Mining for gospel gems in Coober Pedy

The Bush Church Aid Society (BCA) has been sending staff to work in the remote South Australian town of Coober Pedy since 1946 – first, through the flying medical service, then by staffing and operating a hospital, and finally clergy in 1970. The town, known as the opal mining capital of Australia, was served by BCA field staff from 1970 until 2018, but for the past six years, there has been no full-time minister. In an exciting development, this has now changed with the arrival of Dave and Margy Wood.

Leading the Easter services at Coober Pedy last year while we were on locum was very special. We had over 30 people, compared to the normal half a dozen. That experience got Margy and me over the line in putting this location as our number one when we graduated from Sydney Missionary and Bible College. This year, as a newly commissioned baby minister, I’m looking forward to a similar crowd, thanks to the start of the tourist season.

Like all Bible-believing churches, our prayer for Easter is to have both visitors and the congregations be troubled and intrigued with the Easter message and that stirring will (with God’s leading) lead to repentance and true faith in Christ Jesus.

We’re praying that when word gets out that a full-time minister is back in town, all those connected with church will start coming back.

We arrived here in early March and moved into the dugout attached to the church. About 60 per cent of people live underground like this in Coober Pedy. It’s the smart thing to do as it’s quite hot outside and there’s at least 10 degrees difference in the dugouts. Plus, it’s super cheap because all you do is dig a hole in the side of the hill; you don’t need building materials. This rectory is part of the church complex, which is all connected by passageways.

We’re used to this life because I was a mining engineer for 30 years, and we lived in rural and mining towns in outback Western Australia and Queensland. So when we finished at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, I did a six-month lay ministry stint in Ashford, a town of 600 people just north of Inverell in north-west NSW, which gave us a heart to serve full-time in the remote bush.

Dave and Margy Wood outside the church in Coober Pedy.

Then, we loved our three-week locum here in Coober Pedy, so we went back to college for our final year, having fallen in love with this small but eclectic community. Other than the pastoralists on stations around, everyone’s based here and sharing the same issues – so if it’s a hot spell, everyone’s going through the hot spell.

In its heyday, the church here might have had a hundred people coming. It had a run of ministers continuously for quite a while, but the town has got smaller for all the normal reasons. The church has, too, and it’s also an aging congregation, but there is still a lot of ministry potential in the town.

Most kids get sent away when they hit high school age, but there’s a sizable primary school with about 150 kids. There’s a large Aboriginal population in town and a little Aboriginal community called Umoona, so BCA’s Aboriginal workers, Jack Harradine and Neville Naden, will come and show us how to go slowly in building relationships.

Dave and Margy Wood inside the church in Coober Pedy.

We’re praying that when word gets out that a full-time minister is back in town, all those connected with church will start coming back. We will be reaching out to those who used to come to church and let them know we’re planning to serve all under God. We’d love to get kids’ church going again and start a youth ministry. We also want to cater to the tourist ministry. Last year, I saw that during the tourist season, which starts in April, 50 to 100 people could pop into the church, and I had five or six really deep conversations. The population of Coober Pedy is 2500, and in the tourist season, it could be double that.

So we’ve got this wonderful blank slate, but we are praying to be mindful of what God wants us to do first, rather than go off on all different tangents.

As a newly commissioned baby minister, I’m passionate about people using their semi-retirement well. We’re empty nesters with four kids and six grandkids. So when the kids are gone, and you’re semi-independent financially, it’s important to use that time well and see how you can serve God. Our version is one way, but you could be just popping in as a Grey Nomad visiting churches, worshipping and fellowshipping with them for a month or so.

The church in Coober Pedy

There’s a big need in the bush and you don’t need a four-year Moore College degree to serve there. The heart of the bush is the people. This church has a core remnant, and a very hardworking warden holds the church together with his wife and several others. They’re thankful we’ve turned up and we’re thankful they’re still here.

We have a number of Christian school groups that have visited the church, and I want to encourage more of that. If you’re going to Uluru, Coober Pedy is the natural stopping point because it’s nine hours from Adelaide and most people stay overnight or two nights. So if any youth or mission groups want to come through, we can look after you big time! Please be praying and, if possible, supporting our sending organisation Bush Church Aid and all the 43 outposts nationally that BCA funds.