My Love for the Earth Will Be Satisfied Forever
As told by Dorothy Connelly
When I was a little girl, I was told that I would go to hell because I am an Aborigine. Years later, in 1936, I heard a recording of a Bible lecture that turned the hose on hell and lit a flame in my heart. That flame is now brighter than ever. Before I explain why, let me tell you something about myself.
I WAS born about the year 1911. I say “about” because in those days Aborigines never bothered with dates and birth certificates. My parents were hard-working, God-fearing people. We lived in the small town of Springsure, near the rugged, beautiful Carnarvon Range in central Queensland, Australia.
My father was reared in the Roman Catholic faith by a white family. Yet, my Aboriginal parents instilled in me their native customs and love of the earth. We hunted kangaroos, emus, turtles, and snakes and caught fish and witchetty grubs (large edible caterpillars). But I would never eat emu. In our family, to me alone it was forbidden because it was my personal totem. According to Aboriginal tradition, or “Dreamtime,” each member of the tribe has his or her own totem, and the ban on that item was enforced by family and tribe.
Although totemism is rooted in superstition, the enforcing of this taboo was a reminder of the sacredness of life. Aborigines did not kill for fun. I remember shriveling under the heat of Father’s anger when he caught me dismembering live grasshoppers when I was a little girl. “That’s terrible!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you know God hates cruelty? How would you like it if someone did that to you?”
We had many superstitions. For example, if a willie wagtail (a tiny bird) played by our camp, it meant bad news; or if an owl sat on a nearby stump in the daytime, we believed it meant that someone was going to die. Certain dreams were also seen as omens. For example, muddy water in a dream meant someone in the family was sick. But if the water was oozing with mud, then supposedly someone had died. True, we were Catholic, but this did not dispel all our tribal superstitions.
My family also retained our Aboriginal language. Now, though, it is one of the many that are teetering on extinction. Still, I am able to use it occasionally when talking to others about the Bible. Mostly, though, I use either English or the local pidgin.
Valuable Early Training
When I was about ten years old, our family lived on a cattle station, or ranch, about 20 miles [about 30 kilometers] from Springsure. Each day I would walk the mile or two to the station house to attend to my domestic duties. A billy (small can) of milk and a loaf of bread were my day’s pay. Our family lived in bark humpies, traditional Aboriginal dwellings. When it rained, we would sleep in nearby caves for the night. Did I view this simple way of life as a hardship? No. It had been the Aboriginal way of life for centuries, and we accepted it.
Actually, I’m glad that life was not dished up to me on a silver platter, as it were, and that I had loving parents who disciplined me, made me work hard, and taught me how to live off the land. In 1934, shortly after we moved to a reservation near Woorabinda, Queensland, I left home for the first time and went west to work on cattle and sheep stations as a housemaid and general hand. Work eventually took me east, just outside the coastal city of Rockhampton. There I met my late husband, Martin Connelly, the son of an Irishman. We were married in 1939.
Learning Bible Truth
I always felt a deep respect for the Bible. When I was a youth, the mistress of the cattle station would gather us children together—Aboriginal and white—and tell us stories about Jesus. Once, she explained the meaning of Jesus’ words: ‘Forbid not the little children to come unto me.’ (Matthew 19:14, King James Version) For the first time since I had been told I was damned to hell, I saw a ray of hope for me.
Later I heard the recorded discourse, mentioned at the outset, about hell not being hot. Although that started me thinking, I had no further contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses until 1949. We were then living in Emerald, about 150 miles [about 250 kilometers] west of Rockhampton. Our caller, R. Bennett Brickell,* spoke with us about the Bible. Afterward, our home became Ben’s home whenever he was in our area. We all, including Martin and our four children, felt a deep respect for him. Martin took no interest in the Bible’s message, although he was always kind and hospitable to the Witnesses and especially to Ben.
Ben gave me many Bible study aids, but there was a major problem—I could not read. Thus, Ben patiently read the Bible and Bible-based literature to the children and me, explaining what he read as he went along. What a refreshing contrast he was to the clergy who, once religious formalities were dispensed with, never spared so much as five minutes to teach us how to read! Ben showed us from the Bible that Satan and his demons are the authors of the many superstitions that have fettered humankind, including my own people. How I grew to appreciate Jesus’ words: “The truth will set you free”!—John 8:32.
I was thrilled to learn of God’s purpose to have an earthly paradise for those who obey him. Above all, I came to yearn for the resurrection of the dead; Mother had died in 1939, and Father in 1951. I often look forward to the day when I can embrace them and welcome them back to the earth they so cherished. And what a thrill it will be to teach them about Jehovah God and his Kingdom!
An Illiterate Preacher
As my Bible knowledge grew, I wanted to share it. I talked with relatives and friends, but then I wanted to branch out. So when Ben next came to Emerald, I bundled up the children, and we all went with him preaching. He demonstrated simple presentations to me and taught me to rely on Jehovah through prayer. My delivery, I must admit, was not very polished, but it was from my heart.
First, I told the householders that I could not read; and second, I invited them to read the Bible passages that I pointed out to them. I had memorized these passages. I’d get some surprised looks in this predominantly white township, but people were rarely rude. In time, I learned to read. How this boosted my confidence and my spirituality!
My First Convention
In March 1951, having dedicated my life to Jehovah, I came to the next two milestones in my life: water baptism and my first convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But that meant traveling to the big city of Sydney—a daunting prospect for a country girl. What is more, I didn’t have funds for the train fare. So, what could I do?
I decided to gamble to get money for my fare. ‘I’m doing this for Jehovah,’ I reasoned, ‘so surely he will help me win.’ By the end of a few rounds of cards, I felt that he had helped me, for I had enough to cover the entire round-trip fare.
Ben knew of my plans to go to Sydney, so the next time he visited, he asked me if I had sufficient funds. “Why, yes!” I replied. “I got the train fare by gambling for it.” Well, he turned the color of a tomato, and I knew straightaway that I had said something wrong. So in quick defense, I added: “What’s wrong with you? I never stole it!”
When Ben regained his composure, he kindly explained why Christians don’t gamble and added, reassuringly: “But it’s not your fault. I did not tell you.”
Made to Feel Welcome
That four-day convention, March 22-25, 1951, was my first contact with so many Witnesses. Having known only Ben and a handful of others, I was unsure of the reception I would receive. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be warmly welcomed by my future spiritual brothers and sisters, who showed not a hint of prejudice. I felt truly at home and at ease.
That convention is still vivid in my memory, especially because I was among the 160 baptized in Botany Bay. Apparently, I was one of the first Australian Aborigines to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My picture appeared in the Sunday newspaper and also in a newsreel shown at movie theaters.
The Only Witness in Town
A month after I returned from Sydney, our family moved to Mount Isa, a mining town in northwest Queensland. For six years we lived in a shed as caretakers of a large block of land just outside town. We built the walls of our shed out of the timber we cut from nearby bush. We made the roof from old bitumen drums that we slit down the side and flattened out. Martin got a job with the railways, but his drinking eventually ruined his health. Then, I became the sole support of our family. He died in 1971.
To begin with, I was the only Witness in Mount Isa. Ben would visit every six months or so, since Mount Isa was part of his vast witnessing territory. If he happened to be in town at the time of the Memorial of the death of Jesus Christ—a very special occasion for Ben, since he had the hope of heavenly life—he would celebrate it with my family, at times out under a tree.
Usually Ben did not stay long, so the children and I did most of our witnessing on our own. True, we were alone; but Jehovah’s spirit empowered us, and so did his loving organization. Faithful traveling overseers and their wives battled sweltering heat, flies, dust, and spine-jarring roads to come to Mount Isa to encourage us, even though for years our group was very small. Also, Witnesses from the newly formed neighboring congregation in Darwin, over 800 miles [over 1,200 kilometers] away, would occasionally visit.
A Congregation Formed
In December 1953 a congregation was formed in Mount Isa. Ben was appointed overseer, and my daughter Ann and I were the only others who then shared in the ministry. But soon other Witnesses moved into town. Our territory also began to produce a growing crop of disciples, including, in time, a number of Aboriginal people.
The congregation continued to grow, and soon it became evident that we needed a Kingdom Hall in which to hold our meetings. In May 1960, after a lot of hard work, we finished building our own new hall. During the next 15 years, it was enlarged twice. But by the mid-1970’s, we had some 120 sharing in the public ministry, and the hall was again too small. So a fine, 250-seat Kingdom Hall was built, and it was dedicated in 1981. Because of its overflow capacity, the building has also been used for larger gatherings called circuit assemblies.
Growth Among Aborigines
Thrilling to me was the formation in 1996 of an Aboriginal and Islander group that is associated with the Mount Isa Congregation. Islanders are Aborigines who come from islands near the Australian mainland. The prime objective of this group is to give a better witness to Aborigines, some of whom tend to feel less at ease with white people.
Scattered around Australia are about 20 other such groups of Aborigines. Additionally, congregations of Aboriginal people have been formed in Adelaide, Cairns, Ipswich, Perth, and Townsville. About 500 people—including some of my own family—attend these groups and congregations. Almost 10 percent of Aboriginal publishers are pioneers, or full-time ministers!
I became diabetic in 1975, and over the years this illness, which afflicts so many Aborigines, has taken its toll. Reading has become increasingly difficult. Yet, Jehovah continues to sustain me and give me joy.
I am grateful for the courageous ministers who have served my family and me. Their indomitable zeal, their love, and the spiritual treasures they bore on bicycles as they traversed the dusty, lonely roads and tracks of outback Queensland made possible our learning Bible truth. Now I await confidently the time when my love for the earth will be satisfied forever.
Ben Brickell’s remarkable life story appeared in The Watchtower of September 1, 1972, pages 533-6.
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Practice session with Ben in the mid-1950’s