Aboriginal Christian and growing leader, Lonny Bendessi, shares his remarkable story with Essentials
WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
I was born in Adelaide. My family on my mother’s side is from a small place called Ceduna, which is 800km far west of Adelaide, we’re known as the West Coast mob. My father is from Western Australia, his mob are the Wongi mob from Kalgoorlie. I’m the second child of four in my family but I have a lot of cousins and we all call each other brother and sister. I found out I had a lot of first cousins who spoke English as a second language, they’re living out bush and wouldn’t live in the city.
I grew up in Adelaide until the age of 5 then Mum told me we’re going to Ceduna because that’s where we’re from. I stayed there until the age of 9 and that’s how I found out who I was, and that my people are the Wirangu people in the south and the Kokatha people just north of there. We stayed in a small community called Koonibba. It was interesting growing up there, as kids we would run amuck, didn’t care about anything, it was freedom. At home sometimes you’re surrounded by alcohol and violence but my mum and my cousins we all had each other. We’d all jump on our bikes to go out bush, ride around the whole community, make BMX jumps and climb trees.
We always had to watch out for snakes because they were so dangerous; tiger snakes, king brown snakes and even death adders. One day our boys had a scruff up with some of the other boys and an auntie came out with a broom telling us to stop. We all started running so I was sprinting through the scrub with no shoes on and as I stepped in front of a bush, a tiger snake came straight across my leg. The first thing people say you should do is stay still and back away slowly… the first thing I did was kick the snake and kept running! Growing up in an aboriginal community is knowing that you had your family and having that love for your brothers and sisters and cousins. Even through rough times we have each other and we have that bond and we’re strong together. Ever since then and still up until now we have that strong and close bond. We’re so close we walk into anyone’s house and look in the fridge and grab what you want—no worries, come here and crash. Life on the community had its ups and downs but it was worth it because you really find out who you are as a person and you find out how far you can go.
WHERE DID LIFE TAKE YOU AFTER THOSE DAYS IN COMMUNITY?
After that we ended up moving to Port Lincoln as I was transitioning from primary school to high school. I learnt a lot about life values and I did well at school, they even put me up a grade. I found study easy and I got good grades. At the age of 13 I moved to my father’s hometown of Kalgoorlie. The first year was ok, just mainly me and my brother. But then my father started drinking again and my brother and I tried to run away and come back to South Australia. I was still getting really, really good grades at school until about the age of 15 or 16 and then I started mixing with the wrong crowd. There was a lot of fighting and I just kept on fighting and fighting, there was even a big family feud that happened.
One time I got jumped by a whole bunch of people and got hit in the head with a machete. The machete hit me straight on the top of the head, sliced my head open, and took 6 months to heal. I lost a lot of weight and I’ve still got a scar to show for it. I knew nothing about Jesus and I kept asking, “Why am I still alive?” Lots of people told me it’s because of my ancestors but I kept asking, “Why am I still alive?”
Most of that time I thought everything was fun. We were drinking all the time but then I started to hit the bottom and ended up in a relationship that wasn’t good. At the age of 21 I got some of my ear bitten off in a fight and I started becoming overwhelmed with fear and anger. I was in and out of lockup, I separated from friends and I didn’t care about anyone.
HOW WAS JESUS AT WORK THROUGH ALL OF THIS?
I didn’t grow up with any real faith background. Koonibba was a Lutheran mission and a lot of the aboriginal communities have a Lutheran influence in South Australia. I wasn’t really into it but lots of the elders would say don’t eat red meat on Fridays. I’ve got some brothers and sisters who still stick with that stuff of not eating red meat on Fridays. At the age of 16 I had an experience of a house cleanse where a pastor came to do a rebuking of demonic entities. My brother had this house and the previous tenants used to deal drugs and something bad happened in there. My brother decided to ring a pastor and this guy was on fire for God and he comes and just starts worshipping Jesus. We knew there were two demonic entities in that house and as he was worshipping and he said “Get out in the name of Jesus.” I saw the window move twice, boom, boom. I remember thinking, “Did I just experience God’s power?” Everyone was talking about Jesus but I didn’t know he was real at that time but it developed a soft spot in me for God.
At the age of 18 when I was out drinking one night there was a street evangelist who said, “Hey bro, do you know Jesus?” We started talking a lot and I said “I don’t know him but I’ve got a soft spot.” He asked if he could pray for me and I agreed and then went off to party for the night. The next week I bumped into another person doing the same street evangelism, and then the week after that, and the week after that. It kept on going for a couple of months and then all of a sudden it just stopped.
One of my aunties always kept asking me “When are you coming to church with me” and it meant Jesus was always stuck in the back of my head all this time. After three years I ended up seeing one of the street evangelists again, he prayed for me and I decided to go back to my Mum’s. It was when I’d hit rock bottom and I stayed up all night thinking, “I’m broken, I’m lost, I’m destroyed.” I dropped to my knees and started crying. I prayed, “You know what Jesus? Do what you wish if you’re real: I’m just going to take this leap, you better catch me.”
I went to church one week at the Aboriginal Berean Community Church, and there were so many blackfellas that it spun me out. I started to like it and the fourth week I gave my heart to the Lord. Ever since then my life turned around, all the people I used to fight with: God turned that around, we see each other and talk. Whatever was restricted in the world God healed my heart. I never had a job in my life but a couple weeks later suddenly I had a job and ended up becoming a cook. There were times when I was cooking for three thousand people.
After all this time, God did finally give me an answer as to why I was still alive after the machete incident. Once when I went to a Christian concert they had a time of praising Jesus, all of a sudden this guy jumped up and he said “Whatever situation you were in God brought you out of it!” The Holy Spirit was moving so much, as he moved in me I relived that memory of the machete incident, and then God told me “I kept you alive for my purpose, you’re alive because of me, I’m not done with you.” The crazy thing is, my cousin who was sitting next to me, had my same memory and God told him the exact same thing as he told me. I was crying and my cousin was about to cry too, and we said God is so good.
HOW DID YOU END UP IN MELBOURNE?
The cooking environment wasn’t a good influence and a couple of months down the track I felt I needed to quit, even though it was a great opportunity. It was really hard going from full time work to nothing, it was really depressing but Jesus called me to surrender and I followed God’s will towards ministry. I spoke to my pastor and started to do a lot of leading of services and prayers, and as I kept walking with God I left more and more behind me and took up more and more opportunities in ministry. These verses kept on repeating in my head,
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
God kept reaffirming to me, “You need to surrender so I can do my work in you.”
Finishing as a chef and then coming to Ridley College all happened within 9 months. It was a time of prayer and applying to a range of colleges, but all through that process we kept coming back to Ridley College. I’m currently studying a Diploma of Theology and staying on campus. I’m growing so much and it’s amazing. I’ve just completed a bridging program and being at Ridley College has broadened my understanding of God’s Word and who we are in Christ, all praise and glory goes to our heavenly Father. I realised that God was there all that time, even when I wasn’t a Christian, he’d already declared “You’re going to do my purpose”. I’m a new creation for Christ, I don’t even recognise myself as a 20 year old.
WHAT’S THE ROAD AHEAD FROM HERE?
I really want to study more, even though I’m not used to this stuff. I want to learn more of God’s Word and get so grounded that I can teach others. There’s not a lot of blackfellas that have that theological background. My church, I’m the first one from my church in thirty years to go and study for ministry. The Lord brought me here for a reason and now I’m open and waiting to see where he’s taking me. He’s definitely calling me to a leadership role and some form of pastoral ministry.
I was the first male in my whole wider family to be saved and step out in faith, all my cousins were against me; “You left your culture” they’d say, but then a couple months later they call me and say, “Hey bro, I was just thinking about Jesus you know...” Some of my brothers led other brothers to the Lord. One of them looks like he might be pursuing ministry as well. Every step of the journey has been great. The one thing that I love the most is that if this is the Lord’s will, it is also going to encourage other young aboriginal people to look at Ridley College as an option as well.