A new college in Singapore

ETC Asia gets up and running
Andrew and Heather Reid have moved from Holy Trinity Doncaster to Singapore, with Andrew accepting the invitation of Singaporean friends to be the first principal of a new theological college. Here’s an orientation to ETC Asia. Andrew Reid is the Principal of the Evangelical Theological College of Asia

I still have the email. It is dated October 2000 and we were in our first year of church planting in Perth. The writer was aware of our earlier ministry at St Matthew’s Shenton Park in Perth and had just started up a ministry in Singapore called Project Timothy. He wondered if I’d be available to give some expositions for them at some stage in the future. While I’d never had a great interest in ministry in Asia or South East Asia, my wife Heather had always been interested in ministry to Asians and particularly Chinese. However, things began to change for me as God brought a steady stream of Chinese students to our church plant intended for Aussies and they were gradually converted as Heather met with them to do ESL classes using the Bible.
The October 2000 email bore fruit in a visit to Singapore two or three years later. When I quizzed my new-found friend on the needs in Singapore, he noted that there was a significant dearth of churches that had strong expository preaching ministries. Jokingly he quipped that what was really needed was a new Bible college to train a new generation of gospel workers. At the same conference, I also renewed acquaintances with a previous AFES student president who had taken a position at St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur and we resolved to do whatever we could to help these gospel friends. Visits to Singapore or Malaysia became almost annual and God was at work in other ways as well. I started doctoral studies and lecturing at Ridley. Heather started working with international students at RMIT. Our son married a Singaporean and we then moved to Holy Trinity Doncaster in 2010 (a church with a significant ministry among mainland Chinese people).

The crunch came with a phone call from my Singaporean friend. He told me that the idea we joked about earlier was beginning to look feasible. In response to the growing need a group of six like-minded pastors had gathered to form a board. They had a fledgling company and potential students. They wondered if I would come and be their first principal! After interviews, we accepted the position and we began the heartbreaking preparation to move from HTD. We arrived in Singapore in mid-2016 to join our Singaporean friends with their gospel-grounded dream. They thought they could raise enough money for a principal and two or three faculty and premises and I began the process in a new country of trying to get this done. We now have two full time faculty (in Old Testament and New Testament), a theology faculty member arriving in mid-2019, Mike Raiter from the Centre for Biblical Preaching for a month a year, and some part time, adjunct and voluntary lecturers.

I remember as we were preparing to come to Singapore, an influential friend knowledgeable about South East Asia expressed some reservations about the venture. He thought that there were enough colleges and was not sure that a new one would add anything. The irony of course is that this initiative has always been a local one—local people seeing the local need and working toward making up a perceived deficit. Our answer to the regularly asked question of what makes us distinctive, our response come under four headings:

Reformed and Evangelical Theology

Although board and faculty come from diverse denominational backgrounds we share a commitment to reformed evangelical distinctives such as those found in the confessional statement of The Gospel Coalition and the Australian version of the The Gospel Coalition Theological Vision for Ministry.

Integrated Training for Expository Preaching

Too often there is a divide between training in theology and training for ministry, including preaching and other ministries of the word. At all levels we rigorously seek to bind the two disciplines together and to practise them together, particularly theological study and expository preaching.

Robust and Informed Biblical Theology

While we believe that expository preaching is the best way to handle God’s word, we are also convinced that such preaching needs to be informed by a robust Biblical theology, that is, the Bible’s theological drive towards Jesus as the centre, fulfilment, and end of all God’s purposes.

Challenging and Training for World Mission

Although based in Singapore, the goal of ETC Asia is to serve Asia as a whole. We are committed to mission, that is, seeing the gospel go out to all the cities, villages, and tribes of Asia.

Three other important goals are, first, to become more financially stable and continue to grow our student numbers (our first year consisted of nine full time students and five part time; this year there are about five full time and about five part time). Second, to transition to like-minded and adequately educated and trained Singaporean faculty before Heather and I finish the ten year commitment we’ve given. Thirdly, to form partnerships with like-minded gospel friends in Malaysia and South East Asia and see if we can help them train the next generation of theological college leaders.

The New Situation

Bishop Robert Forsyth, formerly Bishop of South Sydney, current senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies sees a testing time ahead for Evangelicals.

We are living in different worlds. Leaving aside for a moment the religious freedom implications of the passing of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, the process and events around it reveal profound differences in fundamental beliefs in Australia between the churches and much of the wider society.

Much of the disagreement about same-sex marriage reflected deeper disagreements about other questions of what is marriage itself, what is the moral status of same-sex relationships, and about how such questions are decided in the first place. The differences go all the way down. As ancient historian Kyle Harper recently wrote: ‘In our secular age, just as in the early years of Christianity, differences in sexual morality are really about the clash between different pictures of the universe and the place of the individual within it.’ 1

This was unacknowledged in much of the debate and yet is one reason why neither side seemed to be actually talking to the other. The churches’ campaign for the no case never really said why same-sex marriage should not be legal because, whether they realised it or not, the real Christian case for no is incomprehensible to those who share so little of the Christian understanding of reality. Harper captures this well.
An avowed secularist is as likely as a Christian activist to proclaim the universal dignity of all and insist upon the individual’s freedom. And yet, however moralized the domain of sex might be, the vast, vacant universe seems to have left only authenticity and consent as the shared, public principles of sexual morality. These axioms derive from a picture of the universe different from the one imagined by Paul, who envisioned the individual—including the sexual self—within the larger story of the gospel and a created cosmos in the throes of restoration. That is why the no case was all about unwelcome consequences to same-sex marriage, not the issue itself.

Since then, not unexpectedly, the meaning and significance of the change in the law is deeply contested as well. In the second reading Attorney General George Brandis described the passing of the bill as saying ‘to those vulnerable young people [who are homosexual or lesbian], there is nothing wrong with you. You are not unusual. You are not abnormal. You are just you.’ The Prime Minister said that in amending the Marriage Act the clear message to every gay person was ‘we love you. We respect you. Your relationship is recognised by the Commonwealth as legitimate and honourable as anybody else’s. You belong.’ Peter van Onselen writing in The Australian on 27 November likened those who voted no with ‘people who wanted blacks to continue to ride at the back of the bus, or racial segregation of toilets, or bans on interracial marriage. When the laws changed they realised they were on the wrong side of history.’

If this rhetoric is to be taken seriously it means that in the eyes of significant thought leaders in this country those who voted no, and in particular those who continue to hold to a view of marriage that is not the one endorsed by the passing of the Act, must be saying to gay people; ‘you are abnormal’, ‘you are not loved or respected’, and that such non-cooperators are the moral equivalent to segregationists in America’s deep South in the 1960s. In other words, it is not just that such leaders remain unconvinced as to our stance, they are uncomprehending, and, worse, regard us as immoral.
It is not easy so close to these events to know how long-lasting such attitudes are. Public debates have short half-lives. But the reality of incomprehension and disgust is lasting. We can be sure that the six in ten Australians, who, according to the Ipsos survey2 released in October last year, believe that religion does more harm than good are not going away soon.

The implications for the churches are threefold. Firstly, we face threats to religious freedoms and privilege in a situation of diminished goodwill towards us. Secondly, we need to accept that, on any public issue other than those where we simply echo the majority culture, we have to start way back in the different picture of the universe and the place of the individual within it that informs our understanding. Thirdly, the churches face the Herculean task of maintaining the integrity of their own discipleship and culture down the generations in the face of a proselytising and persistent secularism, especially in matters of sexual behaviour. It will be a testing time indeed.

1. Kyle Harper ‘The First Sexual Revolution’ First Things, January 2018

2. https://www.ipsos.com/en-au/ipsos-global-study-shows-half-think-religion-does-more-harm-good

The Story of Peter Soedojo (1933-2006)

Tony Nichols remembers the remarkable life of an Indonesian man he met as a student in Sydney, and who, having become a Christian under John Stott’s mission preaching, lived a life of fruitful witness and ministry in Indonesia.

Soedojo came to Australia from Indonesia in the mid-fifties as a Colombo Plan student. The Colombo Plan was a centrepiece of Australian foreign policy which aimed to strengthen relations with Asia. Thousands of Asian students studied in Australian universities, hastening the dismantling of the “White Australia” policy. I personally formed many lasting friendships. Considering the prevailing attitudes at that time, my parents were remarkable in their hospitality to the Chinese and Indonesian students that I brought home from Sydney University to Bulli on the South Coast of NSW.

Indonesian students, compared with those from Singapore, Malaya or Hong Kong, were disadvantaged in their studies. Not being from the British Commonwealth, they had little language or cultural preparation for survival in Australia. The friendship of Australian students who helped get accurate lecture notes and shared their lives was mutually beneficial. Soedojo, although a very traditional Javanese and a Muslim, learnt to play tennis and began to read the Bible.

Then in mid-1958, the S.U. Evangelical Union organised a Mission to the University led by the Rev’d John Stott, the young Rector of All Souls Langham Place, London. For a week, we attended lunchtime expositions of the Sermon on the Mount, the like of which I personally had never experienced – clear, systematic, unemotional explanations of Jesus’ teaching. The final Sunday night meeting, in the Great Hall, attracted hundreds of students and lecturers. The weary missioner’s usually distinct tones were reduced to a croak. Nevertheless, about seventy students stayed behind for counselling. Soedojo was one who that night confessed Jesus Christ as Lord.

In his baptism at St. Barnabas, Broadway (where I was his sponsor), Soedojo took the name Peter. Subsequently, while completing his Master’s degree in Physics, he regularly attended Chapel services on Sunday nights at Moore Theological College. We parted company at the end of 1959. I was sent to teach Latin at Temora High School in country NSW. Peter returned to Java.

Communications with Indonesia in the sixties were difficult. It was even harder from British North Borneo where I was posted by the Church Missionary Society in 1962. President Sukarno had declared Konfrontasi against Britain and its proposed Malaysian Federation.

I was teaching at St. Patrick’s School, Tawau, on the border with Indonesia. Until the British brought in the Gurkhas, we were under constant threat from Indonesian guerrillas and gunboats. There was no contact with Soedojo for twelve years. Some friends believed that he had been sent to the Soviet Union for further studies and that he may not have returned because of the failed Communist coup in 1966.

Then in God’s strange providence, after study and teaching at Moore College, and my marriage to Judith, CMS sent the Nichols family to Muslim Java in 1972, to teach at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga. We shared with some of our prayer partners the desire to find Soedojo and began to make enquiries of Javanese colleagues. The quest was daunting. Indonesia’s population was almost 200 million, most of whom lived on the island of Java.

There followed one of those spectacular answers to prayer with which the Lord occasionally encourages His people. Suffice it to say that within two months of our arrival in Salatiga, Soedojo turned up on our doorstep. He was a visiting lecturer at Satya Wacana! In his pici (the national black cap) and sarong, he was hardly distinguishable from the millions of other Javanese among whom we lived. But it was him all right - older and thinner; the same smile, the same manner - self-effacing, yet quietly dignified. Over the following nine years, we were also able to get to know his wife, Tien, their three irrepressible boys and daughter. Gradually, we were able to piece together a remarkable story.

Soedojo lived about 100 kilometres from Salatiga, in Bantul, near Yogyakarta, the cultural heartland of Java. On returning from Australia, he had been appointed tutor in the Science Faculty of the prestigious Gadjah Mada University. Like most public servants in the Sukarno era, he was driven by soaring inflation to supplement his income from other sources. His parents relied on him to finance the education of his seven younger brothers and one sister. The standard practice would have been to solicit bribes from students seeking to guarantee their progress. Soedojo chose to work as a part time teacher in high schools.

For three years he had no contact with a Christian congregation. There was none in his area. He did, however, begin to invite some students and neighbours to join him in the study of the Scriptures. The Javanese were almost totally Islamic, though often, under the surface, older monistic beliefs persisted.

However, in the late sixties, Christian movements occurred after the traumatic events following the attempted Communist coup in which over half a million were killed. Thousands of suspected Communist sympathisers were placed in detention camps. The notorious Buru Prison Island had twelve thousand exiles.

Perhaps in reaction to both communists and vengeful Islamists, the membership of our local Javanese church and its outposts in Salatiga had grown to 28,000 by 1972.

In the same period, Soedojo’s home group in Bantul had become a congregation of the Gereja Kristen Jawa with 300 members and five outcentres. A Christian school had also been established. At Christmas and Easter, Soedojo took teams out to evangelize surrounding villages, using the indigenous Wayang puppets. The pastor was one of two young men whom Soedojo had nurtured and encouraged. This information, like so much else, came to light incidentally. I had noted that his meagre library did not include the New Bible Dictionary that I had given him. He explained that the Christian books brought back from Australia had been divided equally between his two proteges when they had begun their studies at the seminary in Jakarta.

Within his own family circle, it seems that Soedojo did not face any great opposition, perhaps because he was an exemplary son. His father had passed away and he was the main breadwinner of the family. He did not marry until he was 35. He took his position as head of the family very seriously and after his siblings scattered, he visited them at least once a year. Some were already better off financially. Two were officers in the military and one a doctor. Four had become Christians.

We were able to meet the minister and members of his church, including the police chief, a recent convert from Islam. All testified to the influence on their neighbourhood of one godly Christian home.

At the State University, Christians, whether staff or students, had to tread very circumspectly. Discrimination was real, especially against those who had converted to Christianity (as distinct from those who came from Christian families). Former students who became lecturers at Satya Wacana told us of their respect for Soedojo. He was said to have a rather dull delivery and to be too encyclopaedic in his treatment. However, he was set apart from his colleagues by his attendance record, his honesty, and his kindly interest in his students.

Our contact with Soedojo was diminished in the 1980 s, after CMS asked the Nichols to leave Indonesia for a new ministry at Nungalinya College, Darwin, training Aboriginal leaders. We heard that Soedojo had been appointed Associate Professor at Gadjah Mada University, having been awarded a doctorate in nuclear physics by the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. Apparently, he had been keeping records of radiation in water for decades. Visiting Dutch professors were impressed and persuaded him to write up his findings.

Our subsequent ministries at St. Andrews Hall, Melbourne (1989-91) and in the Diocese of North West (1992-2003) meant that visits to Indonesia were rare. But after retirement, Judith and I were able to fulfil requests from the Bishop of Singapore to spend time at the Anglican Institute in Bandung, training pastors for new church plants. Visits back to Central Java were possible.

Then on the 27th May, 2006, we heard that a massive earthquake had struck the heavily populated Yogyakarta region. The epicentre was Bantul. A million people were homeless and over 6,000 dead. The Vicar of All Saints Jakarta, Dale Appleby, helped me contact the Synod office of the Gereja Kristen Jawa. From there I was able to contact the Pastor of the GKJ church in Bantul. Soedojo’s family were believed safe, though the district was completely devastated. I flew down to Semarang and was met by Daniel Nuhamara, a former student (now Professor), who organised accommodation in Salatiga and a taxi to take me across Java to Bantul.

My Muslim taxi driver was pessimistic about the prospect of finding Soedojo. All buildings had been flattened, he said. Only the Christian church was still standing!

The driver’s report was not quite true. Among the acres of ruins, a few scattered houses were still standing, including Soedojo’s. He and his wife were sitting in front of their home awaiting my arrival. Their son, Stefanus had relayed the news of my coming.

There followed a joyful reunion. Soedojo, however, was in poor health and awaiting serious surgery. But I learned how God had continued to use him, not least in supporting a new Christian university in Yogyakarta. I saw some of the textbooks that he had written and the manuscript of a book to help Muslims to come to Jesus.

Most memorable was his clear recollection of his baptism and confirmation in Sydney almost fifty years before. He recited in English the verses preached on at both services. At his baptism, Howard Guinness had spoken on Philippians 1:21 – “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain”. At his confirmation a few months later, Bishop Marcus LoanTo him who overcomes I will give to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God”.

Peter Soedojo now enjoys the reality of those promises. He was called home a few months after that reunion, aged 73 years.

Borneo Revisited

Tony Nichols rejoices over what mighty things God can grow in half a century, even from small and threatened beginnings. Bishop Tony Nichols ministers at St Lawrence’s Dalkeith, WA

From 7- 9 July, 12 former CMS missionaries returned to St Patrick’s Tawau, at the invitation of Bishop John Yeo, the present Rector, to join over 3,000 current parishioners in the spectacular Centenary celebrations.

The remote small trading post surrounded by dense jungle on the border between British North Borneo and Indonesia that I had known, is now a major city of Sabah with a population of over 600,000. But the church and school ministry which was restored in the 1950s by the vision and energy of CMS missionaries, especially Canon Walter Newmarch and Principal Jim Power, has matched the growth of Tawau itself. Praise God for the faithfulness of their Sabahan successors, many of whom were converted at St Patrick’s School.

It is difficult to describe the emotion of sitting down with 1500 ex-students, many of whom had flown in from other countries. Nowhere else in Malaysia would one witness Christian and Muslims (in full Islamic garb) embracing each other and recalling old times together. However, I confess, after 55 years, it was a challenge to recognise many who eagerly came up to reintroduce themselves!

The Saturday night Confirmation and the Sunday night Thanksgiving services were marathons, with choirs, indigenous dances, high tech special effects, sermons translated into three languages—all wonderfully encouraging. The St Patrick’s ‘House of Prayer for All Nations’ seats 2,500, but there was an overflow of at least 500 on the Sunday night. I was invited to join in the confirmation of the 325 candidates, along with the seven Asian bishops present. Bishop Melter Tais, the first Kadazan Bishop of Sabah, preached a fine biblical sermon. The 40 I confirmed were all Malay speakers. I was also asked to preach on Sunday morning in Bahasa to about 200 Christians at Merotai, one of St Patrick’s 12 church plants. Five of these plants are across the border in Indonesia, pastored by men whom Judith and I taught in our retirement in Bandung.

The CMS contribution was honoured and I was asked to convey that to the CMS Board. It was great that Jim and Betty Power were able to be present, escorted by Dr Barnabas Khoo, a former student. Such was Jim’s impact as an educationalist that a street is named after him—Jalan James Power. His esteemed Indian successor, K.M. George also flew in from Kerala. K.M. was a CMS bursar at Moore College in 1948!

Other former CMS missionaries present were Michael and Christine Corbett-Jones, Ray and June Pearce, Sylvia Jeanes, and Ken and Janet Goodlet. Also present were David Newmarch, his two brothers and Mrs Judith Savage, daughter of the Rev’d Ken Perry. Presentations were made to them in honour of their parents’ ministry in Tawau—a lovely touch.

When I returned to Sydney at the end of 1963 to prepare for ordination, the future of the region was very uncertain. The march of Communism in Indo-China and Malaya seemed relentless. There was much social unrest, Communist groups in most schools, growing Islamic pressure, serious attacks by pirate bands from the Southern Philippines (I recall 14 pirates being hanged down the road), and Indonesian guerrilla groups and gunboats. President Soekarno threatened to crush the new federation of Malaysia. One wondered whether the church was just a colonial remnant that would not survive.
Furthermore, Sabah Christians experienced a baptism of fire in the 1970s when Chief Minister Tun Mustapha expelled foreign missionaries, penalized Christians, rewarded converts to Islam with land grants, and allowed a million Muslims to immigrate from the Southern Philippines.

But the church was purified and grew. And in the Anniversary celebrations we were privileged to witness the fruit of God’s word and of prayer, not only in the huge numbers, but also in the vitality and faith of our Sabah brethren. Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed was very much in our minds together with the exhortation of the prophet Zechariah: ‘Do not despise the Day of Small Things’.

The Windowless Room

Peter Corney points out the cramped and impoverished world that the modern materialist lives in. Peter writes, speaks, mentors and consults on leadership for various organisations

Materialism as a philosophy or world view is now the dominant framework of the Western mind, the lens through which most people view and understand reality. Materialism is the idea that the only reality is a material or physical one, there is nothing beyond the physical, no supernatural or spiritual, nothing that transcends the material: only particles, spaces and energy. At the biological level everything is explicable by the process of natural selection and the physical neurological activity of the brain.

One of the wonders of the times in which we live is that every day, it seems, we are discovering more and more of how all this material world works. We sit fascinated as the Professor Brian Coxes of this world explain it all to us via brilliant BBC documentaries and expand our minds and knowledge. We gasp amazed as some new and marvellous medical breakthrough is announced on the news.

But at another level our understanding is impoverished, limited and entirely enclosed in this immanent world of the material. It’s as if, with the threat of rain, the roof of the Tennis Centre has slowly closed to the heavens as the game proceeded and we didn’t notice. Now we are shut off from the transcendent and enclosed in this immanent mental framework. Indeed if you listen carefully, that is the view of reality that the charming and erudite Professor Cox assumes. Charles Taylor in his writing on secularism claims that this closure to the transcendent is what is at the heart of contemporary secularism.

To change the metaphor, it’s as if we are locked in a windowless room which is brilliantly lit by the scientific method that enables us to see and explain more and more of our physical world but is paradoxically a profoundly reductionist space. It reduces and limits all explanations and descriptions to the material and physical. It has no windows onto wider and bigger explanations of reality. It provides no answers to our deepest and most important questions, like what the meaning and purpose of our lives is, how to understand right and wrong, the nature of justice, beauty, love, shame, guilt, honour, duty, evil and good, why we desire social and personal accountability. The list of enduring human questions it fails to deal with goes on!

The present prosperity of consumer Western culture and the distractions created by our technological mastery temporarily shield us from these deeper questions but they cannot be repressed for ever. The present crisis in the mental health of our young people—one in four in Australia are suffering some serious mental health issue—is a warning sign. The list of global problems grows daily and our present politics seems unable to solve them. It may be that the other wisdom that modernity has put aside for too long may be sought again. Let’s hope and pray that it may be so!

Northern encounters

Ben Underwood reflects on his recent, very cross-cultural exposure trip. Ben is Editor of Essentials and Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park.

I’ve just returned from a place of warm tropical waters, populated by friendly dark-skinned people who speak their own exotic languages, but are ready to welcome an outsider, switching to distinctively accented English. In some ways it felt slightly Polynesian, and I met Fijians there. In other ways it felt Melanesian, and I met a Papua New Guinean there. But it was neither Polynesia, nor Melanesia. It was not even overseas. It was Australia. In particular, it was Yirrkala, on the Gove Peninsula, in Arnhem Land, where the Indigenous people are called the Yolngu people.

Although Yirrkala is a modestly-sized place, (809 people at the 2016 census), it punches above its weight in a cultural sense. You may know the band Yothu Yindi, and their front man Mandawuy Yunupingu, who was Australian of the Year in 1992, and who comes from Yirrkala. But you may not know of his father Mungurrawuy who was a signatory to the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petitions1. These were ‘the first traditional documents prepared by Indigenous Australians that were recognised by the Australian Parliament, and are thus the first documentary recognition of Indigenous people in Australian law.2’ They are a protest against the Government’s action in excising land from the Arnhem Aboriginal Reserve in order that mining rights might be granted to the bauxite mining company Nabalco, and the petitions are a turning point in the story of the recognition of the claims Indigenous people have on the lands they have lived on for millennia. The originals of the petitions are in Parliament, but I saw replicas at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, a gallery and museum of art by artists from the Yolngu homelands within a 200km radius of Yirrkala. That art centre is packed with intricately worked bark paintings, larrakitj (memorial poles), woven baskets and yidaki (digeridoos), and as I walked around I saw the address labels on the items: they were headed for galleries in Switzerland, Germany, New York and Sydney. These are works that command a sophisticated international following. This place packs a cultural punch beyond its modest size.

The coming of outsiders to the lands of the Yolngu people has had great effects, especially the coming of Western settlers, missionaries and their descendants who have brought Western thinking and practice to the Yolngu, including Western industry and religion. This raises a great many issues. For example, in the museum (mulka) section of the art centre there is a two-panelled artwork, which used to be in the Yirrkala Church across the road from the Centre. The two panels represent the two halves of the Yolngu view of the world, dhuwa and yirritja. Everything (including each Yolngu clan) is either dhuwa or yirritja. Dhuwa and yirritja are themselves divided into six subdivisions, and so the two panels of this work are also divided into six subdivisions, each sub-panel painted by an elder from that division. They are magnificent pieces of work: detailed, varied, textured representations of the world and its ways according to the knowledge of the Yolngu people. The panels were installed in the Yirrkala church, but were removed after some years by people who felt they were too bound up in a spirituality alien to the gospel to be fittingly displayed in a church. The group I was with was fortunate to meet one of the local elders, Djapirri Mununggirritj, a woman with a local and national profile who is also a lay leader in the Yirrkala church, and whose father was one of the artists involved in painting the panels. She is among those who would like to see the panels back in the church. Her account of the panels—which were installed when she was a girl—is that their production and installation in the church, with a cross set between them, was a kind of covenant-making act on the part of the Yolngu people, bringing their twelve painted panels into the church to create a memorial to God’s dealings with them, as Israel brought twelve stones from the Jordan to make a memorial to God’s staunching the flow of the Jordan for them to cross (Joshua 4). But even as she offered this view, she acknowledged that not everyone shared her view on the meaning of the panels. When art is somehow connected to a worldview, law and spirituality supported by ceremonies both open and hidden, what are Yolngu people who have embraced the gospel of Jesus’ Lordship to do with that art, that representation of ancestral law and knowledge of the cosmos? And what are the chances of the church getting the panels back from the museum? The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre staff member who talked to us about panels envisaged the panels remaining where they were permanently. The church had removed them, and had lost them now to the care of the centre with its government support. Replicas in the church? Yes, gladly. The originals? That’s another question.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I was invited to go on a trip to engage firsthand with Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, and I was invited because I am a minister in a church. I was invited by Australians Together3, a not-for-profit enterprise which aims to promote mutual understanding and better relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Australians Together advocates listening as the best first step for Australians to take towards these aims. As a result of this trip, I have made a beginning on listening, and have no doubt a lot more to do. This article is several things. First, it is a way for me to show my appreciation for the gift that was given to me in being able to go on the trip. Second it is a way for me to process for myself some of what I heard and saw, to reflect on what I experienced and upon my reactions to it, and thirdly, it is a way to pass on to a wider audience the impressions I gained. They are first impressions, and first impressions can be misleading. With that caveat in place, I proceed, hopefully with humility and caution.

One impression I gained was that the life of Indigenous communities is varied and complex. The trip did not start at Yirrkala, but at Jabiru, the mining and tourist town in Kakadu National Park. On the first evening we met people living in the camps around Jabiru, and talking to them it was clear that the young and the old were suffering various health problems. When we drove into the camp the next day wrecked cars, rubbish and broken furniture dotted the camp. One woman we met here was a capable, articulate woman who had a job, but no home of her own. She was further coping with her household possessions being destroyed after she had sought to defend a widow from others who had a grievance with her. She was hoping to move her family away and was facing a fair bit of uncertainty and trauma.

By contrast, we also visited the Buntiji Clan estate which includes the Ubirr Rock Art sites north of Jabiru, and met Jonathan, a son of Bill Neidjie, a traditional owner of the land there, and Dionne his wife. Jonathan spoke about his father’s life, which moved between the worlds of the settlers and the traditional ways of life. Bill learned to hunt and live off the land, and was passed the Gagudju law by the generation before him through teaching and ceremony. But he also worked with the settlers, alongside buffalo hunters, timber millers and pilots of coastal luggers. He served in WWII, surveilling Japanese plane movements, his unit even shooting a plane down. Bill’s successful land claim means that the Bunitj Clan has title to their ancestral lands, and a stake in the revenue generated by tourism in the Kakadu National Park which Big Bill was instrumental in establishing. The family run a business taking tourists up a section of the East Alligator River to see its fearsome crocodile inhabitants and its varied flora and fauna. Our Indigenous skipper and guide commented on local language and uses of the plants and animals of the area as we passed them. Jonathan’s family have a couple of houses, in lovely bush settings. Jonathan carries on his father’s ambitions, although it is a challenge to pass on the old ways to the youth who are attracted to a more global culture of video games and hip hop than hunting and ceremony. Like many others, Jonathan wishes young men would pull their pants up from hanging halfway down their bums.

Another story, different again, was told to us through serendipity, rather than planning. While my group was in the art centre at Yirrkala, a local delivering work to the gallery overheard two of us mention God in their conversation, and he introduced himself, telling them that he had become a Christian about four years previously. He invited the whole group to come and hear his story. So that afternoon we went and sat under a tree next to his house overlooking a beautiful beach and listened as he shared many things about his life. He had been born in Sydney to an Indigenous mother and a white father, which made it hard for him to be accepted and belong in either world. Worse than that, his father was violent and loveless, and so he grew up alienated and filled with rage and pain. Crime was the only thing that dulled his pain, even though he knew it was wrong. He spent eleven years in gaol, lasting at most two weeks free after any given release. Although he felt that to be imprisoned was to be his lot, seeing the Bible in his cell he decided to give God a go. Having cried out to God to do something for him, he experienced a rebirth, and weeks later he walked out of Darwin gaol and never went back. Returning to East Arnhem Land he lived for a time in a mixed way, on one hand living for God, and on the other indulging in marijuana and gambling. Eventually burdened and disillusioned by this life he and his housemate resolved to get to church, at which point a white Pentecostal pastor in a van appeared and asked them if they wanted to go to church! Now he is an elder in the church, and zealous to reach people living the life he used to live. No two lives are alike, and this is of course true for the lives of Aboriginal people as well.

Aboriginal people also face complex issues as their culture changes under the continuing pressures of evolving circumstances. The interaction between Christian faith and the old ways is a case in point. Pentecostal Christians tend to tell this story about the old ways: they must be abandoned as idolatry. A local pastor from the group Yolngu for Jesus spoke forcefully about the need for Yolngu Christians to disengage from the ancestral tribal law and its practices. (He felt ‘tribal law’ was a better descriptor than the more commonly heard term ‘culture’.) This meant for him not attending the main ceremonies of community funerals, and, since he was the son of a tradition owner (a clan leader), this was a step that made him a target of threats and discontent, and put enormous strain on his relationships with family. Other Aboriginal Christians were happy to engage with traditional culture and ceremony to a greater or lesser extent. The attitude of Djapirri Mununggirritj to the traditional art in the Yirrkala church panels, mentioned above, is perhaps an example of an alternative to zero tolerance for expressions of tribal belief integrated into Christian practice. In these attempts to critique and reform culture by the gospel, Indigenous Christians face the same tasks as any other Christians do.

This point was reinforced by Greg Anderson, Bishop of the Northern Territory, when we met him in Darwin. Greg spoke about the many challenges of evangelism and discipleship in a culture which has been described as ‘Fourth World’. This term denotes the uniquely difficult situation of indigenous cultures dominated by a different ethnic mainstream, often the aftermath of invasion or colonisation. Greg’s observation was that the popular ‘three-self’ missionary strategy has not reached its objectives in the NT, and that we have by no means plumbed the mystery of why Indigenous church life moves in such crests and troughs. Being sure abstract concepts like grace are being internalised by Aboriginal hearers is hard when our literacy in their culture is still rudimentary at times. Greg felt non-indigenous partnership in the work of mission with and among Indigenous Australians has a place for some time yet, and benefits will flow both ways in this event.4

Yet another complex issue is the fit between a traditional economy, and the culture that makes it work and a western economy, and the culture that makes that work. Indigenous culture has a strong and definite ethic of your responsibility to share what you have, and to give upon request to people in certain relationships to you. This strong ethic of sharing in the clan it is radically different to the western ethic of private property, and a person’s right to dispose of what is theirs as they see fit. Further, Indigenous culture expects you to honour certain cultural obligations as a priority, obligations which may arise unpredictably, and be somewhat open-ended in the time they will require of you. Funerals are a well known case. They may last days, and may require travel into the bargain. Big Bill Neidjie’s funeral went for a month and a half, and brought people from Elcho Island and all over northern Australia. Again, it is obvious that this contrasts strongly with a western sense that your obligation to a job, and your employer and fellow workers, means a day is a reasonable length of absence for a funeral, but not weeks. Western economic activity relies on a reliable workforce to make its large co-operative enterprises productive. It seems to me that there is still plenty of work to figure out how these two cultures of obligation can be integrated in such a way that Indigenous people can escape suffering because they are caught awkwardly between the two sets of expectations.
There are many other issues that cluster around this intrusion of the West upon the Indigenous culture. It seems to me that the old way was a mobile life that consumed what the land and water yielded as it became available. Indigenous culture learned not to waste anything, learned to promote the growth and yield of the land in season (by burning, or conserving, for example). You took what was available as it was available, feasting when there was plenty, conserving the resource that is the land with its flora and fauna.5 The Western way is a way that seeks to take a harvest from the land and store up these resources for the future, consuming them bit by bit from our store rather than bit by bit directly from the environment. It developed in a different world, where you laid up for long winters of scarcity, as well as feasting in season, and this storing up of the products of labour has become concentrated in the institution of money. Stewardship exists in both cultures, even if it takes different forms in the different cultures, however we were confronted at times by a boom and bust existence in Aboriginal communities where the skills of stewardship seem to have been lost among some. One of our party who had lived in Jabiru told of a woman having thousands in the bank one week, and asking him for money for food the next week. We were told by an ex-participant in the card games that went on in picnic shelters next to the oval at Yirrkala, that the bets mounted up to hundreds of dollars per hand, and you could make or lose thousands in a few moments. Our western sensibilities reeled at this, but people in our party felt uneasy about expecting Indigenous people to behave just like us. We did not want to be guilty of white paternalism, and yet we were confronted by a boom and bust existence that seemed fraught with vulnerability and limitation to at least some of us. The traumas of Indigenous peoples being disrupted, dispossessed, reduced, institutionalised and turned out again to make their way in a society that was not always helpful or hospitable is no doubt a large part of the story.
Lots of outsiders, moved by the problems they see afflicting Indigenous communities, want to know what can be done: how can the problem be fixed? Churches, governments, individuals, charities and agencies have been and still are working hard to ‘close the gap’ and reset the relationship between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. It is obviously a gnarly problem that defies good intentions, money and sacrificial commitment to Aboriginal people by parties on both sides. Someone once came to our church staff meeting and argued that it was the moral issue for Australians that demanded our engagement with it as an absolute priority, because it was our history, our mess. This got my back up. Was there no freedom for Australians to make it their priority to help the homeless, or those caught in sex-slavery, or the newly arrived refugee, or those starving in famine overseas, or those who need the gospel, or persecuted Christians, or Bible translation or a myriad of other efforts we might make to love our neighbour? Why did the situation of Indigenous Australians demand that I get personally involved in making things better? We did not thrash this issue out fully, but one thing is true—I remember that staff meeting! And it made me think about the situation of Indigenous Australians, and how it is the product not just of some long ago moment in 1788 when the First Fleet landed, but of a rolling and growing experience of western settlement, and consequent displacement and alienation that has been ongoingly traumatic and the effects of which are not but by any means past. ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ seems an apposite quotation for us to meditate on.6
And yet the future does lie before us and we can hope and pray that progress can be made, that bridges can be built, that wounds can be healed, that cultures can adapt to one another, that wrongs can be faced, owned and turned away from, that forgiveness can be received, that mutual respect and friendship may grow and that we can in time look back on a shared past that has more good stories and fewer bad ones in it than it does at the moment. It seems to me that there are powerful voices in our culture urging us in this important direction. It also seems to me that there is a special opportunity for Christians to form relationships with Indigenous people who are also our Christian brothers and sisters, and that our common sharing in Christ might be a thing that positions Christians well to build relationships of trust and understanding across the Indigenous/non-Indigenous divide. Australians Together seem to me to be getting into that endeavour with thoughtfulness, commitment and care.
The week we went to the Northern Territory was NAIDOC week, and it had a focus on language, and keeping it strong. It was really something to hear Aboriginal languages spoken as first languages all around you in the NT, and there is no doubt that language is culture, the best medium of culture. Further than that, learning someone’s language conveys respect and opens the door to seeing the world in which that language is spoken. If you want my idea for a way to open a door of listening, understanding and legitimation of Indigenous cultures to mainstream Australia, here is one: teach an Aboriginal language to every school student in Australia for at least a year, with the aim of thereby further opening the ears and the minds of non-Indigenous Australians to the voices and perspectives of Indigenous Australians. Discuss.

1. http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/bark-petition-1963 accessed 11 July 2017
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yirrkala_bark_petitions accessed 11 July 2017
3. http://www.australianstogether.org.au/
4. See, Greg Anderson, The Fourth World in the First World: Missiology and Aboriginal Churches in the Northern Territory (2016, Mathew Hale Public Library).
5. See, e.g. Bill Neidjie, Gagudju Man (2007, Gecko Books)
6. From Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner (1951, Random House)

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