When neighbours become family

Opening The Bible together on Elcho Island

When neighbours become family

In 2017, schoolteacher Rachel Herweynen and her husband Cameron moved to the remote homeland of Gäwa, on Elcho Island. Upon their arrival, they were adopted into the local Yolŋu family. Halfway through their first year at Gäwa, while reading the Bible Rachel was struck by the parallels between our adoption into God’s family through Jesus, and the way Yolŋu people adopt outsiders.

Rachel was working to fulil a God-given dream of running a school when she applied to run Gäwa Christian School on Elcho Island in the remote east of the Northern Territory, among the Yolŋu people. During their first year at Gäwa, the Yolŋu couple Hannah and Alvin went out of their way to make the “balanda” (white) couple feel welcome, sharing their joys and struggles with each other. Rachel recalls, “Hannah just pulled me aside and said she was adopting me as her sister…and then Alvin pulled Cameron aside and called him ‘brother.’”

Adopted in love

When the parallel between our adoption into God’s family and her adoption into the Yolŋu family struck her, Rachel immediately started writing a story about the links between God’s kinship system and that of the Yolŋu. “I showed it to our elders first and they were very happy with the story. And then our students had a go at translating this as part of our lessons and had a go at illustrating. But it was quite basic and not a proper translation,” says Rachel.

Bible Society Australia, along with Uniting Church workers Margert Miller and Yurrandyjil Dhurrkay from Elcho Island, were honoured to support the work with a translation workshop, providing translation consultancy through Dr Carl Gross. Yet it was local Warramiri Elder Daymangu Bukulatjpi, known as “Old Man”, who pushed the translation of the book forward to completion. Rachel shared, “I think that’s been a huge blessing and part of his pride in it is the fact it’s the first book in his own language.

Rachel says, “It has been utterly wonderful seeing God’s grace and sovereignty over this process. It’s so powerful to have the leader of this land submit humbly before the Loving Creator. This book allowed him to articulate his faith.” 

The few translated Bible verses in Warramiri at the end of Adopted in Love (John 1:12 and Galatians 4:6) are the first Scripture published in this language, though not the last – the local Bible translation team has now completed the first draft of Mark’s Gospel in Warramiri. The book features illustrations by local artist Salome Moes and her daughter Katinka, which were painted by the students at Gäwa. “Sal and Katinka did the faces and then our kids helped paint and then Sal did the final zhush,” Rachel explains.

The community reaction was rapturous when Bible Society’s Remote and Indigenous Ministry Support team helped publish a bilingual softcover version of the book in early 2021. Rachel approached Bible Society and subsequently a hardcover edition has been published for schools around the country as a way of educating non-Indigenous children about Indigenous language and culture. Bible Society began work in January on Teacher’s Notes for the Adopted in Love book and are preparing a package of resources for schools including videos.

“From the beginning, my favourite part of being in Gäwa has always been becoming part of the Yolŋu family,” says Rachel. “We are so grateful that it has been captured in this book, alongside the infinite goodness of being part of God’s family through Jesus Christ.” “God’s word brings life and brings his children together!”



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