Faith Comes Alive in the Pilbara
by Craig Siggins
The closure of a pub through lack of customers is big news in Australia. This is what drew the media to a small town called Nullagine in the far north of Western Australia. But the media didn’t know quite how to report the religious revival that is keeping people out of the pubs‑as well as the jails and hospitals. Aboriginal church worker Craig Siggins wrote this account of the spiritual awakening that is changing Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.
“Kuurti yarrarni kuwarri ngangka mungkangka” (“Holy Spirit, we welcome you in this place tonight”) is the first line of a song being sung at many Aboriginal communities around the Pilbara. It was composed by Len “Nyaparu” Brooks, also known as Kurutakurru, one of the many leaders God has raised up among the Martu Wangka, Nyangumarta and other peoples of the Pilbara.
A spiritual awakening took place in many communities last year, in 1997. Things started at Warralong, where many became Christians and were baptised after being influenced by three Christian Aboriginal leaders. Then just before Christmas, Kurutakurru joined two other leaders at Nullagine, and many from Nullagine and other communities became Christians and came across to the dam at Newman to be baptised.
Many communities started having meetings almost every night and prayer meetings every day. Leaders travelled to different communities for the meetings and to encourage people, sometimes holding meetings at night after a funeral service when hundreds of people were gathered. Some meetings went on for eight hours or more as people shared in song, testimony, prayer, Bible reading and preaching.
When Franklin Graham visited Perth in early February, over 200 Martu people travelled the 1150 km for his meetings. It was like one long church service all the way there and back. Everyone was bursting to sing and witness to the people in Perth.
When we got back there were more meetings and baptisms, even from communities that had previously rejected Christianity. Old people, Aboriginal elders, were turning to Christ and being baptised. Four hundred people gathered at the Coongan River near Marble Bar for three days of meetings, with many more being baptised.
Police, hospitals and others have noticed a decrease in alcohol related incidents. The media has begun to take notice. Nullagine, which had the record of being the arrest capital of Australia, became news when the pub went broke, apparently because so many had given up the grog. ‘A Current Affair’ came up and did a television spot at Nullagine.
Amazingly, a simultaneous and apparently quite separate revival began at about the same time among the Pintubi people and others across the border in the Northern Territory. A team from Kiwirrkura, just on the WA side of the border, travelled across the desert and joined up with the Pilbara meetings, arriving early for our Easter Convention held in a wide dry river bed near Newman. More than 1000 people from different communities and Christian traditions came together to celebrate.
Why the revival? It is nothing more or less more than a work of the Holy Spirit. It has similarities to the revival that spread to many Aboriginal communities in the early ’80s, which reached the Pilbara but never really took hold. Like that revival, people have had dreams and visions. Recently Mitchell, a leader from Punmu, got up and read from Acts 2 about Joel’s prophecy and said it was being fulfilled. Not long ago, people told me they had seen a cross in the sky one morning. And like the ‘80s revival, it is the Aboriginal people taking the Wangka Kunyjunyu (Good News) to their own people in their own way and their own language.
Aboriginal leaders empowered by the Holy Spirit are leading the revival. These leaders would like to see the revival reaching the wider Kartiya (non‑Aboriginal) society. But for these shy desert people to reach out to Kartiya in these days of Mabo, Wik and the struggle for reconciliation will only be by the hand of God.
Reprinted with permission from On Being ALIVE Magazine, PO Box 434, Hawthorn Victoria, 3122, Ph: 61 3 9819 4755, No. 5, June 1998, pages 8‑10.
Spiritual Awakening in the North-West
Craig Siggins gives a more detailed account of the Pilbara revival in this article.
Beginnings at Elcho Island
Revival! In some Christian circles it is like the Holy Grail – something to be sought after at all cost. But perhaps few realise that a revival did come to Australia – or that there is again a revival happening right now. Perhaps few realise this because both revivals began in remote areas among Aboriginal people.
In 1979 a revival began on Elcho Island off the Northern Territory. In 1981 it came to the Warburton Ranges in Western Australia, and then spread to many Aboriginal communities around Australia. I was privileged to have been a witness to that revival.
In 1981/82 at the height of the revival in Western Australia I was teaching at the Christian Aboriginal Parent-directed School at Coolgardie. All of the students became Christians and there were prayer, praise and testimony meetings most nights. My present work as a pastor/missionary is a direct result of that revival. The revival has been well documented in Ian Lindsay’s Fire in the Spinifex and John Blacker’s Fire in the Outback. The effect of that revival nearly 20 years on is still strong in many communities – Aboriginal Christian leaders, committed Aboriginal Christians and Gospel seeds sown in many places and many lives, including the Pilbara.
Resistant people respond
My wife, Lyn, and I came to the Pilbara in 1993, settling in the town of Newman. Our vision was to see a strong, indigenous Aboriginal church raised up amongst the Martu Aboriginal people of this area. But we had not expected to see it so soon. We had expected a long, slow struggle before anything of significance developed.
Some communities were strongly anti-Christian. At one community we were told by some white Christians not to be too overt in our Christian witness. Two years later Aboriginal leaders from our Parnpajinya Church at Newman baptised many from that community. At another community a clause against teaching Christianity was written into the school constitution. Two years later we were having Christian meetings on the school verandah. Aboriginal people told me how some of the old men had threatened Christians with spears. Some of these same old men have now accepted Christ.
Against all expectations we found the Martu people to be really open to the Gospel. The seeds were sown by the 1981 revival, by the witness of the Apostolic Church and by the work of the late Jim Marsh, a gifted linguist with a pastoral heart, much respected by the people.
Winter rains refreshing
We began our own language efforts modestly, by walking up to Aboriginal people and speaking a few words we had picked up in the Goldfields and then, with practice, gradually expanding our vocabulary. Church also began slowly, but some believed and then were baptised. We thought things were happening too quickly, even then, so we didn’t rush to baptise anyone.
Teams of Aboriginal Christian men from the Plibara Aboriginal Church of Roebourne (Apostolic) came over from time to time and helped. Leaders developed. More were baptised. I became committed to taking teams from Parnpajinya (Newman) to various communities. Gifts were developed. More and more became Christians and were baptised, but the revival hadn’t really come as yet. It was like the winter rains refreshing us before the main summer rains came. Communities – too many to cope with – were crying out for visits.
One of our leaders – Kerry Kelly (KK) – had gone to Warralong and teamed up with a couple of other strong Christians. Warralong has a community that had been opposed to Christianity. But the Spirit moved there and many were baptised. We had Christian meetings (the first ever). At one meeting nearly the whole community came forward to dedicate or re-dedicate their lives to Christ. KK, less than two years old as a Christian, became one of the main leaders at Warralong and for the revival. In 1996 I had taken KK over to a Men’s Training Camp in the Northern Territory. This interaction helped solidify KK in his Christian walk. KK often leads at the Lord’s Supper, and when many communities come together this has been a unifying factor.
At Parnpajinya (Newman), just before and after Christmas 1997, many people were coming to the Lord and we were having multiple baptisms at the Ophthalmia Dam. This was about the time the revival really took off. People from Jigalong and other communities were also coming to be baptised, including some of the old men. Many nights we were having meetings that went to early in the morning. Some communities were having meetings every night and prayer meetings every day! Some still are.
The ‘arrest capital’ of Australia
Nullagine, which had the dubious distinction of being called “the arrest capital” of Australia, asked us to come there, which we did. Len (Nyaparu*) Brooks, known as Kurutakururru, Walter Crusoe (Wari) and Billy (Nyaparu*) Landy took up the leadership at Nullagine. Many people there who had become Christians were asking to be baptised.
So one weekend I drove the old church bus to Nullagine, picked up as many people as could be squashed into the bus and, two flat tyres later, drove back to Newman. Many were baptised. Our practice is to have two doing the baptising together – usually one who knows the words to say and another who might be a learner. For cultural reasons, we have men baptising men and women baptising women. So we picked out two men and two women from each community. When the baptisms finished, we found out the lady leader from Nullagine doing the baptisms hadn’t been baptised herself, so we turned around and baptised her!
After that we travelled again to Nullagine and baptised a number of people there, including people from remote communities and some more of the old men. Parnpajinya, Nullagine, Punmu and Warralong, with some from Jigalong and Parnngurr, were spearheading the revival. I travelled around with leaders such as Alistair (Jaliku) Sammy, Chrissie Sailor, Clarrie Robinson and Lizzie Jones to different communities encouraging the believers and holding meetings that at times went for hours. Sometimes hundreds would stay on after a funeral and all join together for a Christian meeting. In October 1997 1 had taken Clarrie Robinson and Willie Bennett to a Men’s Training Camp in the Northern Territory. The topic was ‘Preaching’. Clarrie came back and began preaching for the first time. Willie went back to Kiwirrkurra near the Western Australia / Northern Territory border. Incredibly, a revival had sprung up at Kiwirrkurra and other Pintubi communities in the Northern Territory at about the same time as the Western Australia revival, but quite unconnected. Willie Bennett became a leader of that revival.
A week-long revival
Someone heard that Franklin Graham was coming to Perth for a Festival, and the Aboriginal Christian leaders decided it would be good to go to hear him. The only thing was, Perth was 1150 kilometres away! But people chucked in money and somehow over 200 people crammed into 4 coaster buses, 2 mini-buses and a motley fleet of assorted 4WDs and other vehicles and got to Perth (and back!).
We were there for a week, but it was like one long revival meeting. We sang and prayed all the way down and had meetings every morning and night where we were camped (when we weren’t listening to Franklin!) Kurutakurru, a gifted singer and song-writer himself, had the idea of singing outside to the crowds waiting to get in the Burswood Dome where Franklin was speaking. So we arrived early each night, gathered in a group and sang away in English and Martu Wangka to the kartiyakaja (white people). They seemed to appreciate it. The style was a bit different to the precision programming that happened inside the Dome, though!
When we got back, some communities had the idea of holding a mini-convention before our main Easter Convention. After some hesitation (over finding a place with enough water for baptisms!) a gorge near Warralong was chosen. Over 50 people were baptised including some old men who had been opposed to Christianity previously. Two old men and an old lady, too crippled to enter the water, knelt down while water was poured over them with a cup (this was after some discussion as to whether such a baptism was okay). It was a stirring witness! Meetings went on morning and night. Even a rain storm and lightning strike one night didn’t dampen the enthusiasm.
A pub with few patrons
Our Easter Convention (1998) was a wonderful time of celebrating Jesus. Over 1000 people came, including many new Christians from communities that had never come before. The meetings went nearly non-stop over the Easter period. Singing is a prominent feature of the revival. There is a real sense of joy that comes out in song. Many new songs have been written and many old songs translated into Martu Wangka, Nyangurnartu and other languages. Everywhere you go you bear kids singing and tapes playing songs of the revival.
So many people were becoming Christians and giving up the grog that the pub in Nuilagine lost a lot of its business and went into receivership. The story made news around Australia. Nyaparu Landy and I were interviewed on Perth radio! A Current Affair went to Nuilagine.
But the revival has not stopped. The Martu people themselves are reaching out to other Martu people. Neilie Bidu from Yandeyarra came back, fired up from
hearing Franklin Graham, to reach out to his own community. He began a small prayer meeting and then invited Kurutakurru and other leaders from Warralong and Punmu to help him. So they went to Warralong and many there became Christians. Yandeyarra people in turn have reached out to Banjima people near Tom Price. Other communities have also been reached, including some that were closed to Christianity. Some of these communities had turned away Crusade teams from the 1981 revival. Now they have turned to the Lord.
Why revival, and why now?
Only the power of the Holy Spirit can explain this revival. It is a miracle, an incredible revival happening. Mitchell Biljabu, a leader from Punmu, has likened it to the prophecy of Joel in Acts 2.
I asked Milton Chapman, another leader from Punmu what, apart from the Holy Spirit, is bringing about the revival. He replied that it was Aboriginal leaders bringing the message of Good News to their own people. Many have responded to the powerful witness of changed lives. Alistair and Chrissie wrote their testimony for Today magazine and said: “For a long time we were drinking and gambling… We started to think about Mama (Father) God… we gave our hearts to the Lord. We have kept following Mama God right up to now.”
The example has had a strong impact on their extended families, nearly all of whom have become Christians. Prayer has been another major factor in the revival. The Martu pray simple and sincere prayers for all sorts of things. The prayer meeting at Nullagine every morning helped keep the believers strong.
Some excesses and difficulties
But there have also been some excesses and difficulties in the revival. Some still struggle with alcoholism and some have gone back to the drink. Many are new Christians with little knowledge of Christianity. Even the leaders are in the main untrained. Some are illiterate. And other groups have come in with different ideas and practices that have caused division even within families and have led to much debate and argument, some of it bitter. One is a legalistic group that stresses the keeping of the 10 commandments, especially the fourth (keeping the Sabbath). Another is a fairly extreme charismatic group.
Then there are issues of a more cultural nature. Some couples who have become Christians are married the wrong way in a tribal (though not biblical) sense, including some leaders. What to do? What to do about some of the tribal laws and ceremonies? Reject them all? Keep some? These are big issues to be worked through.
We are encouraging the leaders to read the Bible for themselves and to come to solid biblical conclusions as they struggle through these issues with the help of the Holy Spirit, but it will take time. Pray for the people and the revival!
Used with permission from Vision, the magazine of the Australian Baptist Missionary Society, July 1998, pages 12-15.
Grog replaced by Gospel
Reports by Mairi Barton
Mairi Barton is a reporter with The West Australian newspaper in Perth. These reports were written in April 1998.
A religious revival among Aboriginal people in the remote North‑West town of Nullagine ‑ once labelled the arrest capital of Australia ‑ has drastically reduced the number of arrests and jailings.
Police in Nullagine, 184 km north of Newman (in WA), claim drunken domestic fights which once dogged the community have virtually disappeared and the residents seem happier and healthier.
The only sufferer is the local pub, the Conglomerate Hotel, which once kept six staff busy. Last month the lessee went into receivership after the town’s 100 to 150 Aboriginal people turned to Christianity in November.
Since then, the Aboriginal community has reduced the number of arrests to just a handful and there have been no jailings. They gave up alcohol and labelled the hotel “the devil’s place”.
Instead of going to the bar each night to drink, they sit happily in circles under the stars, pray and sing gospel songs at the Yirrangkaji community on the outskirts of the town.
When The West Australian visited last week, they were eager to share their new‑found love of God and talk about the positive changes they have made to their lives.
Gary Marshall, who leased the hotel and adjoining shop for 2 years, said the arrival of religion spelt disaster for his business, but he did not hold it against the Aboriginal people.
“I couldn’t sit here and say it was a bad thing,” he said. “If they are better off, then it’s a wonderful thing.” …
The two men believed responsible for their religious conversion ‑ local Aboriginal men who left town a couple of years ago and returned late last year as changed men, keen to share the Christian message ‑ were out of town.
Senior Constable Mal Kay, the officer in charge at Nullagine, said the drop in crime could be explained in part by the fact that the population dropped every time big groups from the community left town to attend religious meetings around the Pilbara and in Northam.
Most arrests in town in the past have been assaults and woundings stemming from alcohol.
Mother sees her life in a new light
Mother‑of‑two Lisa Dalbin used to be a weekly visitor to the Nullagine police lockup for assault, anti‑social behaviour or just to sober up. The 26‑year‑old would spend her pension on alcohol, get jealous over her man and find herself in punch‑ups with women who were her friends when she was sober. That was before she found Christianity and gave up drinking last November.
“We pray and sing every morning and every night,” she said. “We have church meetings every Wednesday and Saturday.”
Miss Dalbiii has worked off her fines through community work, picking up rubbish and working in the children’s kitchen ‑ where the children have breakfast, shower and change into their uniforms before school.
Her favourite drink used to he port and she freely admits that it made her act mad. She does not miss it. She is happier, has money in her pocket to go shopping and takes better care of her sons, aged five and eight, now she is sober. She is even studying to get her driver’s license, a privilege which seemed out of reach to her a few months ago. The only time she sees the police now is when they stop to say hello in the street.
Her cousin Phillip Bennell, 39, who spent much of his youth behind bars because of alcohol‑related strife, has also been sober for about four months since “he saw the light”.
God is his master now, not grog, he says. “To follow the Lord is good, you know. It keeps you away from trouble. Alcohol is a killer for anybody, but especially the Aboriginal people. I was one of the worst blokes, locked up all the time away from my kids. I spent 21 years of my life in and out of prison.”
Mr Bennell said it would be easy for him to turn back to drink, but he did not want to because he had realised the damage it could do. “I had two feet in the grave and what I was doing was adding a final nail in the coffin,” he said. “But when I found the Lord I gave it all away. I didn’t want to die a young bloke.”
He said he no longer wanted to drink because he had a 12‑year‑old daughter and her life was more important to him than alcohol.
Mr Bennell said the footpath outside the Conglomerate Hotel had been the site of many arguments and brawls, but now the community held prayer meetings across the road. If they ventured into the pub, it was only to get a cool drink.
“There used to be a lot of tough drinkers at the reserve,” he said. “They gave it away because they found a bit of peace and a better way of life. A lot of people here want their health, and their children brought up in a good environment.
The West Australian. Used with permission.
(c) Renewal Journal 12: Harvest, 1998, 2011.
Reproduction is allowed with the copyright included in the text.
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