In the heart of Australia’s ‘Red Centre’, an abandoned and run-down church has been restored by the local Lutheran Aboriginal community, with the assistance of Finke River Mission (FRM) and some enthusiastic Sydney school students.
On Saturday 30 July, FRM pastor Rob Borgas led a rite of consecration of the restored church at Lilla outstation (Reedy Creek, which the outstation was called when it was part of the Tempe Downs cattle run), ten kilometres south of the spectacular tourist attraction Kings Canyon.
On the Kings Canyon homelands – which includes Ulpanyali, Lilla, Wanmara and Ukaka – FRM Pitjantjatjara-speaking pastors have been leading occasional worship services for the mainly Luritja-speaking people in the area, often under the shade of a tree or on the verandah of a house.
Recent renewed interest by the people of Lilla in redeveloping their outstation led to a number of projects being undertaken in partnership with Reg Ramsden of Remote Tours. After they successfully reopened their primary school on 27 January, the people of Lilla set about restoring their old church. This time they were assisted by FRM, which supplied some sacred furniture and hymnals for the new church. St John’s Lutheran Church, Dernancourt, donated the pews, and St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Sydney, donated the baptismal font.
Muscle and elbow grease was supplied by a group of Year 10 students from St Andrew’s Cathedral School, Sydney. Used to studying in multi-storey buildings in the heart of Sydney, the students were given the rare opportunity to camp on a homeland and learn about traditional culture from the local people, in exchange for helping to paint and renovate the church.
Originally the church had been built by the founders of the Lilla outstation, including the late Pastor Peter Bullah, in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Over the years it had fallen into disuse and disrepair, like so many other outstation churches have done after such hopeful beginnings thirty to forty years ago.
In the 1970s changes to FRM policy about how Indigenous culture and Christianity could coexist, plus the federal government’s granting of land rights, gave Indigenous people the freedom to move from the more populated communities, such as Hermannsburg, Papunya and Areyonga, back to their traditional homelands. Over the next ten to twenty years many so-called ‘outstations’ were developed in Central Australia, including in the Kings Canyon area.
‘Traditional Indigenous culture and identity is fundamentally linked to the land’, explains Pastor Borgas. ‘This is perhaps why family relationships and responsibilities seem to be more functional on outstations. Removed from inter-family fighting, people talk of the peace and quiet they enjoy on the outstation. The outstations, far from the dangers of alcohol, drugs and gambling found in many of the major centres, are safe and healthy places for people and their families. They are places for them to be who they really are.’
A great product of the increased freedom and sense of identity people experience on their homeland is the desire to renew the Christian faith and traditions introduced by the missionaries and evangelists and practised by their parents and grandparents.
‘This is why so many people ask for church services and devotions to be held on their homelands’, Pastor Borgas said.
The people of Lilla are very proud of what they have achieved. According to Vera Williams, ‘In the past people were missing out on church and there was no place to have Sunday school for the kids. Having a special place dedicated to worshipping God and teaching our children is very important for us at Lilla.’