Oodnadatta

 

Over Easter I was privileged to join the Moderator’s Easter Pilgrimage to Oodnadatta.

My family and I traveled to Coober Pedy, then on to Oodnadatta. The travel itself was pretty intense – 12+ hours with 3 kids under 8, with the last 3 hours of that on a dirt road. But that was nothing compared to the experience of being there.
Arriving in Coober Pedy for the first time, I thought to myself that this is where someone a bit left-of-centre might live. A distant community, underground houses and a colourful history. It’s an unusual place. Oodnadatta is really less unusual than Coober Pedy. It’s a small town of just a few hundred people, but with less of the quirkiness that defines Coober Pedy – the famous Pink Roadhouse notwithstanding. The thing that makes Oodnadatta stand out is how badly you have to want to live there.
It is, as definitively as you can say it, in the middle of nowhere.
It’s in the centre of Australia, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere. In the rainy season it can become isolated as the dirt roads get flooded and, as a result, is only reachable in 4WD vehicles. There is one regional school, one main road, one pub…and not much else. It’s your prototypical Australian country town, except most Aussie country towns are, now, places you drive through on the way to another destination. Oodnadatta serves as that for adventurous 4WDers, but to live in Oodnadatta, as opposed to, say, Kimba or Naracoorte, requires a strong commitment. You can’t pick up and drive to the next town on a whim. There’s no nearby rural centre like a Pt Lincoln or Mt Gambier.
Oodnadatta is also one of the most balanced mixed-race towns in South Australia. Roughly half the population is indigenous and in the midst of this small town there is a beautiful faith community emerging. Pastor Julia Lennon, working within Congress and the Uniting Church, is bringing the message of Jesus to a town that is struggling to survive.
What struck me about Julia and the Oodnadatta Faith Community is just what it costs to be incarnational within your own community. Julia’s own family is part of the Faith Community and, partly because of the size of the town, the Community is directly involved in social enterprise and helping the town to come together, whether through sports, music or agency. This means that when the town thrives, she thrives and when the town suffers, she suffers.
Our trip involved a couple of worship services, a couple of discussions about how the Uniting Church can engage with and support the Community and a lot of informal, organic hangouts. There was a lot of campfire talk. A lot of pulling out an acoustic guitar and having a strum. A lot – A LOT – of bugs.
The kids in Oodnadatta aren’t particularly curious about white people. Their town is mixed enough, and enough tourists come through, that there’s no novelty there. I think I expected to feel more out of place than I actually did. Apart from my family, everyone on the trip with me had been before. I expected to feel jarred, expected to feel out of disoriented, expected my kids to be asking questions.
I was prepared for anything – except, perhaps, for it to be this easy.
We still stood out, to a degree. Our group were the only white folks at the worship service and we behaved like white folks – sitting politely up the front while the locals roamed in and out at their leisure. I enjoyed it, particularly the unique beauty of the surroundings, but I work for the church. I’m in church all the time. There was a part of me that still kept wondering, why am I even here? Am I just wasting everyone’s time? Part of that is a Western obsession with punctuality and time management, but part of it is existential and self-reflective.
What is making this a valid exercise?
Until the baptisms.
On Easter Sunday, we drove to the local lagoon.
It’s really the only natural water supply within short reach – not counting the part of the Great Artesian Basin that sits underneath – and is a beautiful, incredibly evocative Australian place. When we got there, people began to do what they do around water and play. A couple of friends started fishing. My wife started painting faces of the nearby children. The teenagers started jumping off trees into the lagoon, followed quickly by the children. A few eagles circled lazily across the trees. And before the baptisms even began, we had community. The Oodnadatta townsfolk, the Faith Community and the visitors were laughing and playing together. Play created a unity that work and faith could not.
As the baptisms began, the children didn’t stop playing. And the men didn’t even stop fishing. But there was a space – both physical and spiritual – that emerged as people of different races, ages, cultures, demographics and geographic locations gathered around to watch people be born again.
I really don’t know what I expected going in. Would my kids feel out of place? Would I?
But the Oodnadatta Faith Community is a church.
They welcome.
They show hospitality.
They care for the least.
They share the message of Jesus with one another.
They celebrate together.
My background didn’t matter. Rather, being a baptised brother in Christ permitted me to participate in all of these Christ-like actions and leave Oodnadatta having had my eyes opened to a new way of what Christlikeness can look like.
Even in the middle of nowhere.
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