The Birth of ATSIM
The Seventh-day Adventist Church hasn’t always had a coordinated national approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministry.
Since 1910 the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been involved in a number of regional missions and outreach programs in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. However, during the 1960s and early 1970s many of these programs ended.
In 1975, the Secretary of the South Pacific Division, Pr Ron Taylor, was appalled to discover that there was no formal coordinated work among Australia’s Aboriginal people. Pr Taylor was a missionary at heart. He took seriously the words of Matthew 24:14 that the Gospel message must go to the entire world and he set himself the task of ensuring that this included the Indigenous people of Australia.
Pr Taylor envisaged a Church sponsored national work that could not be abandoned by changes in leadership because it was enshrined in church policy. He spoke to the Treasurer, Pr Lance Butler, and between them they took the matter to the Division committee and were given the go-ahead to re-organise this important work. The first thing they did was send out a survey to as many Aboriginal members as possible asking what they wanted the Church to do for them. This was followed up by visits to places such as Kempsey, Mackay, Cairns, Darwin, Alice Springs and Western Australia. Pr Claude Judd, the Union Conference President, travelled with them on these visits and it became very clear that Aboriginal people wanted the church to establish an organisation which focused solely on ministry to Indigenous Australians. “Give us the tools to work with, and we will work with you for our own people” they said.
A working party was formed to explore the best way to achieve this goal. The party included people such as Avy Curley, Ron Archer and George Quinlin. Among other things, the working party decided that Kempsey would be the most central location from which to coordinate the ministry and in time an office and church complex were built and officially opened by Pr Taylor and Pr George Quinlin on 19 March 1983. Pr Bruce Roberts had been appointed coordinator of the work in 1980 and during the early years he was assisted by Pr Quinlin and a team of advisors including Wilfred Levers, Ron Archer, Ken Farmer, Avy Curley, Frank Bobongie and John Assan. Although Bruce had many years of successful cross-cultural work in the South Pacific, the Church enrolled him in anthropology, sociology and race relations studies at Queensland University to assist him in his work. All subsequent ATSIM coordinators have completed similar degrees or post-graduate studies.
Initially, Pr Roberts’ ministry was directed towards Aboriginal Australians. However, he soon became aware that Torres Strait Islanders came under the same acts of parliament as did Aboriginals. As a former pilot in Papua New Guinea he had been occasionally forced to fly over the islands when skirting large storms in the southern Papuan region and had a passion to take the message of Jesus’ soon return to these people as well. Once he realised Torres Strait Islanders faced many of the same issues, he began lobbying to have them included in his job description. Church leaders soon agreed and Aboriginal ministries became officially known as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministries (ATSIM). Another important achievement was getting the ATSIM work funded from a percentage of tithes contributed by churches across Australia. With these additional funds ATSIM has been able to expand its ministry to include the employment and training of specialised ATSIM workers.
Since the early years ATSIM has really grown and is recognised as the fastest growing Adventist ministry in Australia. Pr Eric Davey was appointed in 1986 to assist with the expanding work. He took over the role of coordinator in 1995 and continued in this role until his retirement in 2006.
God has certainly blessed the work of ATSIM over the past 30 years. It has partnered in the establishment of schools, churches, and countless programs have been run and resources developed that have changed people’s lives. However, without doubt, the crowning achievement has been the establishment of Mamarapha College. Mamarapha successfully trains Indigenous pastors, bible workers and health educators to serve in their churches and communities throughout Australia.