It's not just opals attracting people to Coober Pedy
In the opal capital of the world, hundreds of tourists are turning up to this underground church to take a look
There aren’t many trees in Coober Pedy. It’s a dry, barren town where the heat in summer can reach 47 degrees and residents retreat to their underground homes. Yet tourists exploring the great outback of Australia flock to Coober Pedy, considered the opal capital of the world. And along with the mandatory opal shopping, tourists visit the town’s underground churches.
The Catacomb Church, an Anglican church founded and supported by Bush Church Aid, is one of those churches. This underground church was developed from an old opal dugout in 1977. It was cut out of sandstone in the shape of a cross.
I feel like the people that come here to the church to have a look are like my people: tourists and travellers just like me.
During peak tourist season (which, for Coober Pedy, is really any season outside of Summer), minister Geoff Piggott told Eternity the church can get visitors dropping in all day. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people and “sow the seed” of God’s word, says Tracey Piggott, Geoff’s wife.
At the start of 2016, Tracey put a call out on Facebook for someone who might be willing to help facilitate the burgeoning tourist ministry in Coober Pedy. But Coober Pedy is a difficult place to live. Who would volunteer to come to place that is a full day’s drive from Adelaide and half day’s drive from Alice Springs?
Val Ishri was just the person. When Eternity visited Coober Pedy, Val had only been in Coober Pedy for a week and a half. She’s planning on staying for several months, having driven across from the east coast of New South Wales.
“I’ve been on the road for five years now. There’s always another kilometre to go and [travel] has just developed into a lifestyle,” Val told Eternity. “I live in youth hostels and caravan parks. I’m mixing with travellers and tourists all the time, and I’m a traveller myself. I feel like the people that come here to the church to have a look are like my people: tourists and travellers just like me. So I feel really comfortable talking to them,” says Val.
She says when she saw Tracey’s call on Facebook for help with the ministry, she just knew. “That’s me,” I thought.
“A young man today came through to look at the church. He was Portuguese. I showed him around and gave him a bit of the history of the church. We looked at the symbols engraved in the walls. There’s a fish sign at the front of the church, and we talked about what that means. And we filled up his water bottle so he had plenty of water to go back out in the heat.”
Even if we don’t necessarily agree, it’s just lovely talking to people and for them being part of my journey and me being part of theirs.
Val and the Portuguese tourist struck up a conversation when he spotted the Portuguese flag along the wall, along with many flags representing the countries of origin of many tourists who’ve made it to Coober Pedy. “He was very excited to see his flag,” she says. “And he spotted one of our church pamphlets in Spanish and wanted to take one with him, because it was in a language he could understand and he was missing home.”
Val says she’s still figuring out her “spiel” for tourists coming into the church. She wants to make sure they leave having had a clear representation of the gospel message, so as not to waste any opportunities. But she’s a quiet person, not pushy.
“From time to time, I’ll connect with someone and have a really great discussion with them about God and life and understanding life. And even if we don’t necessarily agree, it’s just lovely talking to people and for them being part of my journey and me being part of theirs. I’ll pray and ask God to use something I’ve said that could be part of that journey of them getting to know God.”