Indigenous mission’s history adds to church’s truth telling

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The cover of Remembering Mona Mona: The Mission in the Rainforest.

A new book telling the history of an Aboriginal mission established by the Seventh-day Adventist Church was launched in the context of the Australian Union Conference’s quinquennial meetings on August 29. Remembering Mona Mona brings together interviews with surviving residents of Mona Mona Mission, near Kuranda in northern Queensland, with historical documents and government records to reflect on the history and influence of this unique Adventist institution that operated from 1913 to 1962.

“This book is significant for the people of the region,” explained Pastor Darren Garlett, director of of the Adventist Church’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministries (ATSIM). “Many of the elders in the community who are still alive are part of this. There are people still living at Mona Mona today, but there is no mention of the church’s involvement and what happened there. That is why this book is very important for recording this.”

However, Pastor Garlett said this history is also important for the church to hear. “It tells our church that we were part of the ‘Stolen Generation’ policies of Australia’s governments—along with many other church groups,” he reflected. “And that had an impact on people’s lives and the elders who tell their stories in this book represent big families in the region, who are closely connected with this book.”

Co-published by Signs Publishing and Avondale Academic Press, Remembering Mona Mona was researched, written and coordinated by Dr Brad Watson, now International Programs Director for ADRA Australia, with writing contributions from historians Dr Daniel Reynaud and Lynette Lounsbury of Avondale University, and Lynelda Tippo and Pastor Steve Piez, former ATSIM leaders. A dedication by Sandra Levers, a descendant of Mona Mona residents, thanks the 15 people interviewed “for their bravery and honesty” and an original painting by George Riley, another Mona Mona descendant, is featured on the book cover.

Editor Dr Brad Watson with a copy of Remembering Mona Mona.

Dr Watson says he was intrigued by the story of Mona Mona when he came across stories of Adventist Aboriginal missionaries serving in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. He followed this interest in 2013 by attending the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Mona Mona.

“At the anniversary, a number of elders agreed that it was important to capture their stories, both good and bad, while they were still alive—and to tell the truth,” recalls Dr Watson. “I really do believe that the truth sets us free. In my case, researching this book under the careful guidance of Lynelda Tippo and several elders, has opened my eyes.”

Given the often-negative assumptions about Aboriginal missions of the past, Dr Watson says he was “surprised to hear so many fond memories and positive accounts. But I was also incredibly humbled to learn that in those days, mission staff discouraged culture, punished children for speaking language, and placed all the children in dormitories.”

But Remembering Mona Mona is also alert to the complexities of writing history of this kind. “With the best of intentions, the missionaries set out to save their Aboriginal residents for a heavenly kingdom, but unwittingly worked with a government that unquestioningly imposed Western culture and beliefs in the assumption that almost all Aboriginal culture was worthless,” Dr Watson reflects. “Reconciliation is about truth telling and in writing this book, we have tried to show both sides of the story.”

There will be an online launch event on October 2 at this link: https://wp.avondale.edu.au/news/event/remembering-mona-mona/.

Remembering Mona Mona: The Mission in the Rainforest is now available from Adventist bookshops in Australia and New Zealand, or online.