Plains Folk

Lutheran Magic


This column began in a hotel in Sydney, while we were trying to get home from Adelaide, South Australia. It’s being finished in my home office, where on my desk repose an elongated wooden bowl and two Aboriginal clapsticks. These articles are artfully ornamented with wood-burned motifs. They come from Hermannsburg, a Lutheran mission west of Alice Springs. In the whitewashed schools of Hermannsburg, the Lutherans taught Aboriginal students the craft of woodburning so they could make a living selling products to whites.

One of the students born at the mission, Albert Namatjira, also learned landscape painting and became the first celebrated, modern Aboriginal artist, regarded as a national treasure by all Australians. Now, as a German Lutheran myself, I feel like I have some sort of historic connection to this train of events.

We traveled to South Australia, and to its lovely capital city, Adelaide, in search of connections like this one. We contemplate bringing study tours of American students to travel the heart of Australia via the historic Ghan Railway from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin, in the Top End.

The connections spanning the central Australian deserts north and south, we learn, are momentous and fascinating. There are the heroic explorations of the frail Scottish adventurer, John McDougall Stuart, first to cross the continent; the construction of the trans-continental telegraph; the intrepid travels of the Afghan and Pakistani cameleers who sustained life in the desert (and left the country with a legacy of more than a million feral camels); and among many other developments, the arrival of German immigrants on the open land.

All these stories of human struggle in a vast and difficult land resonated so in the mind of a prairie boy that my ears were ringing. We learned that the German immigrants, who came to South Australia in the 1840s (about the same time they arrived on the plains of Texas), were responsible for two great developments that may seem contradictory: the establishment of a world-class wine-producing region, and the instigation of historic Christian missionary efforts to the Aborigines. These included the Lutheran mission to the Arrernte people at Hermannsburg.

Here is a piece of serendipity: driving from one winery to another in the Barossa Valley, we espied a lovely stone church at roadside and pulled in to examine it—Bethany Lutheran Church, it proved to be. In a corner of the churchyard was a plaque affixed to a rock and reading, “In commemoration of the departure of the pioneer missionaries from Bethany 22nd October 1875 to establish the Hermannsburg mission among the Aborigines in central Australia.” My mind reeled, and truly, I physically staggered, as I grasped this connection across more than a thousand miles of desert.

And not only that—out back of the perfect stone church stands an open arbor of great gumtree trunks, with stringers and rafters of gumwood, and bamboo canes laid across them, and thatched with straw—the way a German peasant might roof a house, or an Aboriginal tribesman his wurley. Strings of open electric bulbs are affixed to the rafters. Now, I deeply long to go back to Bethany and be there when the switch is thrown, lighting up this holy, historic, and mysterious place. That will be Lutheran magic.



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