“Let there be light!”
That was the cry of Ikuntji Elder Kieran Multa at 8.05pm on Good Friday 2023 in remote Central Australia – moments later a cheer went up as the Forgiveness Cross on Memory Mountain was illuminated for all to see.
People from across Australia joined with local Indigenous people to dedicate this giant steel structure which stands tall at the very centre of the nation. The significance of the event attracted the attention of both the Northern Territory Chief Minister Natasha Fyles and NT Attorney-General Chansey Paech who were both in attendance at the remote event, along with TV journalist Ray Martin who has been a longtime advocate for the project.
Ikuntji Elder Douglas Multa gave a very simple welcome to country to those assembled. “Welcome to my country” he said, in both English and Ikuntji language “it is good that you come here”.
NT Chief Minister Fyles also addressed the crowd, describing the event as very symbolic. “Often the Northern Territory and Indigenous people are put in the national spotlight, but not in a positive way. What is wonderful about this weekend and the future here is that this is local decision making, this is community coming together in achieving this, and we need to recognise that, and support that” she said. “I want to congratulate you and celebrate this very historic moment”.
One of the main advocates for the project has been world-renowned photographer Ken Duncan, who began helping the local people achieve their dream to see a giant cross on Memory Mountain over 12 years ago. Ken recalled that first meeting; “when they first asked me if I could help them put up a cross, it was at this place right here” Ken said. “a lot of people had come to me, the kids first, (saying) they see a cross on top of the mountain and it’s going to be like a ladder on the top where angels come up and down”.
The first person that spoke to Ken about the idea was past Elder Nebo Jugadai who told Ken that they wanted to build something where everyone was welcome to come – a mountain of prayer and of hope. “he (Nebo) said that we want people to know that our nation and our place is covered by Jesus”.
The project turned out to be much larger than Ken anticipated. “I must admit I thought we could come up there with a couple of four by two’s and a couple of bags of cement” he said. What transpired is far from thrown-together – almost $2 million has been raised and spend on erecting the 20m high and 2m x 2m wide steel structure whose foundations go 6m down into the rocky mountaintop.
Wollongong based Dennis Woodward was the Forgiveness Cross Project Manager and spoke of how it felt looking up at the finished structure. “Honestly, trying to keep the tears out of the eyes has been the hardest thing” he said, “because when I see it, I see God at work. It has been amazing, it really has been amazing. Such a fulfilment”.
Building such a significant structure in such a remote location was a challenge. “every nut, bolt and screw had to be really well planned because you can’t just run down to Bunnings if you’ve forgotten something. All of the steel had to be brought up from Adelaide, it was a very big process” Dennis said “we’ve had some incredible people on our team who have worked and given their life to it”.
Some might look at the cross and see it as just a steel structure in the middle of nowhere and ask why people would invest so much time, money and energy. David says this is far from true. “When I first went up on that mountain you could feel the presence of God. Everyone I’ve spoken to since who has been up there, the workers included, they feel this presence. There were times when we would have finished a certain part of the work and notice someone not there and we’d look around and find them sitting on a rock and just taking it in – everyone’s been touched by it, it really is something amazing.”
It’s been a hard road to get here with environmental and political challenges, and delays due to the covid pandemic. “it’s been an amazing journey and there’s been opposition and everything like that but these people have stood strong” Ken Duncan said, speaking of the local Indigenous leaders. “there was a lot of people trying to talk them out of all sorts of things but they stood strong. The reason this cross is here tonight – and you’re going to see it lit up – is because of them. This is a good story. I think this the beginning of a lot of good stories.”
The timing of the launch is significant because Easter 2023 is exactly one hundred years since four young indigenous evangelists first preached the gospel at Memory Mountain, bringing a message of forgiveness to a culture that really didn’t have any understanding of it. Their message hugely impacted the tribal peoples in the western desert with hundreds coming to know Christ and being baptized. Memory Mountain is named in memory of this Christian heritage which is still being felt today by the Ikuntji people.
Indigenous people making such a bold statement about forgiveness is also significant in a time when reconciliation and recognition is in sharp focus and will be the subject of a referendum later this year.
“People talk about hearing the voice and I think that’s very important. This (the cross) was their voice, this is what they want to do” Ken Duncan said, adding it would create work and jobs for Indigenous people.
With the formalities aside there was one thing left to do. “It’s time now to have a party – but just one thing before we do, I remember Alison Multa (one of the local leaders) telling me why this is called The Forgiveness Cross. She said we don’t Europeans responsible for our future, God is our future and we’re saying God forgive us all for trying to do things in our own strength. And I believe we’re going to see great things in this community”.
Steve Grace and band then took to the stage to lead a sing-along, appropriately starting with with the hymn “the old rugged cross”.
The celebrations continue across the weekend with sporting activities, singing, community BBQ and a special church service in Haasts Bluff. Sam Childers AKA the Machine Gun Preacher will also give his testimony to the crowd on Saturday evening and Phil Edwards will broadcast live from the cross on Resurrection Sunday morning.