Training recordists in Arnhem Land to help Yolngu disciple Yolngu

It was a very humble scene as four missionary workers sat at a table in a plain weatherboard house when Global Recordings Network (GRN) held its twice-delayed workshop in Yirrkala, Arnhem Land, in August.

As I surveyed the darkened room, I realised that this is very much how GRN operates in the field across the world, recording audio Bibles in myriad languages to make God’s word more accessible to people who find reading hard even in their own language.

Low-tech meets high-tech in the recording suite.

Although GRN’s production values are high, its recordists work in very humble environments with scarce local resources, being inventive and flexible enough to work with whoever turns up in whatever language they speak.

There’s not much equipment involved, although it is expensive. The microphones, headphones and other kit fit into a neat box no bigger than an overnight bag.

This is the final day of a six-day intensive training event with four non-GRN missionaries who are working in Northeast Arnhem Land churches.

From left, Tim Richards, Prabhu Pothula, Josh Mackenzie, Catharine Carpenter, Simon Johnston and David Sinden (of GRN).

GRN trainer Simon Johnston, who loves combining his skills in audio recording with gospel work, said this was his fourth trip to the Northern Territory and his second attempt to run a training workshop in Yirrkala.

“We’ve gone through basic audio fundamentals. We’ve talked about how to set up a recording environment and set up the room, how to operate the equipment, selection of content and how to encourage a good performance from the speaker. And then I looked at editing and the audio production side of it as well. Today we’re just teaching them how to finalise all the documentation and submit the recordings to GRN.”

The students are Josh Mackenzie – who has been flown into Yirrkala by MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) from Numbulwar, where he is a missionary with the Church Missionary Society; Tim Richards, a former worker with Pioneers who lives in nearby Nhulunbuy; Catharine Carpenter, wife of a MAF pilot who wants to support members of the local Uniting Church in Yirrkala (which recently celebrated a new edition of the Gumatj New Testament); and Prabu Pothula, a MAF pilot from South India, who is based on Elcho Island.

Josh Mackenzie gets to grips with recording fundamentals.

Asked how he would be able to use the GRN training, Prabhu said his local church has a list of recordings they want to make and he hopes to be able to help them capture the audio.

“We’re very much focused on working behind the scenes and just encouraging and not setting the direction too much,” Prabhu said

“We’re very much focused on working behind the scenes and just encouraging.” – Prabhu Pothula

Prabhu said God drew him to pursue this ministry among the Yolngu people.

“Essentially, it’s just like God placed me here. I didn’t really choose to come. I mean, I started with MAF before, and all MAF pilots come to Arnhem Land to build some experience to go somewhere else. But when we started here, we felt like we have a long journey here.”

Catharine’s vision is to help the local believers to have easier access to the Bible to help strengthen their theological understanding.

“Audio is to support people who find reading a text a barrier to the word. When it comes to Scripture, reading in their languages is actually hard work ​with very long words. There are people who aren’t very literate in reading their own language or may have eyesight issues that make it difficult to read,” she says.

“This is one way I can help encourage people to serve and love the Lord and seek his way for themselves.” – Catharine Carpenter

“It is an oral culture and important knowledge is shared through stories. So often the people here listen to white/outsiders who profess to be Christians for that biblical knowledge. But I want to encourage self-studies so they can strengthen their own understanding straight from the Bible. I don’t necessarily want to be teaching, so audio recording is one way I can help encourage people to serve and love the Lord themselves and seek his will for themselves.

“Many Yolngu love the Lord and want to follow him. But sometimes there are Christian visitors from different theology backgrounds who briefly visit on ‘mission’ to tell them how to become a Christian, and what they should do and think as a Christian. Sometimes what is said by one visitor is different to the previous visitor on mission. The biblical knowledge shared during a mission is believed to be true, and testing what is said with the written (or oral) Scriptures is a newer concept. There have been times where dedicated Christians here have become confused or have even queried their salvation because of what has been said.

“I want Yolngu to have more access to Scripture,” she adds. “But when you talk to people about Scriptures, they say ‘Oh yeah, that’s too hard to read.’ Well, okay, how can we make it easier for people? They still have to choose to access it, but how can we make it easier?”

Both Prabhu and Tim said they have ideas on how they could use the training, but they would wait for someone to come forward who wants to do a recording.

“So if the church wants to do it, we’re happy to support it and I have the skills to understand how the recording works and be able to capture the audio and edit it,” Prabhu said.

Meantime, GRN hopes the missionaries get to use their newly acquired skills soon.