It took a conversation with God as we watched the burning of two stumps to convince Margaret Miller to continue helping the voices of native Bible translators to be heard and support their work.
Margaret supported the Bible translation work at the Uniting Church. She felt bereft because her partner in an Indigenous Bible translation team, Dianne Buchanan, had recently died of cancer. Margaret wondered how the Djambarrpuyŋu Bible translation project could continue without its leader.
Shortly after Dianne’s death, Margaret spent a pivotal weekend in a remote Christian homeland community called Dharrwar on Elcho Island, where she visited an open-air chapel on a hill. As she approached the chapel, Margaret saw some stumps in the path that had to be circumvented.
“I thought, ‘They’re really in the wrong place – someone’s going to trip over these stumps,'” Margaret says.
“This lovely little chapel has God’s fingerprints all over it. It just attracts you to acknowledge and worship our creator. So we had a lovely worship time and got out of there. And as we walk back down this path, there are these stumps.”
Annoyed by the obstacles, Margaret asked permission to burn the stumps, got some matches and dead wood, and lit two large fires.
Sitting a safe distance on a log, watching the flames, Margaret thought about what she would do now that she’d lost Dianne—”the guard, my umbrella who took care of everything.”
“I feel quite empty, barren, grieving the loss of her. And what will the translation work do in the coming years? Will it ever move forward?”
Then two of her translation colleagues arrived to tell her they were staying on the beach that night for fellowship and that she could share a dedication.
“I go, ‘What? I have nothing in me to share.’ And they sauntered off and left me the task. I just cried to the Lord, “Lord, what can I say? I’m empty; I have no gas in the tank.”
“‘Can’t you see it?’ was the word that came back. I said, ‘See what?’ “You’re looking at two stumps.” “Yeah, what about the two stumps?” “You burn them.” ‘Yes, that’s right.’ “Don’t you remember the verse I gave you and Dianne at the beginning of the year? Sanctify yourself; tomorrow I will work miracles in your midst—Joshua 3:5.”
“And it’s like this little conversation between the Lord and me as I sat quietly on this log waiting for these stumps to burn. “Well, look at the stumps.” Look, one was a dead stump; the other had some green shoots coming out. ‘Can’t you see it? That’s you and Dianne. I want you to be sanctified so you will be on one path. You must clear a way for others so they will not stumble when they worship in that place.”
This story still tears Margaret’s eyes every time she tells it because it’s a burning story – and she sees that God “wants to burn hearts, to sanctify hearts, to purify us.”
Margaret’s first three years supporting the Djambarrpuyŋu Bible translation team at the Uniting Church from 1990 to 93 were full of disturbing dramas.
Not only had Dianne Buchanan died, but three translators/linguists involved in other indigenous Bible programs in Northern Australia had also died of cancer within three months.
“So it shook up all the Bible translation operations across the North,” Margaret says.
The remnants of the mission era were still in play as Margaret transitioned from teaching a bilingual education program at the government school on Elcho Island to supporting the Djambarrpuyŋu translation team. Her Aboriginal mother, Mary Ŋändama, was also sentenced to make the switch, and they formed a very close partnership in Scripture in Use as part of the team.
Their careers coincided with a revolution in native Bible translation, moving away from the mission-led era to an operation with native powers.
Within Arnhem Land, a revival started in 1979. Margaret arrived at Elcho in 1981 to witness its lasting effects on church and community life. She noticed native believers expressing a unique community worship style under their leadership. She learned much about their faith and fellowship in the Lord while living beside them on the island. At the time, Aboriginal Christian leaders within the Uniting Church established the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress – the UAICC – or Congress.
When Margaret joined the Djambarrpuyŋu project in 1990, five-eighths of the New Testament had been completed, enough to publish a mini-bible. But on God’s great timing, just as the team clamored to meet their New Testament, a training program for native translators – the Certificate in Translation – became available. Mally McLellan was heavily involved in delivering this training.
“So in the 90s, we moved from a mission-style operation to something more akin to an Indigenous operation, where we started with five Indigenous members and quickly grew to eight,” Margaret says.
“And when this CIT course was developed, the timing was just brilliant… So with other teams also affected by this big loss, we went into training, and a big shift developed from the native involvement in translation work .”
In 2008, with the completion of the Djambarrpuyŋu New Testament, the working style was completely different from when the Mini Bible with Dianne was completed.
When the Uniting Church Synod debated the future of further Bible translation work, all four areas of the growing Aboriginal ministry called for a renewed focus on indigenous scriptures. This led to a unanimous decision to set up a new project to address the Northern Synod’s translation issues.
“Then Coordinate was formed, and in the early years, the Djambarrpuyŋu Bible translation project turned into an East Arnhem work across the region. Coordinate continues to reflect the structures of church life in Northeast Arnhem and supports indigenous writings in all those churches,” said Margaret.
“So that changed operations for each of the translators who were actively involved in the Djambarrpuyŋu Translation project, who wanted to keep doing something along those lines, could help with a broader perspective in the region.”
In recent years, Margaret Gumatj has supported speaker Djotarra Baŋaḏitjan (Rosemary B Burarrwaŋa), who spent many hours checking the 27 books of the reprinted Gumatj New Testament, which was dedicated in early April.
She describes her work as “filling the gaps for native translators on the ground and meeting their needs by connecting them with the skills and expertise to support their work.”
“So my role is to facilitate the voices and expressed desires of having God’s word in the languages of Northeast Arnhem Land.”
She currently facilitates a wider group of Aboriginal translators volunteering in nine languages in Northeast Arnhem Land. However, in recent years, she has worked remotely to support her mother in Sydney.
Recalling her experience in the outer chapel, she recalls her journey with God every time she visits the cleared path, walking alongside Indigenous Australians, seeking God to worship together. In the bush setting of the chapel, Margaret is reminded that God is calling his people from this land to worship him in a uniquely Australian way.
“These stumps on the path were a problem for me and my journey with God,” she recalls.
“They were possibly there to trip my companions and me. My conversation with God challenges me to examine my own life and recognize those parts of me that are part of my European cultural baggage and that do not help others … I am the one who has to deal with the obstacles I can see to be purified of those things in my life that does not draw others to Christ. I must burn them out of my life! It’s not up to others to ‘get over it; it’s up to me to remove the obstacles.”
“It’s not up to others to ‘get over it; it’s up to me to remove the obstacles.”
For Margaret, the revelation she received while burning the stumps is not just a personal one but reveals how God tries to deal with what is known as the fourth world – primarily the world of indigenous people whose lands have been conquered and and colonized so that they’ve lost control of their world.
“My journey with my Indigenous brother and sisters is in a ‘fourth world’ where Indigenous people live. It’s a world that constantly fights against domination, comes out of my culture, overwhelms them, and makes them stumble,” she explains.
“They have nowhere else to go but to their own country – they are in their own country, but another world dominates. The world is constantly driving things, exacerbating the gap we’re discussing. That divide is that tension of the two cultures clashing and the one that constantly comes in and drives things and doesn’t value indigenous people as equals.”
“The Another is constantly suppressing the culture of their countrylitically; it manifests itself in everyday life and is constantly dominated; and yet, when you live in a community and see how indigenous people interact with each other, such as in times like funerals and other ceremonies, it’s just powerful to see how they manage to work together in their world. But when they deal with that wider Western, they are overwhelmed. So how can they thrive when the Western world meets their world?”
Margaret believes the gap is closed when the Western world is willing to shrink with its agendas to grow its world – because the world of the West has a history of being the opposite.
“It requires that we value each other and our cultures. As Christians, especially non-native Christians, the Lord calls us to “deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.” This is the sanctification process he needs—a burning of our ways. Another way, willing to get rid of that which is an obstacle in ourselves for others. From that fire of devotion and love for the Lord, we must express a passion for our native brothers and sisters that uplifts them and encourages them to walk in a unique way that will bless everyone.
“It’s quite a change of mentality, of attitude in Australia. We may think we’re here to serve, but that is a takeover! We have a dominant mentality that is very difficult to break, and the Yolngu have lived with it for so long that they accept and expect it.
“The great thing about my role is that I’m not the steering wheel. There’s a common expectation: ‘ Oh, there’s the white one. They come in with their agenda and do it.’ But the core element of what Coordinate wants to promote as a church and community project requires the Western world to settle down, walk with Yolngu and listen to their voices, trusting the Lord to provide a better way of partnership so that the Yolngu goals are being reached.”