Strong Women: Leading the Church on Groote Eylandt
Posted on: 15th August 2017
Mildred Mamarika is a local, Indigenous church leader on Groote Eylandt, the largest island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, off the coast of Northern Territory. She has an important role in discipling Indigenous women in her community and reaching Indigenous women with the gospel (to read more on this, see Kate Beer’s article, ‘Strong Women: Upholding the Church in North Australia’). She was recently interviewed by archdeacon and CMS-A vice-president Len Firth who, together with his wife, Jill, served with CMS on Groote in 1988–90.
Len: What is your role within the church and what ministries are you involved in?
Mildred: My role is as a deacon and church leader. I work with Rev. Colleen Mamarika and we support each other and work together. We take turns to lead the Sunday church service. Sometimes I do this two times or more if Colleen has a commitment which means she’s away. My role includes evangelism but this can be difficult because of our culture. We must respect one another and look carefully at body language. It is very, very rude to speak with someone who does not want to speak with you. [With] some people you are not in a right relationship, tribal way, you know na? But if someone is open you can talk and then we take that opportunity. We can ask them about people and their life and faith.
Another part of my role is to pray. I want to do this very earnestly. It helps me to think of Almighty God on his throne.
Bible teaching is another important part of my role. I have been part of the Bible translation team on Groote.
L: How have you been supported and discipled to be in this leadership position? Have you done any training or further education to help you?
M: The main way I have been discipled and supported is by being a part of the church and the Christian fellowship. I learned by watching others. Studying the Bible with others has been very important. As a part of the translation team, I have worked with CMS Bible translators and we have to understand the Bible to be able to translate it.
I went to courses at Nungalinya College and studied some theology subjects when a Bible teacher came to the community. At Nungalinya I remember the Bible stories we learned and the stories about the ministry of other Christians.
My husband was ordained in 1989 and we worked together until he died. I remember those CMS people who used to come and teach us, like that old man, Benny Butler, and Tony Nichols and Rob Haynes. And I remember when you and your very special wife, Jill, na, used to come and meet with us and talk about how to be a leader in the church. They were good times and my daughter played with your daughter Sue.
I didn’t want to be ordained because I was ashamed of the community and was not sure it was what God wanted, but people talked with me and prayed and I became sure. They encouraged me. It was like when you are fishing and you get a strong bite so you know you have a fish. God spoke like that and so Bishop Greg Thompson ordained me as a deacon.
L: Can you describe how you support, disciple and train other Indigenous Christians?
M: I support and disciple others, training them in the way I was trained. Sometimes when we go out in the bush, hunting and fishing, we tell Christian stories and then people ask questions. This is better than when I try to visit people at their house. Visiting people at their house is a problem because of culture and because there are too many people and things going on which make it hard.
Each week, we meet together to read the Bible and talk about it. This is the way we disciple others.
L: How does your role allow you to reach non-believing Indigenous women with the gospel?
M: One of the main ways my role helps me to reach people who do not follow Jesus is at funerals. I take a lot of funerals and many people come. They are helped when I preach the gospel to them. People tell me they like it when I preach and tell about Jesus and his death and resurrection. How he is stronger than death. Also, in our small communities people see the way you live. They know if you say one thing and do something different. So the way we live is very important for us as Christian leaders. They know if we pray and read the Bible and live in Jesus’ way.
L: Why is it important that Indigenous women are equipped to disciple and lead other Indigenous women?
M: In our culture, it is important that women go out with the ladies to share about the Christian faith and life. Men cannot do this. This is a problem for us because we need men leaders who can talk with the men.
L: Is there anything else you would like to say to those CMS people who support you from far away?
M: I want them to know how hard it is and what a burden we have to carry. They should remember to pray for us.
They should know that it is difficult for us to work with Balanda [white fellas] because we don’t know if we can trust them. It takes a long time before we know if they understand how to live and work with Aboriginal people. I want them to know that we appreciate people like Terry and Liz [McCoy] who came. But people need to be here for long enough time to be known and trusted. Also they need to know that this is our land, our Eylandt, our country. They come as guests and need to learn to work with us.
I also want those CMS people to know that we are thankful to God for those who have shared the gospel and helped us to become leaders in our church.
Please pray for us and continue to be true Christian brothers and sisters in our hard work and ministry.
L: Thank you. We have appreciated your honesty and helping us to know about your ministry on Groote Eylandt.
Give thanks to God for Mildred and the other church leaders on Groote Eylandt. Pray for them as they disciple, lead and evangelise in their communities. Pray for more Indigenous Christians to be mentored and supported to become leaders of their communities. Pray for respectful and considerate relationships between missionaries and local Indigenous leaders.