the Bible, their faces lit up, and tears of joy could be seen from many – and there was a wonderful sense of unity.”

Listening to a Blessing Prayer by Tony Goodluck

Everyone clasped their new Bibles close and bowed their heads as Tony Goodluck, Moderator for the Uniting Church Northern Synod, said a Blessing Prayer over the Bibles.

After the service everyone moved outside for dinner, followed by a rally with preaching and worship music continuing late into the night.

Unable to attend, Margaret Miller sent a message that was read out by her Aboriginal mother, Gapany, which explained some of the many difficulties and obstacles to bringing the printed book to completion.

“The Gumatj Bible Translation Team (Muti, Gulumbu, Joyce and Felicity along with many others) first presented the New Testament in Gumatj in 1985. That Gumatj New Testament was available for many years but the copies ran out and Gumatj people were asking for more,” she said.

“It is not always easy to make more copies, especially when the old way of printing books has changed. A ‘print button’ could not just be pressed straightaway for more copies, because the first Gumatj New Testament was made before there were computers and fancy printers. In order to get the Gumatj New Testament on today’s computers, there were many steps to take to prepare it for printing.

“Transferring words onto computers doesn’t always go smoothly. Computers, scanners and their machines can be a bit ‘rough’, especially when they do not know and understand Gumatj. But Gumatj people know when the words have been copied correctly into the new computer systems.”

Louise Sherman hands out the new Bibles

Margaret explained that Bible Society needed a Gumatj speaker to help check the words. The main checker of Gumatj words was Djotarra  Baŋaḏitjan (Rosemary B Burarrwaŋa), who spent many hours, checking the 27 books of this New Testament on printouts.

“She faithfully checked verse-by-verse of the whole New Testament, to make sure that the computers had got it right. When Rosemary found errors, she marked them up and gave them to Buḻanydjan (Mary) and Margaret. Those two ladies visited her a number of times at Yirrkala and Barrkira, encouraging her to not give up. Sometimes other Gumatj helpers, like Yethun and Wuthaŋgi, came to assist her as well. This process took Rosemary a couple of years.”

Margaret sent the finished list of corrections to Stuart Cameron of Bible Society and his helper Barry Martin to enter into their copy on the computer. “We can now be certain that this ‘Godku Walŋamirri Dhäruk’ is the same on the inside as the first one.”

Over the years, as the various parts were being worked on, Rosemary would ask Mary and Margaret if the book was ready yet, to share with everyone. “She had read the words carefully and found so much joy and comfort in God’s words in Gumatj. Rosemary so longed to see this book with her own eyes and to share in this day with her people.”

Very sadly, Rosemary passed away in the same week that the new edition arrived in Sydney from China. She never did get to see the final book. But Margaret tells Eternity that it was her drive that made it happen.

“There is a move of God’s spirit that has happened.” – Margaret Miller

Margaret, whose usual base is Elcho Island, says there has been a great movement of God at Yirrkala since the dedication took place in early April.

“They’ve been having fellowship every night since then. There is a move of God’s spirit that has happened,” she says.

She reports a melding of a very enthusiastic youth fellowship at Milingimbi Island, which has been building over the past six months.

“There’s is a young pastor there who’s been endorsed by the community, who’s really finding his feet in his manner of leadership, and is getting confidence, but not only that – there is a sense of God’s spirit really working in gifting him in relating to people that’s drawing people into fellowship,” she says.

“We’ve been waiting for this Gumatj New Testament dedication for months. But the timing has been absolutely amazing because of this growing encouragement and enthusiasm in the Lord and in God’s work and in his Spirit.

“There’s a lot of talk about the Holy Spirit and revival again. It’s gone from Milingimbi to Yirrkala, so there’s this movement going from west to east that has been developing in the last couple of months with the young people, particularly the new generation.”

She says the Milingimbi group came to Elcho Island in March for what is called the annual revival Thanksgiving weekend, which is a celebration of the beginnings of the revival that happened on Elcho in 1979.

“And that the Milingimbi group that has been growing in fellowship came early to that event on Elcho. They had a really positive impact on Elcho with the young people.

“Then early April, we had the dedication of the Gumatj New Testament. We’ve been saying that for the Bible translation work to move forward, we need a new generation of passionate translators, people that will be engaged with the work. We’ve been saying this for years and we really need the Lord to raise those people up.”

Margaret, who has been involved in Bible translation facilitation since the 1990s, is seeking ways to strengthen the network of Indigenous Bible translators who are choosing to work in the cluster of Yolngu languages of Northeast Arnhem. This is requiring pathways of training and support, responding appropriately to both new and old translations.

“The 1985 Gumatj was the first completed New Testament in any Yolngu language. So it wasn’t just sought by Gumatj readers and speakers, but by others in the region. But now there is a whole cluster of languages that we’re involved in that have a variety of needs,” she says. “And that means more support.”