'I was a slave to alcohol'
And how Richard Driver Jakamarra broke free to serve his people
I first met Richard Driver Jakamarra on a hot, dusty day in Tennant Creek, Northern Territory. We were introduced by a mutual friend and then we walked into the Australian Indigenous Ministries (AIM) building and sat down on the front pew, where it was a tiny bit cooler. I asked him about his childhood.
“I grew up in Phillip Creek,” said Richard slowly, “In an aboriginal settlement run by the government. I used to milk the goats and eat bush tucker. We all did – the yams that grew along the creek. And my father, he drove the truck. His country was out west – Jipiranpa, out Willowra way. And I went to preschool and Grade 1 there. But there wasn’t much rain, so one day the government put us all in a big truck and they moved us to Warrabri. That’s where we used to follow the old people around.
“In 1967 we became citizens of Australia. And that’s also when I started to drink alcohol.” – Richard Driver Jakamarra
“They showed us how to hunt for kangaroos, and how to find bush tucker – berries to eat. Sometimes we caught zebra finches. We ate them up. And they showed us how to track the goanna. But also in that time I heard about the Lord Jesus.
“I went to Sunday School when I was at Warrabri, and then I went to Christian Endeavour when I was a teenager. I used to lead the singing sometimes. It was good.”
“After that, I left school when I was 14. Sometimes I got droving work on big cattle stations out east. I used to ride the horses, and move the stock, with my mates. We’d sleep on swags and eat rations. And then sometimes we got work up in Darwin, for the army. But then in 1967, everything changed. Aboriginal people became citizens of Australia.
“I don’t know what we were before that, but in 1967 we became citizens of Australia. And that’s also when I started to drink alcohol.
“I turned away from the Lord because grog was available. I became an alcoholic. I knew that I was doing wrong things, and I’ve done wrong things in my life, but I couldn’t stop. I tried to give up the drink many times, in my own strength, but I couldn’t do it. I was a slave to alcohol. I had jobs – droving and in the army – but I couldn’t keep them down. It was a big problem.”
“And then one night I had a drinking session and I was sleeping in my home. And someone came in through the window. He cut me with a knife around my neck. And when I came to, I was lying in the Alice Springs Hospital. They had taken me there in the Royal Flying Doctor aircraft. My wife Phyllis said there was blood everywhere. And the doctor came to my bed and he said to me, ‘Richard, you are very lucky to be alive. If the knife had gone in another half an inch, you wouldn’t be here.’ And this sort of scared me, it frightened me.
“I had no desire to drink anymore, ever again. It was good.”
“While I was lying there, all those things that I’d heard in Sunday School came flooding back to me. I knew about the Lord, and I knew what would have happened if I’d died. I was that far away from the Lord. But it was there that the Lord began to touch my life. He began to speak to me… I didn’t give my life to the Lord yet. But it started. And then when I got home they invited me to the opening of the AIM building in Tennant Creek. And that’s when it happened … I went forward right here in this building and I gave my life to the Lord, and everything changed from then – the grog, the work, everything.
“I had no desire to drink anymore, ever again. It was good.”
“But then two years later, in 1986,” continued Richard, “I went blind… I had a brain tumour. I was only 36 years old. And Professor Fred Hollows, he took the brain tumour out, and I had a peace afterwards. But I thought, that’s it. I’m blind. I can’t see anything. I’m no use to the Lord. I can’t preach anymore, so I’m no use to anyone. It’s all over. That’s what I thought.”
“But I didn’t know what was coming.” Richard paused and smiled. “In the hospital, a friend gave me some cassette tapes of the New Testament recorded by the Bible Society. I listened to them and I discovered I had a gift for memorising scripture. So I began to memorise Romans and then I kept going. I memorised large chunks. I started sharing them at church and in small groups. And then I memorised even longer passages, and it helped people.”
“And now I’ve been sharing the Bible like that at church for 32 years. In 1995, I was the speaker at the Katherine Christian Convention. And in 2001, I was named the Tennant Creek ‘Citizen of the Year’, for service to the indigenous church.
“Prior to losing my sight, I used to help with the preaching, and I’d put notes on the paper, so I thought I would never be able to preach again. But the Lord proved me wrong. He gave me an amazing gift.
“It is a very hard thing to do – to thank God for something you don’t like, but I knew I had to do it.” – Richard Driver Jakamarra
“From the beginning, my favourite Bible verse was Proverbs 3:5-6. It says, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.’ I first read that Bible verse after I lost my sight. It helped me more than anything. It helped me cope with the blindness. Lean not on your own understanding, it says.
“And there was one time I remember I was sharing with my friend and I was even thanking the Lord for my blindness. I know it is a very hard thing to do – to thank God for something you don’t like, but I knew I had to do it. And now I want to tell people about what the Lord can do in your life, if you give him the chance. Sometimes we feel like we’re no more use to anyone … that it’s all over. Something has happened and it’s all over. But it’s not true; it isn’t over. If we let God work in our lives, he will. He keeps working. So keep on living for the Lord. Allow him to work in your life, and he will.”
We both smiled as Richard talked, and later that evening, as I said goodbye, I thanked him for the glimpse into his quiet, humble story, lived out in the red dust of central Australia. He wasn’t waving a big flag, saying look at me. He has been just looking to the Lord daily, and memorising Bible verses, and blessing his people, for decades.
It made me want to do the same.
This is an edited extract from Naomi Reed’s new book, Finding Faith – Inspiring conversion stories from around the world. (Authentic Media, UK). Available online and in all good bookstores, such as Koorong.