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Yulki: Arnhem Land Priest

Summary

From our remote north, the remarkable story of the first traditional aboriginal woman to become a
priest. In 2009 Yulki Nunggumajbarr became the Anglican Church's first remote area indigenous woman
priest. She's since been posted to Groote Eylandt, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, to help revive a
dying church. Although in her 70s, Yulki's already having an impact, but she faces enormous
challenges. Besides the problems of substance abuse, unemployment and ill health, the island's
aboriginal community is deeply divided along clan lines. It's also experiencing a resurgence of
belief in 'evil spirits' and the power of 'curses'. A rare insight into the work and life-story of
a modern day aboriginal evangelist, set against the historical backdrop of the Anglican Church's
century old mission in the Northern Territory.

Story

Geraldine Doogue - Presenter

Emotional scenes there from an extraordinary 'first' for Australia. Hello and welcome to a story
from our remote north. An inspiring true-life tale of faith and courage against enormous odds: It's
the story of the first traditional Aboriginal woman to become a priest in the Anglican Church. It's
about how she got there, her life's journey, and why her work and leadership today could make all
the difference in some isolated communities.

Narration

It's a typical Sunday morning on Groote Eylandt, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. But there's nothing
ordinary about today's service or the priest conducting it. Yulki Nunggumajbarr is the first,
indeed only woman priest from a traditional aboriginal community in the Anglican Church of
Australia.

Yulki Nunggumajbarr

Well I've been waiting for such a long time. I wasn't looking for priest, but it was important for
my people to bring God's message to them.

Narration

It's been a few years since regular Sunday services have been held at this church on Groote
Eylandt.

Joy Sandefur - Anglican priest, Nungalinya College

The reason we sent Yulki to Groote Eylandt is she's got a proven track record of helping churches
that are struggling. And she has the gift that seems to attract people to come to church and to
take part again and get some of the younger ones involved.

We said we'd send her for three months and she just said, "no Joy I have to go until at least the
end of the year if I am going to do the job properly".

Narration

Yulki has overcome enormous odds to become a first for her Church and her people: Decades of white
missionary rule, a male dominated traditional culture, isolation, language difficulties and few
educational opportunities.

Greg Thompson - Anglican Bishop N.T.

For Australia, Yulki's ordination demonstrates that we are growing up. We are recognising that
Aboriginal culture and people have much to contribute, as well as receive our help and friendship.

Narration

But Yulki's had to make sacrifices for her new job: She's given up her traditional ceremonial
responsibilities to become a priest.

Kerry McLean - Community church worker (CMS)

It's a huge decision for any indigenous person, be it male or female, to decide that they're not
going to take part in a lot of the ceremonies or parts of the ceremonies because they're going
right against their culture and they're having to withstand a lot of family pressure.

Yulki

God want me to come here to Groote Eylandt. But you know it's a big hard job.

Narration

She's been here just 3 weeks, and although in her in early 70s Yulki is already having an impact.

Yulki

Since I came I started bible study and service on Sundays and Sunday School.

Narration

Yulki was not much older than these children when she first encountered Christianity ... almost 70
years ago.

Yulki

I was born at my mother land at Wiyagida and I was there with my mother and father and when I grew
up, we went to the mission at Roper River.

Narration

The Roper River winds its way through southern Arnhem Land into the Gulf of Carpentaria. A mission
was established here in 1908 by the Church Mission Society of the Anglican Church. It began life as
a place of refuge for local tribes who'd been pushed off their land by white pastoralists.

Keith Hart - Former Missionary

They came because it was a sanctuary where they could find peace, where they wouldn't be shot out,
where they would find friendship and also occupation.

Joy

The popular view is that the white missionaries destroyed the culture of these people. Now if you
go back and look at the history. In 1908 when the first mission was started it was started to
create a safe haven from the massacres that were taking place. And in a very short time,
unsolicited, 200 Aboriginal people turned up at that mission seeking safety.

Narration

Over the years the Roper River Mission grew to be a self contained community. The missionaries
helped the aboriginal people build houses, clear the land and grow vegetables. There was also a
medical clinic and a school. But teaching the Christian Gospel was integral to the mission.

Keith

I started work at Roper as head stockman. Mainly I was there to keep the Aboriginal people
organised on what they were doing and going out with them and mustering cattle and having my
spiritual opportunity with them every night around the camp fire. I often had Bible studies out in
the bush or prayed when things went wrong.

Narration

Many aboriginal people responded to the Christian message and some became influential church
leaders. Men like James Japanma who became a role model for Yulki.

Yulki

Every Sunday we were going to the church listening to the word of God from James Japanma and he was
the evangelist.

Narration

But in those days men like James never had the chance to become priests themselves.

Greg

Some 70 years ago there were many men who should have been ordained. But because of the times we
thought that they should go away for long period of study in a city. That was so hard for people in
that era.

Narration

But Aboriginal lay preachers were key to the Church's expansion in Arnhem Land. In 1952 they helped
found a new mission, now called Numbulwar, at the mouth of the Rose River. Yulki and her family
left the Roper River, to join them.

Greg

She came with her parents as a young girl to help establish this Numbulwar community, way back in
the 1950's. And as a young girl she grew up in this place of sand hills and ocean, fishing and
learning to be a part of this community which is her traditional way of life.

Narration

It was here that Yulki in her early teens decided to be baptised a Christian.

Yulki

And from that time on I've been following the Lord. All my life until now.

Narration

At Numbulwar, Yulki married a local man and had eight children. They were all still quite young
when she felt called to minister to her people.

Yulki

I'd been thinking about how to preach and how to teach. And I said to myself, I know that God wants
me to go to Nungalinya College.

Narration

Nungalinya College in Darwin is a theological training college for Indigenous Australians. It's was
established in 1973, and is run jointly by the Anglican, Uniting and Catholic churches.

Joy

Nungalinya was started because up until '73 the policy was that if an Aboriginal person was to be
ordained they had to go away to Sydney, Melbourne or somewhere for a number of years training in
Theology. And it was a model that just didn't work and didn't produce ordained people. Nobody was
interested in going for that long.

Narration

Yulki began her religious studies at Nungalinya in 1974.

Yulki

My husband wasn't keen, and he didn't want me to go, but he was a good father. He was a good
husband. He knew that I was going for something. But I was alone because I was the first Aboriginal
woman.

Narration

Today Nungalinya College helps indigenous leaders like Yulki come to grips with the complexities of
being Christian leaders in their communities.

Greg

In small communities everything looms large. Many people are related to each other. Many people
have had a history of conflict who are church leaders have met today to look at some ways, steps of
talking about these problems together and what ways they might respond to it as church leaders,
rather than being caught up in the conflict. How do they operate as peacemakers?

Joy

Things like this time we're talking about funeral services and the communion services, dealing with
issues when people are disagreeing with each other and causing trouble. How do you go about that?
What's your role as a minister or church leader?

Narration

A decade after Nungalinya College was established there was a push in the Anglican Church for
indigenous ministers. In the 1980s several men were ordained as priests, including Yulki's brother,
Rupert.

Joy

She watched her brother Rupert be ordained in 1988 in spite of her own interest in that. At that
time the Aboriginal men had said no women to be ordained. Women priests didn't exist in their
horizon and in their world. And so it was a new idea. And so given the fact that we were just
starting to ordain women in the Anglican Church in Australia that's not surprising.

Narration

Momentous changes in the Anglican Church over the next two decades would pave the way for Yulki to
become its first traditional Aboriginal woman priest in 2009. Family members, clergy and people
from other communities travelled vast distances for the historic ceremony.

Greg

Welcome everyone to this special day that God has brought into being in this church of the holy
spirit. The holy spirit has been blowing and working in people's hearts and lives in this
community. And today we gather because of the holy spirit working in Yulki's life. She has been
made a deacon and today she will be made a priest. Will you be diligent in prayer and in the study
of the holy scriptures?

Yulki

I will by God's grace.

They didn't want any woman to be made priest, they want all the men. But now they've seen what has
happened this ceremony.

Joy

Yulki's ordination as a Priest is very significant for Aboriginal leadership, it is a model for
future generation of Aboriginal women who might aspire to Church leadership. And it shows the
growth and the maturity of the Church and it also recognises the role of the women in the Church
who have been really very much the backbone of the Church in recent years.

Greg

We have every confidence that you have pondered these things deeply ...

With many communities suffering great stress and violence and great difficulties. Women are very
important in holding the communities together and the men recognise those women. Aboriginal
ordained men standing with Yulki in that call. A call not only to be a priest but to be a strong
leader.

Grant to Yulki merciful God grace and power to fulfil her ministry and to watch over and care for
the people committed to her charge.

Peter Gundu

She been ordained so she could be able to go out not only here but when she goes out to another
place and try to encourage people out there she'll be able to do her sacraments like using Holy
Communion with those people and having fellowship with those people. I'm very pleased with that.

Greg

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I present to you Yulki who has been ordained priest in the church
of God. Would you please stand and congratulate her.

Yulki

I am a Priest now. I see it myself that I am a fisherman, going out catching people in other places
and catching all the people for the Lord.

Joy

She sees herself as taking the Gospel to other places and stirring up both people and Churches that
might be struggling and reaching out to new people. This is the reason that she has been ordained
as a Priest Evangelist because her ministry is one that involves a lot of going to other places.

Narration

Nine months after being made a priest Yulki moves from Numbulwar on the mainlaind, to her new
posting on Groote Eylandt, 630 kilometres south-east of Darwin.

Yulki

God want me to come here to Groote Eylandt so that I can encourage people here because nothing was
happening here at Groote Eyland. And people said we need someone. We need someone to come to
encourage us and help us.

Narration

St Andrew's was once at the centre of community life on the island's main aboriginal settlement of
Angurugu.

Joy

At Groote Eylandt it seemed that the services were not happening. And there was nobody taking
responsibility or initiative. And the church there it was almost dead, not quite.

Gayangwa Lalara

It is a beginning for us, it is a new start because of Yuki been encouraging us in our ministry
here in our parish here.

Narration

Gayangwa Lalara is one of the local people Yulki has already encouraged to return to church.

Gayangwa

She is a new start for me. And here I am I walk side by side and they are teaching me and
encouraging me to be a better Christian.

Kerry

Yuki is hoping that Gayangwa will eventually be able to take over leading church services. I think
Yuki's presence here on the island, and particularly for the community here at Angurugu, has meant
that the church has become significant again. It has I think signalled to the community that the
church is here and it is interested in them as people.

Greg

Yulki has also had important ministry so distinctive to travel to other communities. She has many
languages, she is greatly gifted in communicating to those communities and deeply respected.

Joy

I admire the commitment of the Aboriginal people who are ordained or are the church leaders.
They're not paid, only by whatever their congregation can put together because the diocese does not
have the funds to pay them much as we might like to. But they really throw themselves into the
ministry and take it so seriously.

Narration

But getting the church going again won't be easy. Besides the problems of substance abuse,
unemployment and ill health, the community of Anurrugu is deeply divided. Her leadership could make
all the difference in turning things around.

Kerry

The greatest challenge Yuki is going to face I think will be getting the people to work together.
The community is made up of a number of different clans and families and they don't always get on
and they're not always good at working together. And that tends to then flow over into the church
and into church life.

Yulki

That's why I said I'm going to stay here for one year. Because they need help.

Narration

Another challenge for Yulki in her first year as a fully-fledged Anglican priest is the resurgence
of belief in 'evil spirits' and the power of 'curses'.

Yulki

In this community there's a black magic and there's a lot of worries and there was a lot of
fighting and killing.

Joy

And in fact Yuki described it to me when she was going as pray for me Joy, it's danger country. Now
I don't know who they are but because of the people who have this power to work what they call
black fella business.

Kerry

I think in our society we'd call it black magic. It is known here just as magic on the island. And
it is very overt. People are afraid of it. It's used from what I've observed to control people and
to control people's behaviour.

Gayangwa

I'm not afraid of black magic. If someone put a curse on me I'm not afraid because I believe
there's God who created this world is protecting me and I believe and trust him.

Greg

The church sits at the rub between two cultures. Between an Indigenous culture which is thousands
of years old in this place, connected to this land. Having its own language and dreaming. And the
Church which brings with it the Gospel, but a story which is also thousands of years old, which is
come from a different context but it is also the language of the spirit. And so in this church, the
language of the people and the language of Christ come together.

Narration

Although Yulki has only been on Groote Eylandt for a few weeks, people are already seeking her out.

Yulki

A lot of people have been coming to my house in the night. They were bringing the sick and I've
been praying for them at our home.

Joy

They have a very strong faith in prayer for healing. That if they are sick, they will ask one of
the Christians to come and to pray for them.

Narration

Today local man Loyd Lalarra believes he's been possessed by evil spirits.

Joy

And in a way, I myself think, this replaces some of the traditional healer. And in the Church,
praying for people who are sick and ministering to them has become a new way of doing that.

Greg

There are no white fellas telling Aboriginal church leaders here in this community what to do. And
they are showing what it means to be strong people in a place of great challenge.

The church in other parts of Australia maybe only used for those ceremony occasions for weddings,
funerals and baptisms and not always seen as critical to a community. But in remote communities the
church is an important reservoir of hope.

Yulki

In the time of Jesus, Jesus got all these disciple, first people, he got all these followers, he
was going around, teaching, doing healing. I can't go on my own way. I got to follow Jesus
footstep, like a journey, if I can follow Jesus footstep, he going to lead me, to that place, to
that country.

Wherever God wants me to go I can go. He is my boss. Doesn't matter I am old but I have given my
life to him so that I can work for him until I finish.