A large number of Aboriginal people showed up for baptism in the Caddell River during a recent dedication ceremony at Gochan Jiny-jirra – Caddell Homeland, about 38 km southeast of Maningrida in the West of the Land of Arnhem.
“The Holy Spirit is working in West Arnhem Land,” exclaims Lindsay Parkhill, a bush chaplain for Frontier Services, a United Church agency.
In a cross-dedication ceremony, wooden crosses are raised on native lands to bless the land and renew the covenant between God and the Holy Spirit in the land. The sacraments of the church – baptism and communion – are also celebrated. Lindsay played a supporting role in the recent ceremony and plans many more with pastors, elders and leaders from West Arnhem Land.
The crossover dedication to Caddell also featured the recognition of eight ministry leaders – elders, music leaders, youth leaders and pastoral workers, which brought tears to those present. Further cross-dedication ceremonies are planned in Mumeka, Mudginberri, Ngakalawarra, Kewelyi, Karrata and other Homelands.
“The dedication of the cross is a ceremony that has a long tradition in western Arnhem Land, probably dating back to the 1970s,” says Lindsay, whose ministry is based in Jabiru, in the heart of Kakadu National Park. .
“More recently, we have held cross-dedication ceremonies in homelands, on people’s ancestral properties. Planting a cross in the ground is an important ceremonial activity and it is treated with great respect and importance by the people of the Homelands.
The ceremony lasts from three days to a week, preparing people for baptism and then baptizing them by immersion in living water as stated in the Didache (the teaching of the 12 Apostles).
Although the baptism of 130 people was a record, Lindsay said it was not uncommon for 60 or 70 people, from infants to the elderly, to be born again.
“We baptized 64 bininj [Aboriginal people of Western Arnhem land] just down the road here at Jabiru in Budabudayiw. It’s not uncommon for there to be a lot of people. The beauty of it is that baptisms are done by elders and family leaders, so it’s kind of a relationship. People name their relationships, which is really a beautiful thing,” he says.
“My role is to support. I read names and issue baptismal certificates. They will be distributed at a rally in Maningrida at the end of this month.
“They have this sense of fairness and hospitality that has largely been born out of us white men since the Enlightenment.”
Lindsay believes First Nations Christians in Arnhem Land have a lot to teach the wider church “if the wider church could only listen”.
“They are more Christian than we are, according to the precepts of Acts, sharing their goods and worshiping regularly. The Spirit of our living God is alive seven days a week, not just Sunday.
“What I’m saying is that the bininj are Old Testament people, tribal people, resting on the solid foundations of Jesus. They have this sense of fairness and hospitality that has been widely from us white men since the Enlightenment.
The meaning of the relationship is about building respect and relationship rather than the imperative of leadership. There is consensus decision-making, unlike the mainstream culture’s pyramid structure – it’s a much flatter form of organization.
Lindsay says the importance and vitality of Christianity in Arnhem Land is that it is the longest consistent connection with the balanda, with the whitefellas, that the bininj aborigines have had.
“Governments come and go, bureaucrats come and go, but the church is a long connection and it’s a constant connection. The teachings of the Bible are consistent and Christians are leaders in their communities. It’s like that.
“It was through my immersion and exposure to the arrarrkpi people on Goulburn Island that I came to faith.”
Lindsay came to faith living and working with arrarrkpi (Mawng-speaking people), especially her tribal brother, Pastor Billy Nawaloinba.
“I first came here in 1988 as a lay community development worker. It was through my immersion and exposure to the arrarrkpi people on Goulburn Island that I came to faith in living and working with indigenous people,” he says.
“While I was a community development worker, I was asked to pray at the bedside of an old lady called Mayabiyn, who was the last living person to remember Reverend James Watson’s arrival in 1916. [In June 1916 James Watson arrived at Warruwi (South Goulburn Island) off the coast of the Northern Territory to establish a Christian mission to the Aboriginal people.]
“I was asked to pray at his bedside. She was dying. I come from a Christian family and so I started praying the Our Father. And then I had a strange experience that I would liken to Wesley’s “strangely warmed heart.” That was my Damascus Road experience, if you will.
“I wasn’t blinded by the light or anything. It was just an experience that made me question existence. Before, the world was not a mystery. Now there was a mysterious element in this world that I had to explore.
“Before, the world was not a mystery. Now, there was a mysterious element in this world that I had to explore.
Over the next few years, Lindsay spent time on Roper River and Ngukurr and worked as a language teacher in Willowra, which is the ancestral homeland of the Warlpiri people, where he had another epiphany that took him “to blows.” kicking and screaming” at the theological college.
“We went down to Yuendumu to camp in the dump, where the people of Willowra were camping. And there was an Easter palapa, a ceremony. The Warlpiri have this fantastic ceremony for Easter, during which they do traditional dances and act out the Easter story. It was after going through this experience that I finally decided to go to theological college and study for the ministry and be ordained.
“I spent five years in Melbourne doing theology at the United Faculty of Theology which is now disbanded, but it was a coalition between the Jesuits, the Anglican Church and the United Church. It was a fantastic institution. We had access to the Jesuit library, and some of my best teachers were Jesuits, especially in Hebrew and the Old Testament.
Since returning to Jabiru in 2009, Lindsay has never considered moving on.
“Well, I’m part of the family; nawayuk in Warruwi, nakojok in Jabiru, wamut in Maningrida, mambali in the Roper and Japangardi in the desert,” he says to explain what drives him. “I just consider myself so lucky to be able to share people’s lives.”
“I just consider myself so lucky to be able to share people’s lives.”
Lindsay supports 22 pastors in an area from the River Blythe in the east to the Cobourg Peninsula in the west, and works with the Northern Regional Council of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) to develop leadership of the local church.
While cross-dedications have so far been confined to West Arnhem Land, Lindsay said communities in East Arnhem Land are now interested in holding on.
“There was a request from Alan Maratja Dhamarrandji for a cross-dedication at Garrata Homeland, north of Gapuwiyak,” he says.
“It’s good because the thing about cross-dedications is that they authenticate the whole movement for the homeland. And it’s a counterpoint to the mainstream culture’s desire to draw everyone into central hubs like Gunbalanya and Maningrida and places like that.The whole homeland movement has been undermined by successive governments since Whitlam.