Tuesday, July 12, 2016

I’m just back from a week up north. Three days in Dawrin and four days on a remote island called Milingimbi.

I went to Dawrin with my family to launch a book of my grandmother’s letters at the Northern Synod meeting where they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the mission at Warrawi – Golburn Island – where Rev Watson established the first of the Methodist mission stations off the coast of Arnhamland.

My grandparents Joan and Arthur Ellemor were on Millingimbi in the 1940’s and 1950’s amongst the many hundreds of missionaries who served on the six mission stations that were established off the north coast.

These missionaries heard bible readings like this one with it a sense of call to go out in the name of Jesus to share the promise of peace.

‘Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person.’

I’ve always felt some-what ambivalent about having missionary grandparents. On one hand they were courageous pioneers who followed their faith into remote and challenging places to share the message of Jesus Christ to people so that they might experience the transforming love of God. On the other hand, they participated in colonial policies and practices with paternalistic attitude that undermined indigenous culture, legal systems, connections to country and ancient spirituality. White settlers brought diseases, alcohol, tobacco, guns, rape and war.

This journey north with my family has helped me gain a much clearer understanding of the work of the missionaries and the vital role they played in Australian history in guarding and protecting Aboriginal culture and acting as a buffer in relation to government policies in the walk toward Aboriginal communities taking up the self determination policies of today.

At the opening worship of the Northern Synod, a film night and celebration events of the mission, it became clear to me that the church missions played a significant and powerful role in protecting Aboriginal communities from the rolling waves of colonisation. The remote missions did provide a safe haven for communities where culture and language was respected and still thrives today. – some more

Jesus sends out a huge group of disciples and encourages them with these instructions:

'Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you: cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'

But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'

Jesus reminds his disciples that the kingdom of God has come near regardless of how the people in that places they visit respond to them. The kingdom is near when they are invited in to share food and work amongst the people. The kingdom is also near even when the best option is to walk away and shake the dust from your feet. Jesus seems to be saying that the very act of participating in a ministry of hospitality and care is a sign that the Kingdom of God is near.

My grandmother wrote letters to her family in Melbourne throughout her life. The letters she wrote were carefully stored away in a shoe box and ended up with one of my uncles under a bed for many years. Last year would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday and family members decided to dig out the letters and read them. In the process they realised that the letters tell an important story. It’s a story about a woman taking up Jesus call to go out amongst indigenous communities, enter the communities and see what happens. When people welcome you – eat with them – for the kingdom of God is very near. (slide 10)

Dear mother and father,

Dear mother,

Dear mother and home folk,

Dear all of you,


‘Dear all of you’ … She is writing to all of us, … Thin paper, elegant handwriting, a window in time …

The first chapter includes letters family members wrote about Joan when she was a child, teenager and young woman – we hear about her marriage to young Methodist minister Arthur and their call to mission work in the north. Joan writes home about the training they received in George Brown College in Sydney.

July 1940 – Darwin

Mr and Mrs Gilmour came to tea – most interesting and helpful evening. They revealed their method of working on the mission field – the true educational method of putting oneself in the background, but always being ready to help and encourage where necessary … The great thing is to get rid of that white superiority complex. Arthur and I wonder just how far we will be able to follow in their footsteps, and hope we shall be able to insofar as their experience can apply to the Aborigines.

Arthur and pregnant Joan arrived in Darwin where work in parish ministry for the first six months swept them up into the work of hospitality.

Joan faithfully writes to her mother committing ink to paper to share her daily life, including the intimacy of the birth of her first born far from home.

She is a woman of Spirit grounded in the Christian faith who travels by boat with baby in arm to a distant island to become a friend and sister to the Indigenous people; a mother, cook, seamstress and home maker.

June 1941 – Millingimbi

We rise each day at 7 a.m. when Arthur tolls the rising bell … and then at 7.15 with the second bell we all assemble in the church for prayers – some days that is all we women see of each other … The service is very nice with the Lords Prayer and Benediction in Kopopingo and a hymn sometimes in English and sometimes in Kopopingo. We always open with ‘Jesus Stand Among Us’ in the native language.


We learn how precious ink was on this remote island. One day Joan writes that the ink ran out and that the only way she could complete her letter was to borrow a thimble full from her neighbour.

This collection of letters has become a substantial book describing a significant period in the history of this nation. It’s of interest to church historians and anthropologists. I think it would be of interest to medics who care to read about the spread of diseases and their diagnoses over radio. Just imagine the trial and error treatment of illness by missionaries who acted as nurses in treating epidemics in their homes. Teachers will also be interested to hear about Aboriginal people learning to read and write in English.

We are mindful that this book describes the lives of the people of Milingimbi. We sense that Joan and Arthur intend to be respectful in their ministry…   

… it is their system – and we have made it a policy not to interfere with their social life, merely to counsel or wait to be asked for guidance, in which case the outcome is usually that we make them do the thinking.


Joan and Arthur clearly honoured local culture and ceremony…


June 1945

Dear Mother,

Flo. Hunt and I have just been down to the camp – or at least beyond it – to a Women’s Coroboree. It is almost the end of the Gunabibi Ceremony … Men and women dance separately, in separate places which the opposite sex may not visit, night by night for about two months – then on the final day (which will be this Sunday morning) the men come right up to the camp area and all dance together – sacred objects are presented and young Initiates put through their final paces before all the company. It is a very joyous time.


This book is an enchanting story full of intrigue and mystery. It tells the tale of an unfolding marriage, growing family and a woman coming to maturity and clarity; it describes practical and down to earth courage through hardship, isolation and separation. 

We hear about an evacuation of mission women and children during the war that happened prior to the Croker Island exodus led by Margaret Sommerville. Leaving the menfolk, Joan, pregnant and with a toddler, joined the group travelling by boat to Roper River and overland to Katherine in utes, then by truck through the centre to Adelaide and finally home to Melbourne arriving tired and gaunt. And of Arthur, when Milingimbi is bombed, Joan writes …

Arthur would want to be with the native people.

We know that the experience changed Joan. The young glassy eyed girl setting out on an adventure returned to Milingimbi after the war, as she says ‘wiser, sadder folk’.

         Much of the enthusiasm which fired our youthful days has left us – and left us wondering a little just where we stand. – But there is yet another reason than the passage of time – the war has hurled us rather too suddenly into the ‘middle-aged’ state of mind! … Our work here has changed almost out of recognition – we still do not realise how greatly … and for each his own constant fight to ‘keep the faith’, and a mind beyond our own small selves. Yet it is just ‘the faith’ which has saved us, faith in God and faith in each other.

This collection of letters raises questions and as we read we become detectives. We just have one side of a correspondence the other of which we know nothing. We hear the news and wonder…. What was it like for the children to have such long periods of separation from their parents? Where were those Aboriginal children on Croker Island stolen from? What about the stories of all the Fijian missionaries, what happened to all of them? What happened for the Aboriginal communities when the Japanese bombed the island?

Joan herself seems to have questions stirring in her own heart as she prepares to move off the island and back to Darwin and reflects on the passage of recent years.

October 1949

… with the comings and goings – turmoil and fun of life in fine form. The advent of Frances and Bill – the departure of Michael and Mary to school at ‘Griffiths House’, Alice Springs. The decision to move us to Darwin – though this seems far away and unreal. Staff members have come and gone. The gardens have never been good and the water supply always poor. But our People have remained constant – slowly grow in grace midst much disappointment – would that I could understand them better.


‘Would that I could understand them better’. A potent phrase that echoes down the ages through all mission work with indigenous communities. A compassionate heart to support and understand, yet the same cultural blindness we all still suffer from in the face of such complexity.

After a decade on Milingimbi, and the birth of four children Arthur is stationed back in Darwin for the next eight years to coordinate the mission work as chairman of the district.

This book is a window into the life of a shadowy figure of missionary & mother. (This is my grandmother, whom I’d only ever known as a longing in my mother’s heart.) Only three short years after returning to Victoria, Joan died on a country road side just after crossing the Murray River, travelling for a planned family holiday in Sydney.

Her legacy would be lost in time if it were not for these letters carefully stored away, passed on to us and made accessible in this book.

‘Well must away’,

‘Cheerio and love to all – Joan’









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