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The Rev. John Blacket, a Uniting Church minister is author of Fire in the Outback.
Soon after the arrival of the first European settlers in Australia some Christians started to take the gospel to Aborigines. Much of this early work was thwarted by aboriginal repulsion at the life style and cruelty of these strange new people.
Not that all Aborigines rejected foreigners. There had been contact with Macassans from Indonesia every year for hundreds of years. They came to gather trepang, a sea delicacy found in North Australia. Some Aborigines visited Indonesia with them, and the cultures and even families mixed together.
No, the clash between Europeans and Aborigines was a deep cultural issue of differing world views related to what is important in each culture. Europeans did not value highly the same things Aborigines did, especially family relationships. They seemed more interested in material things.
These Europeans spoke about God and his love. They tried to teach the ‘inferior, primitive’ Aborigines by rational, cerebral processes. Aborigines, however, ‘know’ things by a heart experience rather than abstractly in their minds. So Europeans tended to see mission as a very long process of teaching abstract Western concepts.
There was some success. This came mainly from the love and commitment of these Christian foreigners to total strangers at incredible personal sacrifice. That spoke more than words.
Ron Williams, an aboriginal evangelist, observed that those Christians were the kind of heroes the children ought to know about, people not ashamed to shed tears and love their black friends, pioneers who poured out love and healed the wounds of many sorrowing, suffering and dying Aborigines.
Aborigines were searching for something in this new teaching to catch hold of, but it didn’t seem to have any spiritual handles for them. It seemed to be ideas without answers to the struggles of life. Their world was full of very real spiritual powers, especially evil spirits and the power of ‘magic men’. If this God was like they said, he should be stronger than the evil spirits, and they would see evidence of this. They didn’t.
To the European, this world view was primitive superstition and was wrong. People just had to learn with their minds. Then they would understand. Even missionaries who did believe in satan and evil spirits did not seem to have the ability and power to deal with them.
Yet through it all God was at work. Seeds were sown which paved the way for the aboriginal revival.
Aborigines began finding a real relationship between their culture and the gospel. They rejected aspects of their culture which conflicted with God’s Word but came to see that their ‘law’ was like the Jewish law which Jesus came to fulfil, not destroy. They sensed that God had given Aborigines some revelation of his divine nature and purpose in their culture that needed to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Makarrwala (Harry) from Buckingham Bay in eastern Arnhem Land, North Australia was one. An early convert in the region, he committed his life to Christ at Milingimbi in 1940. His conversion resulted from God speaking to him in a dream, a way in which God speaks to many Aborigines still. That led to the beginnings of indigenous changes, submitting the culture to the gospel, not through missionary teaching but through personal conviction by the Holy Spirit.
God prepared the way for revival, in people like Harry, in visions and dreams, in personal sacrifices and teaching, in signs and wonders, in healings and struggles, in personal relationships, and in meetings where God’s power was clearly evident and many lives were changed.
Arnhem Land revival
It was not until 1979 at Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island) that a really powerful community-changing move of the Holy Spirit occurred. It seems that most of the revival among aboriginal people has stemmed from this in some way.
Arnhem Land, the north east section of the Northern Territory, is an aboriginal reserve, so over 90% of the residents are Aborigines. The rest are called ‘balanda’ (non-aboriginal) who work in the region to assist the aboriginal communities. Galiwin’ku is one of the largest communities with over 1,000 people.
The Methodist Church (which became part of the Uniting Church in 1977) pioneered missionary work in this region in 1923. Rev. Harold and Ella Shepherdson worked at Galiwin’ku from 1942, spending 35 years there and 50 years altogether in the region. This gave Galiwin’ku great stability through their incredible practical wisdom.
The church and tribal elders carefully trained key young local Aborigines for leadership. Rrurrumbu Dhurrkay, the assistant school principal and an evangelist was one. Another was Rev. Djiniyini Gondarra who was placed in charge of the local church in 1977. God was preparing him for a wider and important national apostolic task. For both of them, this involved preparation in spiritual dimensions of family life which neither balanda nor aboriginal training had given them.
Yet the Holy Spirit began to move visibly in the community at the time Djiniyini and a number of other leaders, who were all praying expectantly for this move of God, went on holidays.
The first evidence of this special move of the Holy Spirit came with the wet season of 1978-79. People started to ask about God. At a social gathering on the beach Christians sensed God’s presence in a unity they had never before experienced. Only one or two balanda were present. People wanted to spend more time together, and with God. Many fellowship meetings began to happen spontaneously, every night and at other times.
The fruit and gifts of the Holy Spirit started to be experienced in new ways. Non-Christians felt God’s presence, came to join in, were convicted of sin and repented. Even some who were sceptical and opposed to what was happening were drawn to come and sit on the side-lines and mock, but were brought to repentance by God.
While Djiniyini was on holiday he prayed for God’s leading about what should be planned for the church for 1979. He listed many things.
On the day of his return in March some people said they wanted a fellowship meeting at his house that night. Tired after his journey, his spirits fell. But it turned out to be an exceptional night. During the night people began crowding into the lounge room. Many of them were people he had never seen at church. They began telling what had been going on while their pastor had been away. As Djiniyini and his wife Gelung listened, tears filled their eyes. Everything on that list had already happened, or was beginning to happen.
A visit by the Rev. Dan Armstrong, a Uniting Church minister and evangelist, had previously been planned for May. He arrived with a small team and found a people prepared by God. The church had more than doubled that year already. The team discovered they had come on the crest of a wave of God’s Spirit moving among the people.
Dan Armstrong tells the story of their visit to that revival.
‘The first day when we arrived there was such a sense of expectation. It was tremendous. We had a feast the first night, not a meeting. About 500 people arrived! They were gathered around the area, sitting at their little fires. Someone just started strumming a guitar. Others joined in and a few people started to sing.
‘Then out of the darkness more people started to come. They knelt down all round the area. Some started to weep. I hadn’t preached or anything at this point!
‘We started to gather around and pray with them. The incredible thing was that the Lord just ‘smote’ them. But then they would get up and join with us in praying for others.
‘There must have been fifty of them who came to Christ that night. Then the next day the word got out and the place was just jammed with people. We couldn’t fit in the building where we started and had to move out into a big open area.
The beautiful thing was that the first morning the old men came first and started weeping. Others gathered around them day after day and night after night. We saw miracles. Several people were totally delivered from demonic power. Some were healed of all kinds of physical ailments. Particularly significant was the description that they gave again and again of a blanket of blackness being lifted and the light of Christ shining in.
One of the meetings was held on an old ceremonial ground. Through the worship and praise in that place that night the evil spiritual forces were at first aroused and then soundly defeated by the mighty power of God. Some dramatic manifestations were reported. This was another point of release for many people.
Each night after the team retired, others would remain singing and praying into the early hours of the morning. One night a country and western group held a concert in the big hall near the space where they held their meetings. Only 40 attended the concert while over 500 attended the meeting. For Aborigines, that is a miracle!
This revival took teams from Galiwin’ku throughout Arnhem Land, into Queensland, Western Australia, and even to Canberra. They visited aboriginal communities in remote places but included some balanda churches in cities. The results showed powerful evidence of God’s ministry to receptive people. Mostly it was not as dramatic as at home, except for Warburton.
Warburton, with a population of 400, lies in the Central Desert area 250 kilometres west of the junction of the Northern Territory, South Australian and Western Australian borders.
The United Aborigines Mission has worked there for many years but it was hard going. Fighting, drunkness and despair filled the town. In 1980, the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs described it as the worst aboriginal community in Australia.
In September 1981, Rrurrumbu led a team from Galiwin’ku to Alice Springs, and the Pitjantjatara area south of Ayer’s Rock, and finally to Warburton. They flew almost 3,000 kilometres, mainly by light aircraft, to conduct the meetings.
One man commented about Warburton: ‘We knew things couldn’t get worse, so God was our only hope.’ There was real expectancy in spite of disruptions.
A group travelling to a men’s tribal ceremony arrived in town at the same time as the mission team. They intended to take all the men with them on to the ceremony.
One of their truck drivers said, ‘I want to stay and listen to what these strangers have to say.’ So they all stayed!
Drunkenness and petrol sniffing caused disruptions. The old warehouse community store made of corrugated iron used for the meetings echoed with every dog fight or disturbance, despite being packed out. Young people hurled rocks onto the roof or rattled sticks along the corrugated iron walls.
Yet, somehow God moved sovereignly that weekend. Hundreds came to new life. A change took place in the spiritual realms over that place.
A couple of months later, Djiniyini led a smaller team from Galiwin’ku to Warburton in response to another request for help. Once again the Holy Spirit moved in power. Hundreds had prayer for the release of the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, receiving supernatural signs of his answer and a real sense that God was anointing people for ministry.
The first test of this change came through a horrible car accident where six young people were shockingly burned. Instead of plunging into ceremonial grieving, wailing, injuring themselves and seeking revenge, the Christian leaders went to the hospital to pray for the young people, some of whom were dying. Christians went around comforting and praying with the families and ministering to them.
Within a few weeks a team went out from Warburton to share what they had received. In 1982 the team had up to seventy on the road for months at a time, preaching the gospel all over Western Australia. Their teams picked up new members from each community they visited. No outside church group supported them. Basically it was a tribal movement.
The revivals of Arnhem Land and the Central Desert resulted in thousands of aboriginal people having their lives changed from misery to new life in Christ. Families were re-united and many family relationships healed. The misery of alcohol was exchanged for joy and hope. Over 1,000 people were baptised. In one small town 150 were baptised. Even non-aboriginals, seeing the changes, made their own commitments to Jesus Christ.
Sometimes God worked through unusual events to deal with social evils and sins. A group of gamblers were mocking Christians who were praising God in the front yard of a house in one aboriginal community in South Australia. Suddenly one of the gambler’s vehicles started up, drove into a ditch, and burst into flames and the cards in the gambler’s hands caught on fire. That is a true story! The people who told it gave the moral: ‘Don’t mock God.’
I have concentrated here on Galiwin’ku and Warburton. The Holy Spirit has moved strongly in other places as well, especially the Kimberleys, Fitzroy Crossing, and Roeburn in Western Australia, and in rural and urban areas of northern New South Wales. The details I have given portray some of the overall picture.
Results of revival
Has it lasted? The gatherings of 100 to 200 every night at Galiwin’ku gradually diminished. By August 1979, weekly Bible studies were established to nurture new Christians, and have continued. Five years after the revival began a core group of 30 to 50 people still met three nights a week for fellowship, with attendances sometimes as high as 100. In the nineties a strong core group is still meeting.
When I revisited Warburton and the whole region late in 1989 I saw that many had fallen away from the Lord and a lot of the fire had gone. I asked about the changes that remained. Even non-Christian European staff acknowledged that conditions were enormously better than before the revival.
Similarly I have seen some of the highs and lows of spiritual life at Galiwin’ku in several recent visits. Many have fallen away, and some still have an active faith but are not involved with the organised church.
However, conversions still happen, lives are changed, relationships healed, and there are miracles, physical healings, signs, wonders, dreams and visions among them. Many who did not know Jesus before the revival and had been real problem people now follow him with a strong commitment. Some still reach out to groups beyond the normal family responsibilities, including ministry to outcast groups.
There is a deep desire to work through the relationship between the gospel and their own culture, rather than sweeping it under the carpet or trying to deny their roots by rejecting all their culture. This process will take time, prayer and hard work with the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, guidance and strength. It requires prayerful support, not the misguided intervention of well meaning non-aboriginals.
Most of all they have a growing expectation of a further wave or move of the Holy Spirit. There is a new earnest calling out to God. I believe that what has happened is just a foretaste of an ingathering that is far greater than most of us have dreamed possible. Certainly the vision regarding Aborigines that God has given to many people, even before the revival, has only just begun.
The Lord gave Dan Armstrong a vision on the last day of his 1979 mission at Galiwin’ku. He saw the young men going out in groups and landing in other spots. Everywhere they went, a fire came up. He shared this with them and the Lord gave them the word from 1 Corinthians 1:26-29,
Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were
powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is
foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in
the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised
in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that
are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.