September 22 – Lazarus Lamilami

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.


Lazarus Lamilami, faithful servant

By any measure Lazarus Lamilami Namadumbur (1906–77) was a remarkable man. He was handsome, intelligent and physically strong. His broad smile, quiet chuckle and warmth of presence instantly drew people to him. He was a sailor, carpenter, pastor, translator, and interpreter. He spoke five Aboriginal languages as well as English. He initiated the beginnings of an Aboriginal literary tradition. He was awarded an MBE (1968), elected to the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, a part–time lecturer at Nungalinya College in Darwin, and the first ordained Aboriginal Methodist Minister in Australia. Lamilami moved almost effortlessly between two cultures and was much respected by Indigenous and European alike.

Lamilami was born among the Maung people on the Northern Territory mainland directly opposite South Goulburn Island (Warruwi). At about the age of eight he attended the school on Goulburn Island established by James Watson, the first Methodist missionary to Arnhem Land, in 1916. Amy Corfield was the teacher in the school for its first three years and her unpublished diary in the Mitchell Library in Sydney gives a unique perspective of the carefree life of the pupils in the school. Schoolboys like the young Lazarus spent much of their time before or after lessons fishing, hunting, trepanging, singing, corroboreeing and even learning to play rugby. Though his schooling was restricted Lamilami took advantage of the opportunities he was given. He was taught elementary English, mathematics, scripture, animal husbandry and gardening. Later, as an adolescent he learnt carpentry at the Mission and worked in that trade during the war years and afterwards. The anthropologist Ronald Berndt says in the Foreword to Lamilami’s autobiography, Lamilami Speaks (1975) that he was “fortunate in having Methodist teachers and guides who were not bigots and who, although they knew little of the traditional life going on around them, were not actively opposed to it.” 

As a young man Lamilami worked on the mission lugger and various boats in and out of Darwin. It was during this time (c.1946) that he was converted by the prayerful example of a wireless operator, named Bell, about whom we have no other details. A few years after Lamilami’s conversion, George Calvert Barber, the President–General of the Methodist Church in Australasia, met up with Lamilami on a visit to North Australia. In Calvert Barber’s report on the visit, he described Lamilami as a “sturdy figure with a radiant face and steadfast assurance [who] appealed for a deeper understanding among all the people of the world.” Calvert Barber was particularly impressed by the reality of Jesus in Lamilami’s life: “Jesus”, Lamilami told Calvert Barber, “is my friend and I must keep on trying to do my best for Him. He does not fail me and he won’t fail anyone who comes to Him. Colour does not matter to Jesus, and we must not let colour stop us from being friends in Him.”

In the mid 1950s Lamilami was trained as a Local Preacher and then selected to deputation work in New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania. It was the heyday of the Federal Government’s and the Methodist Church’s policy of assimilation and there were huge expectations placed on Lamilami’s shoulders. He was held up as an example of what the Methodist Mission could produce in Arnhem Land. He was variously named a “trail blazer”, a “worthy ambassador”, the face of assimilation, and the “first fruits” of what was generally considered slow and difficult work among the Aboriginal people in the North. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s the Methodist Missionary Magazine published numerous photographs (including the accompanying charcoal sketch) of a smiling, smartly–dressed Lamilami meeting church dignitaries, opening new churches, preaching in the open air, and speaking to the General Conference of the Methodist Church. For Australian Methodism Lamilami represented a “new era” in mission and a new future for Aboriginal people. Now that the protection days were over, the “Christian conscience” believed that Australian Aboriginals would now be “educated for Australian citizenship, and . . . be integrated into the Australian community.”

In 1966, at the age of 57, Lamilami was ordained in the small but picturesque church at Warruwi. His ordination was further evidence to the church of “spiritual advance”—an Aboriginal man had become a minister in a district where until then only Europeans, Fijians, Tongans and Rotumans had laboured. For the next ten years Lamilami faithfully ministered to an Aboriginal and European congregation at Croker Island (Minjilang). With great grace and dignity he straddled two cultures, becoming for many a “bridge of understanding”.  Although he did embrace some European ways and values, especially the importance of education for his people, he remained proud of his Aboriginal culture and never lost touch with his Maung “homeland. His dream, yet unfulfilled, was that one day there would be centre for Maung, Gunwinggu and Iwidja culture set up in West Arnhem Land, where the heritage of language, dance and song could be passed on.

Lamilami died on 21 September 1977 after a short illness. At his funeral in Darwin, Bernard Clarke, the Director of Mission and Service in the United Church in North Australia, identified Lazarus Lamilami’s lasting legacy: “As he [Lamilami] sought understanding and reconciliation between cultures, so he sought to understand the Gospel as an Aboriginal man. . . . [H]e understood that the challenge of the Gospel was to follow in Christ’s footsteps. He knew this was a narrow path, but he also knew that not all the signposts were in English. . . . As he found other signposts drawn from his heritage and culture he shared them and the way was clearer for us all.”

William Emilsen