Pentecost in Arnhem Land, Australia
Pentecost in Arnhem Land is a chapter in Great Revival Stories
The Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra is a Uniting Church minister and former Moderator of the Northern Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia.
mission is to include every aspect of the work
which the church is sent into the world to do
This is a very brief outline of the revival which took place in Arnhem Land in the Uniting Church parishes, beginning in Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, 400 miles east of Darwin, with a population of 1500 to 1600.
In the early years, Galiwin’ku Community was the mission station established by the Methodist Overseas Mission back in 1942 under the leadership of Rev. Harold Shepherdson. He was accepted by the Methodist Mission Board in 1927 as a lay missionary, engineer and saw-miller. Because of his long outstanding Christian leadership and humility he was ordained at Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, on 19th October, 1954. He and his wife Ella Shepherdson would have been the last pioneer missionaries to leave their beloved home and people in Arnhem Land.
The missionary movement in Arnhem Land has taken as its mandate the great commission in Matthew 28:1920 which says: Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.’
I understand that mission is to include every aspect of the work which the church is sent into the world to do, and I understand evangelism in a different sense which is called holistic evangelism. It is a means of communication of the good news about Jesus Christ as it affects the whole of life.
You will remember very well the story in Acts 1:68 when Jesus and his disciples met together before the ascension took place. The disciples asked whether God’s reign was now come in full. Jesus told them it was not their business to worry about that, but they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them and they would be his witnesses beginning in Jerusalem and going outwards into Judea, Samaria and on to the ends of the earth.
There is something quite unpredictable, unexpected and mysterious about the way that God’s rule is realized in communities and in the lives of individuals. So the disciples were told to wait for the Holy Spirit and then they would be witnesses when Pentecost came. Something quite unplanned and unexpected happened. They began to babble in other strange languages and people asked what is this that is happening? What is going on?
Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, experienced the revival on 14th March, 1979. That year was a very hard year because the churches in Arnhem Land were going through very difficult times. There was suffering, hardship and even persecution.
Many people left the church and the Christian gospel no longer had interest and value in their lives. Many began to speak against Christianity or even wanted to get rid of the church.
This attitude was affected by the changes that were happening. Money and other things were coming into the community from the government. The people became more rich and were handling lots of things such as motor cars, T.V., motor boats, and good houses. The
responsibilities were in the hands of the Aboriginal people and no longer in the missionaries’ hands.
The earthly values became the centre of Aboriginal life. There was more liquor coming into the communities every day, and more fighting was going on. There were more families hurt, and more deaths and incidents happening which were caused by drinking.
Whole communities in Arnhem Land were in great chaos. The people were in confusion and without direction. The Aboriginal people were listening to many voices. The government was saying you are free people and you must have everything you want, just like the other Australians. And there were promises from one to another.
To me, the Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land were like the Israelites in Egypt being slaves in bondage because of all the changes that were brought into the community. They were like the vacuum suction which was sucking in everything that comes without knowing that many of the things that came into communities were really unpleasant and only destroyed the harmony and the good relationship with the people and the communities.
I thank God that I was being called back to serve my own people in Arnhem Land, especially to Galiwin’ku. In 1975 I had just completed my theological training in Papua New Guinea in Raronga Theological College and was appointed to Galiwin’ku parish. My ordination took place in 1976 in Galiwin’ku parish, and I was ordained by the Arnhem Land Presbytery. I was appointed then to Galiwin’ku parish as parish minister.
This celebration took place when there were lots of changes happening and when the church was challenged by the power of evil which clothes itself in greed, selfishness, drunkenness, and in wealth. As I went on my daily pastoral visitation around the camp I would hear the drunks swearing and bashing up their wives and throwing stones on the houses, and glass being broken in the houses. And sometimes the drunks would go into the church and smoke cigarettes in the holy house of God. This was really terrible. The whole of Arnhem Land was being held by the hands of satan.
I remember one day I woke up early in the morning and went for a walk down the beach and started talking to myself. I said, ‘Lord, why have you called me to the ministry? Why have you called me back to my own people? Why not to somewhere else, because there is so much suffering and hardship?’
I then returned to the manse where Gelung, my wife, and the children were. This was our last day before we left for our holidays to the south, visiting old missionary friends and also taking part in the lovely wedding held in Sydney for Barry and Barbara Bullick, one of our missionary workers still remaining in Galiwin’ku Community.
It was almost 6.30 am and it was my turn to lead the morning devotions. The bell had already rung and I had rushed into the church. When I got there, there were only four people inside the church. We used to have our morning devotions every day early in the morning because this system had been formed by the missionaries in the early years.
God had given me the Word to read and share with those four people who were present in the church with me. The reading I selected was from the Old Testament, Ezekiel 37:114, the valley of dry bones. Most of you know the story very well, how God Yahweh commanded the prophet Ezekiel to prophecy to the dry bones, and how that the dry bones represent the whole house of Israel, how they were just like bones dried up and their hope had perished. They were completely cut off.
After the morning prayers, Gelung, the children and I were ready to leave for Gove and then go on to Cairns in North Queensland. We were away for four weeks and returned on 14th March, 1979.
20th century Pentecost
To me and all the Galiwin’ku Community, both the Aboriginal Christians and the white Christians, these dates and the month were very important because this is the mark of the birth of the Pentecost experience in the Arnhem Land churches or the birth of the Arnhem Land churches. To us it was like Pentecost in this 20th Century.
It happened when Gelung, the children and I arrived very late in the afternoon from our holidays through Gove on the late Missionary Aviation Fellowship aircraft to Galiwin’ku. When we landed at Galiwin’ku airport we were welcomed and met by many crowds of people.
They all seemed to be saying to us, ‘We would like you to start the Bible Class fellowship once again.’ It seemed to me that God, after our leaving, had been walking on and preparing many people’s lives to wait upon the outpouring of his Holy Spirit that would soon come upon them. Gelung and I were so tired from the long trip from Cairns to Gove and then from Gove to Galiwin’ku that we expected to rest and sort out some of the things and unpack. But we just committed ourselves to the needs of our brothers and sisters who had welcomed and met us at the airport that afternoon.
After the evening dinner, we called our friends to come and join us in the Bible Class meeting. We just sang some hymns and choruses translated into Gupapuynu and into Djambarrpuynu. There were only seven or eight people who were involved or came to the Bible Class meeting, and many of our friends didn’t turn up. We didn’t get worried about it.
I began to talk to them that this was God’s will for us to get together this evening because God had planned this meeting through them so that we will see something of his great love which will be poured out on each one of them. I said a word of thanks to those few faithful Christians who had been praying for renewal in our church, and I shared with them that I too had been praying for the revival or the renewal for this church and for the whole of Arnhem Land churches, because to our heavenly Father everything is possible. He can do mighty things in our churches throughout our great land.
These were some of the words of challenge I gave to those of my beloved brothers and sisters. Gelung, my wife, also shared something of her experience of the power and miracles that she felt deep down in her heart when she was about to die in Darwin Hospital delivering our fourth child. It was God’s power that brought the healing and the wholeness in her body.
I then asked the group to hold each other’s hands and I began to pray for the people and for the church, that God would pour out his Holy Spirit to bring healing and renewal to the hearts of men and women, and to the children.
Suddenly we began to feel God’s Spirit moving in our hearts and the whole form of our prayer suddenly changed and everybody began to pray in the Spirit and in harmony. And there was a great noise going on in the room and we began to ask one another what was going on.
Some of us said that God had now visited us and once again established his kingdom among his people who have been bound for so long by the power of evil. Now the Lord is setting his church free and bringing us into the freedom of happiness and into reconciliation and to restoration.
In that same evening the word just spread like the flames of fire and reached the whole community in Galiwin’ku. Gelung and I couldn’t sleep at all that night because people were just coming for the ministry, bringing the sick to be prayed for, for healing. Others came to bring their problems. Even a husband and wife came to bring their marriage problem, so the Lord touched them and healed their marriage.
Next morning the Galiwin’ku Community once again became the new community. The love of Jesus was being shared and many expressions of forgiveness were taking place in the families and in the tribes. Wherever I went I could hear people singing and humming Christian choruses and hymns! Before then I would have expected to hear only fighting and swearing and many other troublesome things that would hurt your feelings and make you feel sad.
Many unplanned and unexpected things happened every time we went from camp to camp to meet with the people. The fellowship was held every night and more and more people gave their lives to Christ, and it went on and on until sometimes the fellowship meeting would end around about midnight. There was more singing, testimony, and ministry going on. People did not feel tired in the morning, but still went to work.
Many Christians were beginning to discover what their ministry was, and a few others had a strong sense of call to be trained to become Ministers of the Word. Now today these ministers who have done their training through Nungilinya College have been ordained. These are some of the results of the revival in Arnhem Land. Many others have been trained to take up a special ministry in the parish.
The spirit of revival has not only affected the Uniting Church communities and the parishes, but Anglican churches in Arnhem Land as well, such as in Angurugu, Umbakumba, Roper River, Numbulwar and Oenpelli. These all have experienced the revival, and have been touched by the joy and the happiness and the love of Christ.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Arnhem Land has swept further to the Centre in Pitjantjatjara and across the west into many Aboriginal settlements and communities. I remember when Rev. Rronang Garrawurra, Gelung and I were invited by the Warburton Ranges people and how we saw God’s Spirit move in the lives of many people. Five hundred people came to the Lord and were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
There was a great revival that swept further west. I would describe these experiences like a wild bush fire burning from one side of Australia to the other side of our great land. The experience of revival in Arnhem Land is still active in many of our Aboriginal parishes and the churches.
We would like to share these experiences in many white churches where doors are closed to the power of the Holy Spirit. It has always been my humble prayer that the whole of Australian Christians, both black and white, will one day be touched by this great and mighty power of the living God.
(c) Djiniyini Gondarra’s, Let my people go. Published by Bethel Presbytery of the Northern Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia.
Used with permission.
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