Church at the heart of the nation


It was a scramble at the end, with the sign going up, lights being tested and scaffolding coming down so that Australia’s newest Adventist church building could be used for its first opening Sabbath program. The volunteer builders downed tools and declared the job complete just 10 minutes before sunset.

The story of Aputula (Finke) Adventist Church, more than four hours south of Alice Springs (Northern Territory), begins with one shy woman, Lorraine Ferguson. Several years ago, while living in the South Australian town of Port Augusta, Ms Ferguson came into contact with Adventists and became convinced of the truth of the seventh-day Sabbath. She rang her family in Aputula, a remote Aboriginal community of less than 300 people, and shared her convictions.

Four people were baptised during the first Sabbath morning service, and more than 20 came forward in commitment, including one of the builders.

Many people in Aputula have a strong spiritual commitment, so the clear biblical evidence Ms Ferguson shared had an impact. Some expressed interest in attending Mamarapha College so Pastors Fehlberg and Eric Davey, along with Ms Ferguson made a visit to assist them. Senior community members gave them a warm welcome.

Pastor Don Fehlberg, associate director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministries (ATSIM), has been a mainstay of the warm relationship between the Aputula community and the Adventist Church. His style involves genuine personal concern, home visits, Bible meetings and sharing stories as he visits various Outback communities. Pastor Fehlberg’s encouragement has led a number of Aputula community members to attend ATSIM’s Mamarapha College on the outskirts of Perth, an experience that has led to lifestyle change, the strengthening of faith and baptisms for many students. 

The Alice Springs pastor now makes regular visits and links have been strengthened with Adventists in Port Augusta, Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta, South Australia.

The South Australian connection was reinforced when, in 2004, members of the College Park Polish church in Adelaide helped run a series of health meetings in Aputula. A number of people began talking about having an Adventist church building in the township. The idea wouldn’t go away. A series of concerts were organised and $A20,000 was raised for the project.

The negotiations between various Church jurisdictions took some years and the original building plans were downscaled to a more modest sanctuary and attached two-bedroom residence for visiting pastors. The Aputula community was fully supportive, providing land on the edge of town.

Key to the success of the project was volunteer labour. Enter Athol Grosse, a retired Adventist teacher in Perth, together with his builder mate, Noel Fulwood. They’d worked together on volunteer construction projects previously and agreed to take on the Aputula build. A team of 17 volunteers was assembled, including tradespeople, from locations as far-flung as Mt Isa, Brisbane, Perth and Port Hedland.

Most of the building materials, including the prefabricated steel framing, were purchased at capital city prices in Perth and transported by road train across the desert dirt roads to Aputula. The owner-driver of the truck, Peter Hayden, donated his time and the fuel, a significant sacrifice for a 5000 kilometre round trip in a heavy vehicle. 

Sacrifice was a theme of the project, with the builders spending four weeks away from their families during July, living in tents and caravans and working “from dawn to dark and sometimes after” as Mr Grosse puts it. In July, desert temperatures can drop below freezing at night. The team returned again in October for another three weeks to finish the church building, facing the opposite problem with the temperature some days soaring into the mid 40s.

Volunteer labour kept the cost of building down significantly; ATSIM director, Steve Piez, estimates the total cost at $A108,000, a startlingly low figure for a 100-seat church sanctuary and two-bedroom residence in a remote area. 

The opening weekend was held while the volunteer builders were still in town and saw most of the Aputula community turn out, as well as visitors from Alice Springs, Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta. A highlight was music and worship led by country gospel artist Gavin Chatelier. 

The official dedication commenced with a procession through the streets of Aputula, led by SA ATSIM director Pastor John Beck playing the didgeridoo. Community elders Violet Doolan and Yundu Spider provided the welcome and Northern Australian Conference president Pastor Brett Townend cut the ribbon. Four people were baptised during the first Sabbath morning service, and more than 20 came forward in commitment, including one of the builders. After a prayer of dedication, organisers moved quickly to gather names and contact details in order to follow up on the desert harvest at the heart of the nation.

Kent Kingston is an associate editor of RECORD.