God’s gracious Christmas gift to Mutitjulu – Jesus Christ to be sure! But Christmas 2019 saw the Spirit of Christ stir the heart of Rita Okai to request to be reinstated as a church worker.
Long-term FRM supporters may remember Rita was installed as a church worker back in 2011 after many years of active service in the Mutitjulu congregation, leading singing, Sunday school, teaching confirmation and baptism classes, and helping the pastors lead worship.
In 2016 Rita decided to take a break from church leadership to study Christian Ministry and Theology at Nungalinya College in Darwin and to raise her baby daughter.
In 2018 Pastor Hezekiel Tjingoona died, leaving church worker Kunpry Pei Pei to continue to support the congregation. However, during 2019, age and infirmity began to increasingly hamper Kunpry’s ability to provide regular pastoral care and Sunday services.
Kunpry was desperately worried for the future of the congregation and had asked me to visit Rita the next time I came to Mutitjulu, to talk with her about resuming church worker duties. A week later I was on my way. About 40 kilometres away from the community I received a phone call from none other than Rita. She asked me, ‘Would it be okay for me to be a church worker again?’
Although her formal (re)installation as a church worker has been delayed due to COVID-19, Rita has been very busy since February caring for and encouraging her people. She even brought her sister to Alice Springs for the rite of private confession — a 900-kilometre round trip!
COVID-19 restrictions have meant FRM pastoral support workers have been barred from visiting their communities,
and so normal Sunday services and the gathering of large groups are temporarily suspended. This has not fazed Rita. Each weekday she meets with different small groups (within the Northern Territory Government guidelines), teaching them to read Pitjantjatjara from the hymnbook and Bible. In the process, she has been teaching the Bible stories and how to sing the hymns. These groups have been developing into informal confirmation classes. One such group consists of five young men who have not usually attended worship services in the past. Rita is hopeful that one or more of these men will become leaders in the congregation and maybe seek to become pastors.
Five months ago the future of the Lutheran congregation in Mutitjulu appeared to be terminal, with ageing members, diminishing attendance and struggling leadership. Now, despite the troubles of COVID-19, Jesus is
faithfully building his church. Perhaps, like Queen Esther, Rita was raised up ‘for just such a time as this’.
Praise be to God our Father, and keep praying for our brothers and sisters in Mutitjulu.
Malcolm Willcocks is the Pitjantjatjara Support Worker in the Western Arrarnta Language Area.