TIDES AND SKIES
By Bill Knott
Lift up your heads—to see what God is doing
TIDES AND SKIES
By Bill Knott
Lift up your heads—to see what God is doing
Wide was his parish, houses far asunder,
But never did he fail, for rain or thunder,
In sickness, or in sin, or any state,
To visit to the farthest, small and great . . .*
More than 9,000 air miles—and 600 years—separate the “country parson” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and an Adventist pastor named Darren Peakall in the Torres Strait off the north coast of Queensland, Australia. Chaucer’s medieval preacher was justly famous for faithfully visiting his scattered flock in all kinds of weather to bring the Word of God to everyone in his territory, “small and great.”
And Darren Peakall—not at all medieval—is faithfully doing the same thing, in all kinds of weather, half a world away, and for the same reasons. But the muscular Australian doesn’t usually walk or ride a horse, as did his English counterpart. Reaching scattered church members among the 274 islands of the Torres Strait requires planes and boats. More precisely, planes instead of boats.
A Ministry of Presence
“Visiting church members is really the key to my ministry,” Darren says softly, his tanned face compressing with concentration lines. “How can I help them—as Jesus did—if I can’t actually sit down with them and find out what their issues are, one to one?
“People met Jesus beside wells, at wedding feasts, in boats, or walking in the streets. That’s where their lives got changed. We focus on His public sermons—his amazing stories and His timeless truths. But learning the gospel usually requires personal time—walking a road, sharing a meal, sitting in the bottom of a boat.”
A quick glance at the geography of Darren’s far-flung pastoral district illustrates why he’s focusing on a ministry of presence more than large-scale public evangelism. The hundreds of islands dotting the 150 kilometers (93 miles) of ocean that separate Australia’s Cape York Peninsula from Papua New Guinea (PNG) are mostly uninhabited, many of them volcanic upthrusts now surrounded by dense mangrove swamps. The 14 inhabited islands are home to just 8,000 people, most of them Melanesian islanders historically and culturally distinct from Australia’s aboriginal peoples.
According to the pastor, Seventh-day Adventists are spread across just five of the 14 inhabited islands—Saibai, Moa, Hammond, Prince of Wales, and Thursday Island, where Darren and his wife, Robbie (Robyn), live on the upper level that includes a parsonage and a chapel. Typical Sabbath attendances at the island churches can be counted on two hands: a large gathering, including visitors who sometimes come by boat from Adventist churches in Papua New Guinea, might grow as large as 30.
“It takes a long time to do almost anything in these islands,” Robbie says wistfully. “I’ve learned that building relationships doesn’t happen as quickly as we might wish. And the sheer distances involved—five and a half hours each way by boat to travel the 150 kilometers from our home to Saibai—means that we don’t get to see church members on the regular weekly cycle that many of us are used to. You have to change your expectations of church to be successful here.”
You also have to change your expectations of the support you can expect from family and friends, say Darren and Robbie. “Home” for them is Perth, Western Australia, more than 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) away—“at least two flights,” as Darren says, noting the practical impossibility of driving a car that distance in the annual vacation time allotted. Their four children, ranging in age from late teens to mid 20s, are clustered near Perth. Their parents’ missionary posting isn’t easy to accept.
“My younger son feels the distance keenly,” Darren says, grimacing slightly, “because he and I have a special friendship. ‘I’ll miss you: I hate not having you here,’ he told me when we came here. And even though all the kids and other family members have come out to visit us several times, you want the people that you love closer than the other side of the country.”
“I ring my mum up twice a day,” Robbie says. “She’s alone—my dad passed away several years ago—and we encourage each other. Darren initially wanted me to be as excited about this work as he was—and he’s excited, hasn’t really wavered since we got here. He just loves what he’s doing and has grasped it with everything he’s got.
“One day he could tell how much I was missing the family, and he asked me, ‘Don’t you want to be here?’ And I said, ‘I want to be with you, and I want to serve the Lord. Is that not enough? I know you miss the kids, but I miss the kids!’ ”
Robbie’s story is punctuated by the memories of three hospitalizations in her first 18 months in the Torres Strait. A round of antibiotics following an episode of bacteria in her bloodstream, weakened her immunity, and she somehow contracted a serious infection, clostridium difficile (C-diff), that disturbed her heart rhythm and sent her to the cardiac ward directly off a flight en route to the islands. Recovering her energy hasn’t been easy in a schedule that frequently calls for her to travel for multiple days by boat with Darren to his scattered church members or, alternately,
keep up a round of activities without his support and encouragement.
Learning how to draw appropriate boundaries as a pastoral spouse has also been part of the on-the-job training for Robbie. Now, just over two years into the first pastoral district the couple has ever served, she remembers the challenging first weeks when everything—house, island, church, and climate—seemed new and strange.
“Some members told me just after we arrived that the previous pastor’s wife used to make them chocolate éclairs,” Robbie chuckles. “They asked me, ‘Oh, why don’t you do what she did?’ Well, I love cooking and offering hospitality, but making éclairs—that’s not my gift. I prefer whenever I can to work alongside Darren and just concentrate on the things he’s concentrating on.”
Ministry at Water Level
What Darren is frequently concentrating on is the logistical difficulty of moving around in a pastoral district that stretches across some 48,000 square kilometers (18,500 square miles), but where only slightly more than 1 percent of the territory is dry land.
“Time and tide wait for no man,” the old proverb declares. Equally true, however, is the observation that time and tide are frequently the obstacles that prevent the very things most needing to be accomplished. Just getting to the places members live and worship requires a keen awareness of how dependent life in the islands is on the rise and fall of tides.
Several of the islands Darren visited during his first two years in the Torres Strait are surrounded by vast mud flats at low tide that prevent even shallow-keeled boats from approaching. Arrive at the wrong hour, and you will wait a kilometer or more from shore, watching daylight ebb and opportunities for ministry go with it. Load the small dinghy too fully or carry one too many passengers, and you will risk being swamped in mangrove shallows infested with saltwater crocodiles.
“Knowing that the crocs are out there certainly keeps you awake and alert,” Darren says, grinning. “Once when Brett Townend (Northern Australian Conference president) was visiting, the dinghy we were maneuvering along the coast started to take on water just after we passed a group of crocs. I have to admit I won’t soon forget the look on my boss’s face!”
More typical, however, is the sense of time and ministry possibilities lost because of the challenges of traveling on the water. The 11-hour round trip by boat from Thursday Island to Saibai, just four kilometers (two and a half miles) off the PNG coast, usually requires two days and an overnight stay on the island just to conduct a worship service, visit several member families, and host a story hour for the island children. The 440 liters (115 gallons) of diesel fuel required for the round-trip Saibai run costs A$800 (about US$745; 540 euros) each time. That number doesn’t include the costs for maintenance and repair on the boat.
The cost in time for traveling on the water is equally formidable.
“Every three weeks we used to pack up for the weekend and travel to Moa Island on the boat,” Darren says. “To make it worthwhile, we went there for three or four days, sometimes longer.”
“Somebody once asked us, ‘What’s it like?’ They probably thought that traveling by water for hours to a tropical island sounds romantic. Don’t get me wrong—the Torres Strait is beautiful. But these aren’t romantic islands: these are working islands, where people live real and difficult lives. I told the person who asked me, ‘It’s really not as lovely as it sounds! It’s like we’re camping every couple of weeks for an extended weekend. You’ve got to pack up and bring all your food, and know everything you’re going to need well in advance. That tends to take some of the romance out of it!’ ”
Raising the Plane
Even though he had invested five weeks of full-time training while still in Perth to obtain the commercial skipper’s license necessary to operate the mission boat in the Torres Strait, and another four weeks’ orientation in the boat with the pastor who preceded him in the district, it didn’t take Darren long to realize that being at the mercy of the tides was hampering the church’s mission in the territory. An experienced pilot, he had spent months flying in and out of isolated aboriginal communities in Western Australia, some of that time as a self-supporting literature evangelist offering books and DVDs to the inhabitants of remote towns. Noting that each of the major inhabited islands of the Torres Strait had well-developed airstrips, Darren began to realize that he could push the church’s mission forward much faster if he could reach his isolated church members and family-sized congregations by plane instead of by boat.
“We could all wish that Adventist work in this area had developed a bit differently,” he says, “but the truth is that these small worshipping groups really need a pastor to help them stay connected to their faith—and sometimes, even to each other. ‘Church’ sometimes happens only when the pastor is able to be present to lead out. In the weeks between a pastor’s visits, activity slows down, and sometimes even stops. When you are only seeing members every third or fourth Sabbath for a few hours, it’s almost impossible to do the training that will create stable local leaders in these remote places.”
After nearly 18 months in his district, Darren began dreaming of a way to move the church’s presence and mission in the Torres Strait to a higher level—quite literally, into the air. With the help of a pastoral colleague from the Northern Australian Conference who also was an experienced pilot, Darren drafted a proposal for the conference executive committee that called for leasing a propeller-driven plane for 100 hours of pastoral work in the last six months of 2013.
The Northern Australian Conference is the second smallest of the nine conferences in the Australian Union, even though its territory is the second largest geographically, including fully one-quarter of the continent in the northeast quadrant of the nation—Ayers Rock in the desert to islands in the Torres Strait. With only 2,500 members, 35 congregations, and 18 pastors, the Conference rarely has additional funding for innovative projects. And moving from the time-honored but very slow method of traveling on the water to a proposal for serving the Torres Strait district by air initially caused administrators to re-examine their faith in what God might be doing in the northernmost part of the Conference.
“When you don’t have an abundance of resources—or tithe—you think very carefully about new possibilities,” says Brett Townend, president of the Northern Australia Conference since May 2012. “A mistake in planning or an unexpected expense could mean that you won’t have the resources to keep pastors in the field or congregations moving forward with their mission. You have to keep the whole picture in view, even as you try to make sure you’re responding to what the Holy Spirit seems to blessing in one area.”
Ministry Takes Wing
After carefully working through the details of Darren’s plan, the executive committee gave permission for the experiment to move forward. By the time of the June 2013 Big Camp (annual camp meeting), funds had been allocated to pay for the 100 hours of flying time and fuel that Darren believed would dramatically push mission forward in the Torres Strait.
“It worked out that for that typical 11-hour trip to Saibai, our northernmost point in the district, instead of the $800 we usually spent on diesel fuel, we could bring the cost for traveling by air down to less than $500 for the same trip,” Darren says with a former literature salesman’s enthusiasm. “And then on the time, it’s only about an hour’s flight time from Thursday Island to Saibai, even in an old, slow plane with nothing spectacular about it. The plane was built in 1958: it was 55 years old when we first found it. I looked at the instrument panel, and at first I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ But the thing is, it worked, and was reliable.”
Now round trips to the most distant point in the far-flung district could be accomplished in just over an hour, reducing travel time by more than 90 percent. Mid-week prayer meetings with a small Adventist congregation at Kubin Village, on Moa Island, suddenly became possible. Bible studies with individuals interested in Adventist faith that had previously languished when conducted only every third or fourth week could now be kept active and growing through weekly contact. For the first time ever, a pastor could regularly reach Weipa, a remote coastal mining town on the western side of Cape York, where a small Adventist church company of 15 is now receiving frequent pastoral visits from Darren in the plane. This would have been impractical with the boat, and these members are now feeling part of the wider sisterhood of churches, despite their geographical isolation.
“It was something like an adrenaline shot for ministry in this district,” says Darren, now looking back on almost a full year of traveling by air. “You begin to think about ministry in different ways when you can actually begin to connect the dots more often than once a month. And members, too—they begin to expect more of themselves and of their church when they see that their congregation can have a regular and vital place in their community. Baptismal candidates stay on track toward good decisions; discipleship happens as faith gets nurtured. Our faith in what God wants to accomplish in the Torres Strait begins to climb as we see our mission beginning to get off the ground.”
In January 2014, Darren and Robbie took an even bigger step after careful and prayerful consultation with the conference officers. Taking out a sizeable personal mortgage, they arranged to buy a newer, speedier plane (a 1976 Piper 235) that can carry additional weight and up to three persons beside the pilot. Through a contract approved by the executive committee they have leased the new plane to the Northern Australian Conference, and use it multiple times a week to make member visits, conduct prayer meetings, and lead worship services throughout their vast, watery district.
Arranging the financing at their own expense—and risk—caused the Peakalls some careful thought and prayer. At minimum, the decision will delay their own investment in a house and their planning for eventual retirement.
“We’re all in,” says Darren with a trademark toothy smile. “We’re putting our own money where we think God wants us to put it. And we’re trusting that God is going to move on hearts in places we haven’t even heard of to keep this plane flying and this mission growing.”
No longer bound to the rhythm of the tides, ministry is taking flight in the Torres Strait. From the air—above it all—you can see much further, chart the objectives more carefully, and get there more quickly.
That’s the kind of mission that heaven always blesses. n
* Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, (Barnes and Noble, 2007), p. 27.
If you are interested in more information about the aviation project in the Torres Strait, or would like to support it with your prayers and resources, contact the Northern Australian Conference at:
or write to:
Northern Australian Conference—Torres Strait Project
PO Box 51, Aitkenvale QLD 4814
Phone: 07 4779 3988
Bill Knott is the editor and executive
publisher of Adventist World.
ISLAND MAZE: The Torres Strait links the Coral Sea to the east with the Arafara Sea in the west. The maze
of reefs and islands often makes it tedious and difficult
to navigate by boat.
CONNECTED: On Moa Island Darren makes regular visits to those with whom he has formed relationships. Lightbearer II is pictured in the background.
BY ALL MEANS: Northern Australian Conference president Brett Townend near Saibai Island at the controls of the dinghy from “Lightbearer II.”
FAMILY SUPPORT: Members of the Thursday Island family spans
generations and ethnic groups.
BEGINNING THE JOURNEY: Darren Peakhall takes delivery of the newer plane that will change the way ministry is done in this part of the world.
ALL IN: Darren and Robbie Peakhall have invested their finances, as well as their time and energy, in taking the gospel to this vast territory.