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Walking alongside leaders: Checkpoint Spring 2021

CMS missionaries Matt and Kate Vinicombe are learning language and culture as they serve in North Australia. Here Kate writes about their reflections on what they have learned, and how they hope to support the growth of God’s church in that place.

We have lived on Groote Eylandt for two years and still feel very much at the early stages of ministry. One of our main goals is to support the church leaders here among the three indigenous parishes of Angurugu, Umbakumba and Milyakburra.

Building relationships of trust

When we first arrived on Groote Eylandt, we found it hard to gain an audience with the leaders we had come to work alongside. They seemed aloof, always out, maybe even disinterested.

Yet as we have watched our relationships develop, we can now see that this was a normal stage in relationship development. In a place where mutual trust between
majority culture and indigenous culture is relatively low, the initial phase was about them watching us, seeing what sort of people we were.

Now, two years on, it feels like we have made huge gains in mutual trust. We have needed to be vulnerable, both emotionally and materially, to show that we are not here to exert power. Getting a smashed car window and asking our church leader for a replacement was a big step forward in our relationship in our first year. It showed that we were willing to rely on them, rather than be self-sufficient.

Here to support the church leaders

When we describe our role here, we are always quick to explain that we are not ordained, and that we do not run the church. People often look a bit perplexed with this, both local and non-local. But it finally feels like even the leaders trust that we are not here to take over, but to support them in their genuine leadership of those in their care.

A commitment to learning to operate in Anindilyakwa (the local language) shows vulnerability—we often have no idea what is being said and have no eloquence to say much of importance. But again, it shows that we are not here to take over and enables leaders to lead in the language that God has given them.

The reality is that we are partners together and support each other. The community put up with our poor Aninidlyakwa and teach and correct us. They give us ‘ins’ to new relationships. The people show us their country and involve us in their lives. As Christians we are spurred on to persevere in our trust of Christ through all life’s ups and downs.

Value of listening

Listening seems like an obvious point, but often people from the majority culture here have so many ‘great’ ideas that they forget to listen to indigenous people. Without listening to our church leaders, we will be unable to support them.

We have seen that listening across cultures is hard but important. It is through listening that we discover how we can support the church leaders in genuinely helpful ways rather than doing stuff that we think should be supportive. One example is hearing a woman’s stress over choosing a Bible passage for the next week’s service. It was a surprise to me, and not a significant issue from my perspective. But helping her think through a simple Bible reading plan has resulted in growth in confidence, conviction and clarity while leading services.

Slow but steady

Initially our support looked really simple—being regular at church (which is significant in a small congregation and in a culture where people don’t do anything alone). Gradually our support of church leaders is growing—praying together, helping them choose passages and think about meaning for church services, facilitating the translation of a children’s story based on the Bible, or talking through issues that arise.

It’s important that our support is not just ‘spiritual’, but includes helping in times of distress, or in navigating complicated situations.

This year marks 100 years since CMS arrived permanently on Groote Eylandt. Through our experience here and reflecting on the 100 years of history, we are convinced that the church on Groote should and needs to be led by local Christian indigenous leaders, supported and encouraged to continue in their work for the Lord by CMS and the Diocese of the Northern Territory. So, we will keep seeking to build further trust, empower their leadership and support the church leaders that God has raised up here in the Groote archipelago.

GO

There are many opportunities to support the Indigenous Church and Aboriginal Christians in North Australia. Has God placed it on your heart to go? Contact your local CMS branch to learn more.