March 20 – Alan Mungulu

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Alan Mungulu, faithful witness

Worrorra Elder and churchman
Alan Mungulu was born in 1925 in Worrorra country on the North West Coast of the Kimberley. His parents Nyimandum (Ernie) from Prince Regent River and Ruby Marrud from the Glenelg River regions encountered the tensions of two worlds: that of traditional life and life on a Presbyterian Mission. Alan’s father worked closely with the Rev J R B Love to build the first Aboriginal occupied house, collaborate in translation and help settle the inevitable disputes and conflict that arose from the interaction of two cultures. Alan and his sister Elkin, baptized with their parents on Easter Sunday 1929, inherited qualities of high intelligence and emotional stability. Alan attended the mission school and in addition to literacy, attained skills in woodwork and leatherwork.

Alan then worked as an engineer on the mission’s lugger, Watt Leggatt in the 1940s. On one of these journeys, Alan’s life was threatened by serious illness some three days sailing from a hospital. They were becalmed. Alan and the skipper, Ron Ross prayed, with the result that an unexpected breeze whipped up and filled the sails. Four days later, after a painful and life threatening journey, Alan arrived in Derby. Alan survived this onset of polio with the help of many people. His wife Gudu together with Ruby and Elkin were employed as hospital staff. The family stayed at the United Aboriginal Ministry (UAM) house during 1946/7. When Alan was released from hospital, he and his family joined their people at the mission station which had been moved to Wotjulum, near Cockatoo Island where he had to be carried everywhere by family and friends. Alan was eventually sent to Perth where the diagnosis of poliomyelitis was confirmed. He received crutches to aid his independence.

Despite this physical, mental and emotional challenge, Alan was able to lead his family and community through a difficult transition. He and Gudu parented six daughters and one son and helped raise other children also. All were nurtured in faith and educated in both cultural and Western ways. Alan taught in the mission school at Wotjulum, acknowledged by his peers as a wise teacher and elder. Alan helped his people understand the significance of yet another move in 1956 to Old Mowanjum, near Derby.

This move would have been spiritually and emotionally challenging as he and his people left the beauty of their blue water coast, to engage a male dominated rough white culture in a small frontier town with its alcohol and isolation. It would have been profoundly challenging for Alan and those who had a deep yearning for traditional lands and culture, so far from their own country.

Alan and Gudu were married by the Rev Hartshorne in Old Mowanjum soon after arrival. Alan preached frequently in the mission church, conducted classes at the Derby school and looked after the mission store, together with his wife Gudu. He was ordained as an Elder of the Presbyterian Church in 1958. Yet, as many of his contemporaries, he shared his culture, through stories and a creative practice of carving pearl shells and boab nuts.

When Mowanjum, as similar Aboriginal communities, underwent significant change in the 1970s, Alan was there for his people! He became chairperson of the new Mowanjum council in 1972, a position that he held to his death several years later. He assisted his community to move to self-determination as the church handed over responsibility of the mission and pastoral station to the Mowanjum incorporated body. He helped incorporate a strict no-alcohol policy in the community and involved the elders in night patrols and policing.

Alan was an exemplary elder both in the local and wider church community. He led in Morning Prayer and bible studies as well as preaching in Sunday worship. His sermons embraced compassion for his people suffering at the edge of Western society. In a sermon in 1977 he referred to broken objects and lives and wrote that ‘there is one thing that can’t be broken and that is the Word of God. God does not break His promises’. Alan travelled to Arnhem Land as the Aboriginal Congress of the Uniting Church was being formed. He travelled to the Philippines for a World Council of Churches meeting in Manilla and to Melbourne to take part in the Billy Graham crusade in 1969.

Alan’s funeral service on 27 February 1978 brought many government, civic, church and community representatives together to pay tribute to his contribution to church and community. Alan, like his father Nyimandum, was an Aboriginal leader of note, who enabled his people to integrate into a new way of life and spiritual understanding.

Rev Dr Robert Hoskin and the Mungulu family