Arnhem Land witnesses controversial revival
Jesus School and Yolngu for Jesus spark change in remote communities
A former didgeridoo player with the world-famous Yothu Yindi band is leading a Christian awakening across Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
Bunumbirr Marika, who travelled across the world with Yothu Yindi in the 90s, was inspired by a vision to form his ministry, Yolgnu for Jesus, after a period of depression. Bunumbirr’s missionary zeal was sparked in 2016 when Mark Greenwood and his wife, a doctor, were posted from Darwin to Nhulunbuy for three months.
Bunbumbirr was born again in 2009 when his wife asked him to come to church after 15 years of praying for him, but had drifted back into the world in 2012 when “things got harder.”
“I really want you to teach me my identity in Christ.” – Bunumbirr Marika
Greenwood, training manager for Youth For Christ, started the Jesus School about three years ago but had been discouraged by the lack of long-term fruit from outreach work with Aboriginal people, so he and his wife prayed that God would give them one or two people they could really invest in while in Nhulunbuy.
“Then a week later, I met Bunumbirr [in Darwin] and he had heard about the Jesus School and … he basically said ‘I really want you to teach me my identity in Christ. I’ve heard that you teach it, I’ve heard that it’s changing people’s lives.’”
During their time in Nhulunbuy, the Greenwoods witnessed a transformation in Bunumbirr, who as the son of the landowner of the Nhulunbuy region is considered a prince in his region.
Bunumbirr explains that it was Greenwood’s teaching on identity that helped rekindle his passion for the gospel and reshape his life.
“The cross was the exchange for us – that’s who we are. Jesus took our sins and nailed them to the cross. God became man so that the sons of men can become sons of God,” he explains.
“And my heart is to see people in their nation become one, one unity, one in him – all of us – no colours, because Jesus didn’t come to save colour, he came to save souls. And that’s who we are. We are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus – all of us, the sons and daughters of the living God.”
By the time the Greenwoods left Nhulunbuy, Bunumbirr had led four people to Jesus and had started to disciple them through nightly Bible studies. He then visited other communities in Arnhem Land such as Gapuwiyak and Elcho Island, thanks to support from Mission Aviation Fellowship, which has its biggest Australian base at Nhulunbuy.
“Yolgnu for Jesus is now moving in different parts of Arnhem Land as we speak. We’ve been supported by Glory City Church in Brisbane and Darwin,” he tells Eternity.
“MAF has given me a 75 per cent discount to fly anywhere in Arnhem Land to disciple people, so everybody’s working together.”
“We felt it was a significant fruit of repentance and conversion.” – Mark Greenwood
In the three months after the Greenwoods left, Bunumbirr and his wife Vanessa led more than 80 people to Jesus in the Nhulunbuy region.
“That’s when he called me and said, ‘I need some help because there’s a lot of people encountering God,'” says Greenwood.
After flying out to Nhulunbuy and meeting the new converts, Greenwood was convinced that they were genuine in their faith.
“There were people who had come out of domestic violence and drug abuse and were walking in freedom from those and consistently coming to these Bible studies. And we felt it was a significant fruit of repentance and conversion.”
By the end of 2016, with new Christians totalling more than 150, Bunumbirr asked Greenwood to hold a Jesus School in Nhulunbuy to teach and equip the new converts to take the message of the gospel back to their own communities.
Greenwood estimates about 60 of the new converts came to the ten-day Jesus School last August, with up to 300 people coming to the night rallies, where another 40 people gave their lives to Jesus.
About 150 people were flown in from the homelands (outstations) by pilots from MAF, along with new converts from communities such as Elcho island and Gapuwiyak.
“MAF were just so supportive and they invested a lot of time and energy into it which was amazing,” says Greenwood.
“Without a doubt, there’s just revival coming within different communities.” – Darren Steen
While Greenwood prefers to call this movement an awakening rather than a revival, Assemblies of God missionary Darren Steen, who has been living with Bunumbirr and Vanessa for two years, has no such hesitation.
“Without a doubt, there’s just revival coming within different communities and people believing, so there’s been a change in their thinking, to think the way Jesus thinks, to do what Jesus wants you to do, to walk out what Christ has put in your life. And just enjoying and relaxing and loving people because it’s by his love that people come to repentance.”
Steen says there are now groups of Christians in different communities – from Elcho Island and Gapuwiyak to Milingimbi and some of the homelands – who have continued to bring people to Jesus and help them change their lives.
“I was just sitting with a young man from Gapuwiyak and that young man was caught up in the system of drugs and he was drinking and all sorts. He’s now married with a job, he’s also bought a car and they’re doing very well for themselves,” he said.
“So seven months later we’re seeing them step away from things that they were caught up in, that might be drug addiction or alcohol or just not having enough confidence or self-esteem to work, who are now working and some are even travelling into other communities doing outreach, bringing people to Jesus. So it’s been a domino effect. It’s been wonderful to watch; it’s been great to be part of it.”
Bunumbirr and Vanessa have faced a lot of resistance from traditional owners because, by staying true to Christ, they refuse to participate in ceremonies that involve worship of false idols and animal spirits.
“I really need prayers because there’s been people who’s resisting the gospel, resisting what Jesus is doing and what I stand for because of our traditions, our culture,” says Bunumbirr.
“I have walked away from that and I’m being called a white person because I’m walking away from my culture and straining against it.
“There’s a lot of good things in our culture and there’s a lot of bad things in our culture as well and we need to filter everything through the word of God. If there’s something that doesn’t match the word of God in our tribal laws, then that needs to go.”
There has also been scepticism about the genuineness of the revival from some leaders of the Uniting and Anglican churches in the region.
“There’s work going on from a number of different groups but nowhere near what revival means,” says Craig Fulton, who has been in Nhulunbuy for seven years, switching from MAF to Pioneers last year.
“We want to train Yolgnu to disciple others and see them discipling each other.” – Craig Fulton
“The culture is not discipleship; it’s ‘let’s go and have another outreach and see people converted’, but there’s no culture of discipleship and that’s what Pioneers have started here in the last year. We want to train Yolgnu to disciple others and see them discipling each other – we want to try and change the culture. But you don’t see overnight results.”
An NT Anglican source told Eternity: “I don’t doubt that there were healings and conversions, but I’d be very reluctant to say they were conversions to genuine Christian faith – even though Youth For Christ is an interdenominational organisation which I have very high regard for,” the source said.
“My very great concern is that to run the Jesus School for two weeks and then to think that everybody who has been through it is well on the way to Christian maturity – I just think that’s very unlikely.”
But Steen insists: “These guys are just experiencing God in a loving way, just opening their hearts to Christ and saying ‘what do you want me to do, God?’ And they’re following that. And through that families and lives are being changed.”