Baptists in Australia

© David Parker Dec 1999


Ministry among Indigenous People

Australian Baptists and Reconciliation
Brief History of Baptist Ministry to the Indigenous People of Central Australia

Prepared by Rev. Ivan Jordan 8 Dec 1999.

The Baptist ministry detailed below has been administered from commencement until 1978 by the Australian Baptist Home Mission and from 1978 by the Australian Baptist Missionary Society.

In a similar way to Baptist ministry in Papua New Guinea, the genesis of Baptist ministry to Aboriginal Australians is associated with war service. It was in December 1942 that Rev. Dr. E. H. Watson, as chaplain to the armed forces in Alice Springs, became aware of some of the needs of the indigenous people of Central Australia. He pushed to have better facilities for the aboriginal members of the Labor Corp, had these men included in the church parade, and also discussed with Lutheran pastor, F.W. Albrecht, the possibility of Baptists becoming involved in mission work with people of The Centre. Pastor Albrecht promised to give assistance if Baptists acted. Dr. Watson urged the South Australian Baptist Union to take up this challenge.

In May 1944 the South Australia Baptist Home Mission Department sent Rev. Laurie Reece to survey an area suggested by the Lutherans, North West of the Aranda area in which the Lutherans had ministered for many years. Laurie Reece was loaned camels and guides by Pastor Albrecht and travelled North to Coniston and then West to Mount Singleton and Pikilyi, and then returned to Hermannsburg. He had travelled some six hundred miles, met many people in the Southern area of the Warlpiri tribe, and was convinced that considerable scope for mission activity existed.

The South Australian Baptists recommended to the 1944 Assembly of the Baptist Union of Australia, that the Federal Home Mission Board consider commencing a mission among the Warlpiri people. This recommendation was received and returned to South Australia for further investigation. At the 1946 August meeting of the Federal Home Mission Board Rev Laurie Reece and Rev. Phil Steer were appointed to be the first Baptist missionaries to the new Ration Depot/Settlement which the Department of Native affairs had just established at Rock Hill Bore, subsequently renamed Yuendumu. They arrived at Yuendumu February 13th, 1947 and commenced regular church services on February 23rd.

From its inception, Yuendumu was a government settlement and not a mission, with the responsibility for policy and daily affairs being that of the government. Thus the missionaries were required to operate within the bounds of such policies as assimilation. However the Baptists were involved in much more than meeting spiritual needs. They helped supply clothing and medical supplies, taught sewing, commenced and ran the first store, helped build and often staffed the hospital, commenced a kindergarten, and commenced the first school. Several Baptists, including Miss Ada Griffiths, Sister Betty Ashworth, Sister Veryl Van Hemelrych, Sister Rhoda Hannah, and Miss Iris Carter worked in government positions and contributed greatly.

Valuable shorter-term ministry was exercised at Yuendumu by the Rev and Mrs Reece, Rev and Mrs Steer, Mr and Mrs Arnold Long, and Rev and Mrs John Burton. Rev and Mrs Tom Fleming commenced a 25 year ministry in April 1950. The Flemings made considerable effort to present a culturally appropriate gospel to the Warlpiris. The beautiful stained glass window in the Yuendumu Church building, with the cross in the centre, surrounded by the dreamings of the various kinship groups, is vivid testimony of this. In 1956 The Flemings commenced regular visits to the surrounding cattle stations of Mt. Allen, Mt. Denison, and Mt. Doreen.

The first baptisms at Yuendumu, Darby Jampijinpa Ross, Rex Japanangka Granites, and Jilly Nakamarra Spencer, took place on Easter Friday, April 14th, 1968. The Yuendumu Baptist Church was constituted on April 21st 1968. 1968 was a very significant year, in that the new church building was also opened in March. This was the culmination of the day in April 1967 when the entire population had gathered late on the Sunday afternoon and the elders of the tribe had given the land for the new building to God.

After 25 years dedicated and patient ministry the Flemings handed over to Rev and Mrs Ed Kingston in June 1975 and retired in Alice Springs. Tom was later awarded the MBE for services to the Aboriginal community. The Kingstons (who had also ministered briefly at Wave Hill)ministered at Yuendumu from 1975 until 1985 and were followed at Yuendumu by Rev and Mrs Lloyd Ollerenshaw from 1985 to 1991. In 1992 Rev and Mrs Ivan Jordan commenced ministry at Yuendumu and are currently in that ministry.

New government settlements were commenced at Hooker Creek (1949) and Warrabri(1954). From time to time Tom Fleming visited these settlements and ministered to the people, many of whom had lived previously at Yuendumu. In 1957 Rev and Mrs Burton became the first resident missionaries at Warrabri, ministering to Warlpiri, Alyawarr, Waramungu, Kaytij people. In March 1960 Rev and Mrs Laurie Reece replaced the Burtons who resigned due to illness. Laurie had a particular linguistic gift and also had a wide ministry to surrounding cattle stations. On January 19th 1964 Tony Jupurrula Coombes was the first person baptised at Warrabri. On Sunday September 20th 1964 a growing group of Christians formed the Warrabri Baptist Church. With the encouragement of the Reeces, who ministered until July 1970, the Church continued to grow. Laurie Reece was later awarded membership of the Order of Australia for services to Aboriginal people.

The Reeces were replaced at Warrabri by Rev and Mrs John Bridges from 1972 until 1976. Malcolm and Joyce Murdoch ministered for several months in 1977/78 and helped revitalise the church. Rev and Mrs John Whitbourne commenced ministry at Warrabri (now renamed Ali-Curung) in 1978 and continued an effective ministry there until they moved to Alice Springs to commence an aboriginal ministry in association with the Alice Springs Baptist church in 1981 Rev and Mrs Lloyd Ollerenshaw ministered at Ali-Curung from 1982-1985. Rev and Mrs Chris Boland replaced the Ollerenshaws in 1986 and continued until 1990 when they supported the Ali-Curung Church with a visitation ministry from an Alice Springs Base until 1993. In 1995 Ed and Kath Kingston commenced a new ministry at Ali-Curung and are currently ministering there.

In 1962 Rev and Mrs Jim Kime commenced ministry as the first resident missionaries at Hooker Creek. The Kimes encouraged the Hooker Creek people to express their Christian faith in an indigenous manner, and consequently when (October 4th 1964) Maurice Jupurrula became the first person baptised at Hooker Creek, a new Warlpiri hymn was sung. The Hooker Creek Baptist Church was formed on September 12th 1965, and steady growth followed. In 1966 Rev and Mrs Bill Parish replaced the Kimes as the Baptist missionaries at Hooker Creek and the Church continued to grow and the Wave Hill visitation proved fruitful. In 1969 Rev and Mrs Graham Paulson replaced the Parishes and continued until November 1970 when they became the first resident missionaries at wave Hill and the Parishes returned to Hooker Creek. At the end of 1972 the Parishes moved to Darwin and Rev and Mrs Ivan Jordan commenced as the resident missionaries in September 1973. They ministered at Hooker Creek (now Lajamanu)until the end of 1989, and were replaced by Rev and Mrs Peter Archer (1989-1992), Norm and Natalie Williams (1993-1995) and Rev and Mrs Barry Downes(1996-1999)

In 1964 Jim Kime began regular ministry to the Gurrinji and Warlpiri people at Wave Hill cattle station and Wave Hill Settlement. The cattle station manager encouraged this ministry and the Gurrinji leader, Vincent Lingiarri, already a believer in Christ, strongly supported the ministry. On May 7th 1972 twenty five people were baptised at Wattie Creek and the Wave Hill -Wattie Creek Baptist Church was constituted on July 23rd, 1977. The Paulsons ministered very effectively until 1975 when they resigned to engage in further study. Rev and Mrs Gordon Moore ministered very effectively for two periods, 1975 -1984, and 1990 -1992 Gurrinji members, Clancy and Blind Doris ministered very effectively, as well as Stephen and Victor. From 1984 to 1989 Malcolm and Joyce Murdoch exercised a very enthusiastic ministry at Wave Hill. From 1992 until the present Rev and Mrs Barry Downes have been the resident missionaries at Wave Hill, latterly also supporting Lajamanu.

Over the years Baptists have also ministered to the Warlpiri people at Willowra. Initially this was a cattle station and is now an Aboriginal Community. Many of the Willowra people have resided at some time at Yuendumu or Ali-Curung. Ministry to Willowra was commenced from Lajamanu in 1975 with the help of the Baptist Aerial Mission plane of the Baptist Union of the Northern Territory. Later John Whitbourne continued this ministry from Alice Springs and Chris Boland exercised a similar ministry. In more recent years the missionaries at Yuendumu and Ali-Curung, and the Yuendumu and Ali-Curung Churches have continued this ministry. The late Sammy Johnston Japangardi was a key person at Willowra.

Baptist have also been involved in urban aboriginal ministry in both Mount Isa and Alice Springs. In both cases this has been done in association with the local Baptist Church. In Mount Isa Malcolm and Joyce Murdoch ministered from 1980 until 1983 and Barry and Lois Downes from 1984 until 1986. In Alice Springs the following staff were involved; Rev and Mrs John Whitbourne 1981-1992 Rev and Mrs Barry Downes 1987-1991 Rev and Mrs Lloyd Ollerenshaw 1992 -1999.

In 1990 A.B.M.S. was asked to assist in establishing a ministry to indigenous people the Eastern Pilbara area of Western Australia. Craig and Lyn Siggins have been involved in this ministry seeing quite remarkable growth with hundreds of people in various communities becoming involved.

Several people have exercised very valuable interim ministries over the years. In some cases the total of several interims has totalled several years service. These include Norm and Natalie Williams, Bill and Valdene Parish, and Bert and Ethel Franks.

Baptist missionaries have encouraged the indigenous Christians to express their faith in culturally appropriate forms. Over the years this has resulted in various developments. In 1975 both the Lajamanu and Yuendumu churches began using Warlpiri iconographs (traditional symbols) to draw Bible stories. This has become a very effective means of communication. Traditional style singing was also encouraged and particularly at Lajamanu a series of basic Christian statements (like a creed) have for many years been a most effective means of teaching. After several years of gentle prompting the Lajamanu Christians developed the first Christian corroboree (purlapa) when they developed the Christmas story in this dramatic form. This was given to the Yuendumu Church who then developed the Easter corroboree. Lajamanu also developed their 'One Family' corroboree based on Galatians 3:28. This vivid portrayal of Christian unity has since been presented in many places, particularly in 1988 when it was presented in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. In 1979 the women of the Warrabri Church developed their own Easter corroboree. In recent years a further development has been the basing of church structure and ministry responsibility on the kinship structure which under-pins traditional Warlpiri life, rather than on Western church structure.

Although there have certainly been 'lows' as well as 'highs' in the life of the churches which Baptists have established in Central Australia, the Gospel has certainly had a real impact. This can be seen in three ways. Firstly regarding the number of people involved, in some communities over half of the people are involved in the church. Secondly, Christian people are continually chosen for leadership positions in the community, and are widely respected. Christians have a very considerable influence in all these communities. Thirdly, the ways in which the Christian faith has been expressed within the indigenous culture has been quite remarkable and widely acclaimed.

In addition to the indigenous people listed above who played key roles in the commencement of the church in the various centres, there have been numerous others who have been very important people in church ministry. Jerry Jangala has not only been a key person in the Lajamanu Church and in the development of indigenous expressions of Christianity, but for many years ministered very effectively as the Aboriginal Church Advisor to all the Baptist Aboriginal Churches.

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