Home General News Church growth in Arnhem-East Land, ‘just like fire when we light it’

Church growth in Arnhem-East Land, ‘just like fire when we light it’

by ervte

The Uniting Church in Milingimbi in East Arnhem Land is experiencing strong growth due to COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions, reviving faith, especially among the young.

Peter Garrawurra and Melissa Marrkula lead a cohesive pastoral team of four couples and several senior aunts and grandmothers at the Church. They are one of the youngest Aboriginal ministry couples in the Top End.Church growth in Arnhem-East Land, 'just like fire when we light it'

The present leadership has benefited for many years from the faithful education and guidance of the elders, both men and women, who have gone before them. Some older men continue to challenge and help people hone their faith and leadership skills.

During the first COVID lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, there was a movement of the Spirit in Milingimbi, with hundreds of people gathering every night for Communion and worship. During the biosecurity lockdowns earlier this year, the Spirit of God raged through Yurrwi on Milingimbi Island, and there is a strong sense that a new chapter of God’s good work has begun.

Under its current Spirit-filled leadership, the Church has led to outreach to surrounding communities, leading to enthusiastic nighttime praise and fellowship among young people in Milingimbi and Ramingining, Elcho Island, and Yirrkala on the Gove Peninsula.

Some believe it is reminiscent of the revival that began in 1979 on Elcho Island, spread across Australia’s outback, and lasted for decades. Others would rather wait until they see lasting benefits in less crime.

In recent years, Easter has become a community celebration in Milingimbi as the Church reenacts the story from Palm Sunday to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, with full-size homemade crosses, a tomb (full and empty, according to the report), and a young man playing the role of Jesus plays.

Children stare into the open grave (tent) at Milingimbi.

Eternity spoke to the religious group this week over morning tea at Nungalinya College in Darwin. They studied a Faith and Welfare course and asked how church ministry has grown.

“It started in 2017, and there was no one in the church,” says Robert Gaykamangu.

“And these four couples sat around, made a fire on the church lawn, shared stories about Jesus, and were planning all those things, and there it happened. It grew up like that, just like fire when we light it. It gets bigger and bigger. Something clever has happened to these guys, these couples.

“Many people were just walking by the church, and these couples are just sitting there making a fire and telling stories.”

At the time, Robert and his wife, Helen Garrawurra, were curious about what was happening in the park.

“I used to be around there, just in the grass, and when I met these guys, they were walking around and sitting in the park, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m in.’ And then suddenly, God came in, and our lives changed. The Lord Jesus came. God’s glory came.”

Robert and Helen have experienced healing and grace and are now Church leaders.

“We started following Jesus,” Helen explains when asked how she’s changed.

“I mean, these guys were ahead of me, and I came in and met Jesus,” says Robert, a fantastic lead vocalist, guitarist, and vocalist.

“So I joined these couples, and in 2017, many people came in, and the Church grew, and these guys got everything ready for Easter and Christmas. Every Easter and Christmas, we invited all the people to come, the whole community.”

Robert explains that they walk down the community yearly and ask every boy with long hair to play Jesus in the reenactment.

“Sometimes it’s serious for the young people because it’s a big responsibility and the young people say, ‘I can’t do it because he’s real,’ but we say, ‘It’s okay, we’ll tell you what to do.’ ”

This year, Melissa’s cousin-brother played the role of Jesus, with the crosses made by carpenter Tommy Nipaway, who is on the leadership team with his wife, Susan Dakar.

Tony Goodluck, the Northern Synod of the Uniting Church moderator, was there this year for the four-day Easter celebration. He says soft worship music started on Easter Sunday around 4:30 am and woke people who had camped in the park near the cross, waiting for the risen Jesus to arrive.

As he describes it, there is an empty tomb – a small tent – ​​with clothes on the ground. While about 200 people wait along the beach, it is still dark when a figure walks along the coast; it takes about 15 or 20 minutes to get to the open grave. People take pictures of the risen Jesus as he goes to the center of worship and stands on the ground by the cross.

“The remarkable thing is that people don’t watch a pantomime. They don’t hear a story or watch a story. They are in the story; they are part of the story.”

Women come out, kneel before him and hold out their hands. “And the whole story is alive,” Tony says. “The remarkable thing is that people don’t watch a pantomime. They don’t hear a story or watch a story. They are in the story; they are part of the story.”

It is still only 6 am when Jesus wanders off, and everyone goes home to return to Church at 10:30 am for Communion and again at 8 pm for worship until midnight or 1 am.

“I sat there on Easter Sunday evening with the children playing in the playground, the dogs laying in the sand, and the people singing and dancing around the cross, and after an hour and a half of songs, the ‘start song’ comes, and people say, ‘Oh, we’re going to start now,’ Tony says.

“We came in a big circle around the cross to start the prayer. And I’m not kidding; it usually takes about an hour and a half – now let’s get started!

“We’re used to going to Church, and then we’d have one or two hymns, and then one to get the mood down, and then we’d have a prayer, and we’re off — no, [for the Milingimbi mob] it’s an hour and a half – now we start. And it’ll be about an hour and a half of Scripture readings, meditations, and prayers.

“If anyone needs prayer, there is always a time in the service when they go to the cross. The cross is in the middle of the gathering, so if anyone needs prayer, they come out and kneel in front of it or lie on the floor with their hand towards it or touch it. And one of the elders, who could be somehow connected to that person – they’ll know what they want to pray for because people know what’s going on – and they’ll go slowly, casually, comfortably and pray with that person.”

Peter’s younger age and community acceptance have drawn many young people to this beautiful community church over the past six months.

“Young people change their lives when they come into fellowship and worship,” explains Peter.

“We all teach and pray for them; they know and follow Jesus.”

Melissa adds: “They change from sniffing, breaking [stealing] – Jesus changes them. They have love and fellowship. Now they love to worship – dance, praise, and share every night. The young people are caring… even the children dance, cheer, and praise.”

Peter and Melissa are pastors for two churches, one in Milingimbi and one for their homeland, about half an hour away by boat or 10 minutes by plane.

“Our first mission as new ministers was from Milingimbi to the Ramingining community and people,” explains Melissa.

‘First, we go to Ramingining, then to Elcho, and then to Yirrkala. And then back to Milingimbi and then to Maningrida. There are many calls from every community.”

She said that in Yirrkala, many people came to their outreach event, even from the outposts – “people in need of healing, and Jesus blessed them.”

According to United Church Support employee Margaret Miller, a group from Milingimbi visited Elcho Island in March to celebrate the anniversary of the 1979 revival.

“They came to that event early on Elcho, and that has had a positive impact on Elcho among the young people,” she says.

“In April, we had the dedication of the reprinted Gumatj New Testament in Yirrkala. We had been waiting for the dedication for months, but the timing was wonderful because of this growing encouragement and enthusiasm for the Lord, God’s work, and His spirit. There’s a lot of talk about the Holy Spirit and revival, and a movement going from west to east has been developing in the last few months with the young people, especially the new generation.”

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