The outback town of Maningrida in western Arnhem Land has created a hub for Bible translation and Scripture education with the opening of a bright and airy building with “million-dollar views” over the Arafura Sea.
The new Bible Translation Centre – which opened in September, with dancing and singing by traditional owners – is the first of its kind in Arnhem Land. It provides workshop space and short-term accommodation to enable remote delivery of workshops for the whole region.
Bush chaplain Lindsay Parkhill, who helped design the new building, enthuses that it allows the focus of work to shift from Darwin to Maningrida, which is in the centre of Arnhem Land and a hub for many Indigenous languages.
He said about 100 people from all over Arnhem Land attended the dedication ceremony, with the Yolngu people from the East equally enthusiastic about its potential.
“It’s right down on the beach. It’s got a million-dollar view of the Arafura Sea. It’s a great location. And it’s a focus not only for Bible translation but for Scripture education,” explains Parkhill, who is part of the West Arnhem Uniting Church Ministry.
As an example, Nungalinya College, which brings students from Indigenous communities to Darwin for courses in four-week blocks, is planning to run a two-week Foundation Studies workshop next March as a pilot for more community-based, remote off-campus delivery.
“The idea is that if you can do it in community, you can get young mums – who are the backbone of the church, quite frankly, in Maningrida. They can come along and take part in the studies. They can’t leave home because Nungalinya doesn’t allow for children. So, it’s opened up the possibilities of access to God’s word to a wider group of people, particularly those for whom Nungalinya is inaccessible,” says Parkhill.
The mission agency Mobile Mission Maintenance built the centre earlier this year, with the cost of materials donated by a private foundation.
“The logistics of it were challenging because it’s a remote location and we had to get all the bits and pieces together and then the team getting in at the end of the wet season was horrendous. We drowned a couple of vehicles getting in there!” says Parkhill.
“But it was all done in about three weeks – incredible assemblage. There were 20 workers, all retired tradies, who assembled it like a jigsaw puzzle.”
“It’s opened up the possibilities of access to God’s word to a wider group of people, particularly those for whom Nungalinya is inaccessible.” – Lindsay Parkhill
The impetus for the centre was a language survey conducted last year by Bible translation agency Wycliffe, which gave an accurate picture of the state of the languages in the town and the level of desire for more translation work.
“People said translation of God’s word was an important thing for them. There had been previous translation work done by those pioneers, Dave and Kathy Glasgow and their team working in Burrata, but there’s a very strong Kuninjku push coming from Western Arnhem Land, which is like the lingua franca of Western Arnhem land,” says Parkhill.
One of the survey’s surprising findings was what Indigenous people wanted to translate. Rather than working through the gospels, in accordance with the Wycliffe approach, they wanted to look at Revelation.
Wycliffe linguist Rachel Shipp has answered this need by starting work on Revelation with Kuninjku speakers. The project started while she and her family lived in the Maningrida church house until earlier this year; she now visits once a month from Darwin. (Kuninjku is a different language from Kunwinjku, which is based in Gunbalanya and has a complete New Testament.)
Shipp sees a symbolic significance in the new centre.
“It’s a way of the community and the church saying, ‘This is important to us.’ They’ve seen that certain other places have translation centres and so there is an element of saying, ‘We want to be serious about translation work – it’s important to the church.’ We often bring people from Maningrida into Darwin to run workshops for translation and they’re keen to encourage us to come to them and do the workshops there on their own turf. They’re inviting us in, and I think that’s really appropriate.”
With Maningrida the biggest town in West Arnhem, the hope is that the new facility can be a resource for the whole region.
“There are people at Jabiru who are keen for translation work and Maung people at South Goulburn Island who were doing translation work as well. We need more human resources to support this work, but if there’s no space to do that in, or no accommodation for people who are coming in to help, then how can you get that started? So, they’ve gone: here’s the resource; we’re ready for you to come and help us. So, hopefully, that will make the logistics easier.”
Traditional owner and Bible translator Monica Wilton said at the opening that the new centre would assist the community in their walk with the Lord.
“It’s good to have this Bible translation centre so that people can understand what does it [God’s word] mean?” she tells Eternity. “Like, we can understand the illustrations when Jesus used stories. It encourages people when we share the message in our language because it makes God’s word clear for them to understand, and God’s word becomes more powerful.”
Louise Macdonald, resource worker for Coordinate, which facilitates the Uniting Church’s Bible translation and Scripture engagement projects, says the new centre clears a major roadblock to her work in the community by providing accommodation and workshop space.
Macdonald, who is based in Jabiru, is working with a team of Mayali speakers who have translated parts of Mark’s Gospel and the Christmas story from Luke. They are also keen on John’s Gospel and Revelation.
“With our projects, people don’t tend to work as individuals. They work collectively, which tends to be a feast and famine style. People work to events, not to a regular timetable. So you need to give people opportunities to meet us in workshops to work collectively. So now we have the space and accommodation for workers coming in to work alongside these projects.”
Currently, there are Bible translation centres on Elcho Island and Pukatja, Ernabella, in the APY lands and the hope is that the Maningrida centre will be a model for other communities in the Northern Territory.