Torres Strait Islanders celebrate 150 years since arrival of Christianity

Marked annually on July 1 as ‘The Coming of the Light’, Torres Strait Islanders are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity to island communities.

While the latest round of COVID-19 restrictions have delayed major celebrations in Brisbane, festivities went ahead in Cairns and on Thursday Island. The anniversary was marked with traditional re-enactments of the landing of the first missionaries to the Torres Strait, and church services.

“For the people of the Torres Strait Islands, the Coming of the Light is celebrated as a time of joy,” says the Anglican Board of Mission on its site marking the occasion.

“It must be stated that the London Missionary Society’s missionaries did not bring God to the Torres Strait, rather the message of Jesus, through the Bible,” wrote Rev Canon Victor Joseph, in an online message to mark the occasion. Joseph is Principal of Wontulp-Bi-Buya College, Cairns, and a speaker at the Cairns celebration.

“God was on both sides of the beach that day, and since time immemorial.”

In the 19th Century, the London Missionary Society set out to convert people of the Southwest Pacific to Christianity. In July 1871, the Reverend Samuel MacFarlane, a member of the Society, anchored at Erub Island in the Torres Strait accompanied by South Sea Islander evangelists and teachers.

A re-enactment of the arrival of the missionary ship ‘The Surprise’ on Erub Island, at St John’s Anglican Church in Cairns, northern QLD.

Their ship, ‘The Surprise’, anchored off Kemus Beach, and lowered its boat for MacFarlane and the others to go ashore.

A Warrior Clan elder named Dabad on Erub Island was watching from a nearby hill and made his way down the beach with his men.

MacFarlane waded ashore and dropped to his knees before the Erubians. “Never did men feel more than we did then their absolute dependence on Divine Help,” he wrote later. MacFarlane had a Bible in his hands, and he thrust it towards Dabad.

Dabad stayed his spear, defying tribal law, and accepted the book.

“God gave us the gospel,” said Joseph. “Not through violence, but peacefully. [He worked through] one man who stood on the shore and reached out his hand to receive it.”

“Becoming a Christian enhanced who I am. I have the best of my Christian faith and my culture!” – Victor Joseph

“As we celebrate, we must acknowledge what our Aboriginal brothers and sisters faced. When the Gospel came to us in the Torres Strait, our Aboriginal brothers and sisters were facing the brunt of colonisation.”

As part of the Anglican Board of Mission’s materials for the 150th anniversary, Joseph also wrote: “I was born a Torres Strait Islander person – that makes up who I am, my identity. Becoming a Christian enhanced who I am. I have the best of my Christian faith and my culture! … We are not going to leave our culture and languages at the door of the church.”

The re-enactment of the ‘Coming of the Light’ to the Torres Strait, St John’s Anglican Church, Cairns.

“Our economic status is below the national average, but we don’t let that stop us. There will come a time when Light which came through the Torres Strait will filter out to the national church. Light came, Light continues to come, and the Light will continue to shine … I am a Coming of the Light person!”

Also writing for the celebration, Aunty Rose Elu, the 2021 Queensland Senior Australian of the Year said: “The chiefs used a word which meant ‘no more bloodshed’. We will not kill these people; they are bringing something – something we need to learn. What is it? We will get them to tell us … one of the things that happened then was that the warfare stopped. Our people already knew the gospel in a different way, with the environment, the ocean, the seas, the current, the waters, the sky, the moon … They were bringing the light to us, and we were bringing the light to them.”

“We’re not here by chance. God has brought us here to celebrate.”

“If you want to understand what we can contribute to the whole understanding of the church, why don’t you get on a plane, come up to my home and walk in the sea – take your shoes off – get the feel of the salt water, go swimming, dive – have a look under the ocean, look up at the skies. Come up in the monsoon season where you can see the wild wind, the wild seas, the roaring – is not God speaking? Then you will know God’s presence in the Torres Strait!”

During today’s Cairns ‘Coming of the Light’ celebration, there was a reminder to Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters that they carry the light that came to the Islands 150 years ago.

“The light is Jesus. He says, ‘I am the light of the world’ [John 8]. But he also said, ‘You are the light of the world. You are a city on a hill.’ [Matthew 5] That’s important for us to remember. We grew up in a beautiful place. The Torres Strait. And we carry the light.”

“We’re not here by chance. God has brought us here to celebrate,” said one singer during the celebration.

During the annual festival, hymns, singing, feasting and ailan dans (Island dance) strengthen community and family ties.

You can also pray this for the Torres Strait Islander people:

Almighty God, you have given to the people of the Islands of the Torres Strait
the glorious light of the Gospel of Christ:
mercifully grant that we may always walk in the light of his love,
and give us the strength and unifying power
of your Holy Spirit to spread that light
and enlarge your kingdom in the hearts of all people.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

(Prayer provided by the Anglican Board of Mission’s 2021 Coming of the Light Celebration Liturgy)

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