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Over 70 years of Indigenous Ministry in Australia

GMP acknowledges the legacy of over seventy years of ministry by the Australian Churches of Christ Indigenous Ministries (ACCIM) and the Federal Aborigines Board (FAB) and now moving into the future with Indigenous Ministries Australia (IMA).

The 1930's

Discussions regarding a formal, Australia wide ministry of Churches of Christ with Indigenous people began in the mid 1930's. Sir Doug Nicholls (1906 -1988) was well known as a strong advocate for his people and a vocal Indigenous leader amongst the Churches of Christ in Victoria in particular. Among other pursuits, Nicholls was a boxer, a sprinter and played Australian Rules for Fitzroy, finishing 3rd in the 1934 Brownlow medal. As a member of the Victorian Football team, Doug travelled across to WA by train to play in a carnival in 1935. Such was his concern for his own people across the Nullabor that immediately on his arrival in Perth, he went into the Churches of Christ office in Perth to demand that something be done to help his people. Nicholls’ most significant legacy was his contribution to Indigenous ministry and mission.

His challenge, along with the advocacy of Clive Burdeu and others within Churches of Christ leadership in Australia, were the beginnings of a decision that resulted in the formation of the Churches of Christ Federal Aborigines Mission Board Inc. (FAB). Prior to the formation of the FAB in 1942, Indigenous ministry and mission was active but without systemic support from the broader Churches of Christ movement.

The initial response from Doug Nicholls’ request for help came from two Church of Christ ladies, Miss Eadie and Miss Bentley, who moved to Norseman around 1936 to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of the people. After enlisting the help of their local MP for permission to work amongst the Indigenous people, they made their home in a tent on the Reserve.  They taught the children and provided medical and other help to the families.  They held church services at the Reserve and in May 1939, twenty Indigenous people were baptized and a ‘bough shelter’ church was built on the Reserve. Both of these workers left Norseman by February 1943, once the first two ACCIM missionaries were appointed. 

The 1940’s

In 1942, with the establishment of the FAB, the work at Norseman was transferred to their administration.  The new missionaries, Joan Saunders and Elsie Roxborough, continued the work at the Reserve and were also caring for two children. The care of a few children developed into requests from parents to care for their children, because they wanted their children to receive an education.

In 1945, David Hammer and his wife commenced a ministry in the town of Carnarvon among the local people in the area.  Within a short period of time, the situation resulted in the need for children to be cared for along similar lines to Norseman. This ministry, which started with only a few children, eventually grew to include over 2000 children in five facilities in WA and one in Queensland. This work continued for four decades until a change of government policy shut down the homes.

For about fifteen years, the Churches of Christ churches around Australia responded to the need to develop both Norseman and Carnarvon Mission properties in WA. Building materials were difficult to obtain as a result of World War II and no Government funding was available.

The 1950’s

To advance further the work among aboriginal people living in and around Melbourne, and to further the ministry of Doug Nicholls, the FAB purchased the Church of Christ building in Gore Street, Fitzroy.

From 1958 to 1961, Sonny Graham from Norseman Mission, was the first Indigenous student at the Churches of Christ Glen Iris Bible College in Victoria. He worked alongside Doug Nicholls in Melbourne during his College years and after a short ministry at Mooroopna, he returned to Norseman Mission as a missionary and pastor. At the end of 2008 Sonny celebrated his 70th birthday, the 50th year in ministry with ACCIM (including the 4 years at College), and his retirement from the Education Department where he was an Aboriginal Education Officer and language teacher for about 15 years. He is still active in ministry.  

The 1960’s

The conversion of Bob Williams, tribal leader from Carnarvon through the ministry of FAB missionaries in Carnarvon. Bob was given unique permission at a meeting of tribal elders from all parts of WA to enter their country to preach God’s Word.  

The close bond and partnership between Bob Williams and Lance Fisher (Carnarvon Mission Superintendent) who travelled the length of WA taking the gospel to the outback people for 8 years. This resulted in Indigenous churches being established in Onslow, Hedland and Looma, and later at Marble Bar.

A strong respect and friendship in ministry developed between some of the Christian tribal Elders in the Norseman Church and Alan Pallett and other FAB missionaries.  They visited remote communities out as far as the SA border and encouraged missionaries working in these lonely areas.

Building of Christian Centres in the towns of Norseman and Carnarvon with Indigenous Christian leaders taking a leading role. As well as a pastor in both places, missionaries were appointed to minister to the adult Indigenous people in the towns for whom there were no Government services available.

In 1965, the establishment in Esperance (WA) of the ‘Fairhaven’ Hostel for up to 30 teenage girls to enable them to get a secondary school education. These girls were from local areas, as well as the Western Desert and Cundeelee. This was a direct result of outreach visits to the Western Desert areas.  A church was also established at Fairhaven.

The 1970’s

The commencement of Aboriginal churches at:

  • Adelaide in 1977 - Indigenous pastor
  • Albury in 1973 - Indigenous pastor
  • Hedland/Marble Bar in 1976 - Ross and Helen Norling, following the visits of Bob Williams and Lance Fisher over a number of years
  • Tamworth in 1976 - Indigenous pastor
  • Looma in early 70s - Indigenous pastor
  • Port Lincoln in 1979 - Indigenous pastor
  • Onslow in early 70s - Lance and Enid Fisher
  • Eidsvold, Normanton, Mareeba and Brisbane in Queensland.  
  • As well, Mooroopna continued, and in 1979 an Indigenous pastor was appointed to the church there. Mooroopna had a succession of Indigenous pastors until it closed.

The 1980’s

Following the purchase of Roelands Village and outreach from that centre, the Bunbury Fellowship was formed in 1980, with continuous Aboriginal leadership.

A policy change saw Indigenous Members from all states appointed to the ACCIM Board.  Their strong leadership ensured that ACCIM remained culturally relevant and representative of the Indigenous people in the areas in which ACCIM people minister. 

Childcare in WA ceased as a result of a change of Government Policy.

Aged Care at Carnarvon Mission was extended with the building of the 15 bed Olive Laird hostel.

The 1990’s - 2013

An Indigenous pastor and his wife were appointed in Adelaide for a number of years.  Leadership training became an integral part of this, along with a church ministry and involvement with the SA Conference.

Aboriginal churches were established at

  • Ceduna - Indigenous pastor
  • Dareton - PNG/Aboriginal pastor

ACCIM began a process of devolvement in 2011 initiated by the Council of Churches of Christ in Australia (CCCA) and supported by the Board of ACCIM. This process occurred due to a fall in revenue and the aging of the key supporters of ACCIM – not an unusual story for ministries of its vintage. The desire of the CCCA was to continue Indigenous mission and ministry in way that embraced a new generation of supporters and developed long term sustainability.

In November 2013, Indigenous ministry and mission in Australia became a part of Global Mission Partners (GMP), the mission and overseas aid and development arm of Churches of Christ.

Today

Indigenous Ministries Australia (IMA) is now a program under GMP, and has been built on the ministries and goodwill of the past, while looking to use that legacy to forge new and sustainable Indigenous partnerships and ministries for the future.

Indigenous Ministries Australia

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