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Wisdom in white hair

CMS missionaries Derek and Rosemary Snibson, in their 60s, recently began serving in Northern Australia. Read how God has led them – and how their age has conferred both joyful challenges and opportunities along the way.

In mid-2018 we arrived in the Northern Territory. With encouraging support from the Diocese of the Northern Territory, our vision is to get alongside and equip Indigenous Christians in Darwin in their ministry, mission and emerging leadership. It is crucial that they own and shape ministry for themselves if it is to endure fruitfully: to know and worship Jesus and make him known in their own languages and ways. We share here some reflections from the story so far.

Too old to go?

Over the past 40 years, we have been privileged to serve in cross-cultural ministry and mission in Melbourne suburbs such as North Fitzroy, Carlton, South Melbourne and Clayton. When first approaching CMS, we were initially told “Sorry, you’re too old for full time service, and there are no training vacancies at St Andrew’s Hall (SAH) for some time!” Others said, “At your stage of life, why bother with the training? Just go!”

However, we were delighted when CMS did accept us to train to serve God in Northern Australia, and as doors graciously opened to guide our way. We are so glad we did agree to first go to SAH. We relished the time and space there to learn new things from God and others, to reflect on what we had already learnt, and to be enriched by the great privilege of the training and community life.

Too weak to go?

Three months before arriving in the Northern Territory, Derek had back surgery. We wondered again whether we should go. What about the long trips and bumpy dirt roads? Thankfully, his back is going well. We have been through a number of lessons in vulnerability in ministry over the years (such as when Rosemary was in bed for many months with back problems when our children were toddlers). Awareness of our own limitations continues to be important in serving here.

Firstly, God graciously reminds us that our confidence is in his strength, not our own (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). We will increasingly face limitations of age, and the relatively short time ahead; we are not in our 30s! Our efforts often seem so small and fragile. We have been stripped of familiar supports. Our pride means that this is a lesson we need to keep on learning.

Secondly, our vulnerability enables us to relate a little more to the people amongst whom we serve. We can share our need for grace, healing, forgiveness and help—particularly in learning language. Yet Indigenous people face and have been stripped of far more. They often battle with relentless challenges of health, family pressures, housing, language, prejudice, poverty, addiction and intergenerational trauma. Their churches and local communities are small and struggling, with many needs. However their faith, worship, witness, and resilience in the power of the Spirit is inspiring.

Lastly, our vulnerability reminds us to pray. People we invest in can get sick, overwhelmed, move away or die. Sometimes so little appears to be achieved. Yet prayer reminds us to keep trusting with hope. Through the finished victory of the cross, God has promised to be at work to build and provide for his Church amongst those our world considers as weak, foolish and of no account (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

Such hope gives this ‘old couple’ (us!) and others encouragement and joy to rely on God and to ‘kipgon’ (Kriol for ‘keep going’) day by day.

Our orientation to mission in North Australia


After a few weeks in Darwin we went to Ngukurr, a remote Aboriginal community eight hours away in Arnhem Land. We stayed for three-and-a-half months before returning to Darwin.

Ngukurr grew from the first CMS mission to Roper River in 1908. Living there was very different for us, but triggered some familiar memories of Housing Estate communities. We received ‘skin names’ (adopted into the kinship system) and were immersed in learning Kriol and about culture. Our time in Ngukurr has been a valuable foundation; opening doors and fostering bonds we could not have imagined.

With grief at leaving behind many experiences and friends we came to love, we returned to begin serving in Darwin in December 2018. Increasingly, people from remote communities like Ngukurr move to and from the city. Some have settled more permanently in Darwin, with its mosaic of different languages, cultures, needs and degrees of urbanisation.

Challenging values and world views

After some time at Ngukurr, more than one person said: “We want you to stay, but if you have to go, tell CMS to send older people like you, those with more experience.” We were called ‘Olgamen en Olmen’ each day (Kriol for ‘old lady and old man’). Although we felt some indignity at first, these are actually terms of endearment. White hair doesn’t mean reaching for a bottle of dye. As in other cultures, Aboriginal folk look respectfully to seniors for wisdom and advice. We have also encountered other Indigenous values that have challenged our own, such as extended clan relationships and sharing in a collective culture.

The bigger picture and partnerships

 

Along with the support of churches and local partners here in Darwin, we are humbly aware that we stand on the shoulders of those before us. One week after arriving in Ngukurr we attended the funeral of Rev M. Gumbuli W (OAM), the first ordained Aboriginal Anglican in the Territory. We saw and experienced the rich local legacy of his ministry and that of many other faithful Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. It was moving to pray with local leaders at the fallen tree-trunk where the first service was conducted 110 years earlier by the original six CMS missionaries, including three Aboriginals.[1] We are thankful for the privilege of playing a small part in this bigger story.

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In some locations, having more years of life experience can be an advantage for ministry. If you are an older Christian thinking of mission, contact your branch to learn of opportunities.

 

[1] For more on the legacy of the ministry of Aboriginal Christians, see Seiffert, Murray 2008, Refuge on the Roper, Acorn Press; Seiffert, M. 2011 Gumbuli Of Ngukurr Acorn Press; also Harris, John 1998 We Wish We’d Done More Openbook Publishers.