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The hard road that reshaped a mission


In late1977 Steve Swartz arrived in the Territory – a young man, 27 years old, from small town Ohio, USA, with wife and infant son. From Darwin they headed out to the Aboriginal community of Lajamanu, on a mission to translate the Bible into the local language, Warlpiri. That task would take Steve 23 years and test his mental and spiritual resilience almost to their limits.

Where did that drive come from, the single-mindedness and vision, to do that work in such a very different world from the one he’d grown up in? What does he think he achieved and at what cost? How now, from the perspective of a 70-year-old who has made Alice Springs his home, does he feel about having spent so much of his life this way?

These were my questions as I sat down with him, prompted by the publication of his memoir, Broken Pot: the making of the Warlpiri Bible. The title and subtitle point to the book’s two strands, one the account of his mental and spiritual crises, the other of his mission.

Both took root in his parents’ home and church in a town called Fostoria, the kind of place in the Rust Belt that you might hear about in efforts to describe the deep social, economic and cultural divides in America today.

In the 1950s when Steve was born, Fostoria, 40 miles south of Toledo, was a flourishing highly industrialised town, making automotive parts that fed into Detroit. It was surrounded by farming lands, growing corn, soya beans, tomatoes, raising hogs. The town’s 14,000 residents – 16,000 by 1970 – supported some 30 churches, among them the Bethel Evangelical United Brethren, to which Steve’s family belonged.

Today the population is in decline, the number of churches has dwindled – still there are 20 or so, Steve says – and much of the city’s industry has disappeared. Steve finds it sad to go back:  “It’s gone from thriving middle America to not much, but it’s home.”

His father, Harry, was a barber whose once successful business also fell victim to changing times, as short-back-and-sides haircuts and straight razor shaves went out of fashion. His mother, Darlene, stayed at home raising her children; Steve was the youngest of four, following a sister and two brothers.

“Mum and Dad never owned their home but we were comfortable, we didn’t wake up wondering what we were going to have to eat that day.”

Harry at Mac & Swartz barbershop, mid-1960s

Bethel Evangelical, with its 120 or so members, close-knit and conservative, was at the centre of their lives. Sunday school, Sunday worship, Sunday evening service, Wednesday night prayer meetings structured their weeks.

“This was the air I breathed,” says Steve.

That air could be rather suffocating. There  were plenty of don’ts: “We didn’t go out to Sunday dinners, didn’t buy Sunday newspapers, didn’t go shopping Sundays.”

They had family devotions every night, led by Harry, and were expected to exercise strict personal discipline: no swearing, for example. Harry’s only, rarely uttered expletive was “Confound it!” and Steve can remember being punished for using the word “hoot”, as in “I don’t give a hoot”.

Alcohol was strictly “verboten”, Harry being a recovered alcoholic. He went cold turkey after he “came to the Lord” in 1945. Steve thinks Harry’s father was probably an alcoholic too.

His father’s temper and the corporal punishment administered for perceived wrong-doing loom large in our conversation. In the book these memories are allayed by others – moments of warmth, pride, enjoyment, outings, good meals – but the family, the boys in particular, never knew “when the explosion was going to come”.

When it did, there were beltings – with Harry’s razor strop.

“As a young child I was trying to figure out, how do I control this?”

Swartz family, 1953: Harry holding infant Steve and David; Darlene with Buster and Sandra.

One way was by doing very well at school. But even a paper that got a mark of 99/100 would fall below Harry’s expectation of perfection – “a tough standard”.

Steve describes his own coming “to the Lord” on  August 20, 1960, at an old-fashioned tent meeting. He would have been nine. As he grew older though he became “a quiet rebeller”.

He can remember riding down the street on his bicycle, saying three words of profanity, over and over, experiencing “a magical sense of freedom – I can do this.” At his married sister’s house he would sneak a look – “even my Dad would too” – at the cartoons and sports sections of the big Sunday papers. In high school he wanted to be allowed to go to school dances and did go, surreptitiously, once.

On the upside he evokes the “love of the Bible” instilled in him: “I believe it is the word of God, and provides a guide for life.”

This love still holds but his faith is very different now: “It has probably taken 70 years for a lot of the positive things from that upbringing to be embraced internally rather than imposed externally.”

He left home in 1969 for a small Christian liberal arts college in Huntington, Indiana,  studying philosophy as his major, with a minor in Bible and religion.

Steve in his senior year at Fostoria High School, 1969.

It was there that he came into contact with a Wycliffe Bible Translator missionary who worked in Brazil. He learned of the 3000 groups around world who had oral languages, and about the kind of linguistic work being done to bring those peoples the Bible in their own languages.

It was a “bells and whistle moment” for Steve. This was what he wanted to do.

He had already met his future wife, Bev Mote, who was studying at the same college.

“I was a  senior and she was a sophomore (second year) when I became really serious about going to Wycliffe. She said, ‘I could see going somewhere for a year.’”

At that stage the fastest translation anywhere –  of a full New Testament and partial Old Testament – had taken eight years, but the more typical commitment was two to three decades, he told her:

“It didn’t scare her off. It was a call of God.”

Steve went away to get his linguistic training and so began their part odyssey, part ordeal that culminated in the dedication of the Warlpiri Bible – a full New Testament and 12% of the Old Testament.

They began work at Lajamanu in 1978, stayed until 1986. It was during this time that Steve began experiencing the first symptoms of mental distress.

“It was a shock to system” to move from Ohio to Darwin in the buildup and into mainstream Australian culture, let alone arriving in Lajamanu – “11 hours by bad road from Darwin, 11 hours by even worse roads to Alice Springs”.

Apart from the heat, the isolation, the cross-cultural environment, Steve was confronted by the enormity of the challenge he had undertaken.

Bev Mote in her senior year at Lakewood High School, 1971. 

During his linguistic training he had been “top drawer”, seen as a person “you could throw anywhere, [having] the mental capacity to figure out grammar, phonology, orthography, anthropology.

“That all went out the door as soon as we set foot in Lajamanu!

“Language learning was harder than I ever expected. I thought I’d have reasonable fluency in three to six months, it was more like three to six years and longer.”

It triggered feelings of failure, nightmares of impending doom. He’d wake up in terrors, soaked with sweat, shaking uncontrollably. For all the support and comfort offered by Bev, this “built and built and built”.

“Every day, I would do the techniques to begin translation, but the harder you peddled the further behind you got.”

Did he feel welcomed by Warlpiri people?

“Very much so,” says Steve, “but they took several years  to figure out what in the world I was  doing!”

Bev, as a young mother, found her place in the community – alongside other mothers with their children –  more readily than Steve did.

“At one stage, one of the women said to her, ‘Jampijinpa should go up to the council and get a job’.

“I wasn’t doing anything – wondering around town, going out to men’s business camp, sitting, talking with people, maybe writing things down, recording a story. They understood I was trying to learn the language, but I wasn’t a policeman or a teacher or a health worker.”

Nor did he have a role of responsibility in the Baptist church in the community.

“They were perplexed and it took a while before we were able to turn out the first bits of Bible translation.”

At home the stresses took their toll: as difficult as it was for him, it was “100 times more difficult” for Bev and their children. Just as he had tiptoed around his dad to avoid an explosion of temper, so they had to.

Newlywed Bev and Steve at Huntington College, 1975.

“Bev spent a lot of her time keeping the kids quiet so Daddy could do his work.

“I’m an A-type personality, if I’ve got a goal, please don’t step in front of that goal, or I will run you over.” He laughs ruefully. “Bipolar on top of that makes it even worse.”

That diagnosis and the medication to treat it, which has helped, have only come in the last five years. Before that he was being treated for depression, with occasional periods of talking therapies, medication and hospitalisation. This did not prevent two suicide attempts, one in the States, the other here – all this placing a huge strain on his children and wife.

“Bev has spent a significant part of our married life trying to help me, trying to heal me. She’s long since realised, while she can help me to a certain extent, she can’t heal me.”

Would the experience have been as extreme if they had stayed in Ohio?

“Probably not”, he says, although there is a history of mental illness on both sides of the family going back generations. “Environment certainly played role.”

Part of that challenging environment for Steve was linguistic. As the pace of translation picked up, so did the changes in Warlpiri.

In 1992 he published a mini Bible of six books, but this work had to be modernised before it could be incorporated into the “final big green Bible” of which there are probably 1200 to 1500 copies “floating around somewhere”. 

“I speak and understand an older form of Warlpiri which is fast disappearing. I can’t really understand Warlpiri today spoken by people under 40, and they can’t understand me.”

Jerry Jangala and Steve working on their translation in Alice Springs, c 1992. 

Reading the translated Scriptures he worked on would be for most Warlpiri people now like reading Beowulf or Chaucer for most contemporary English speakers. The exception would be his Warlpiri co-translators. He mentions in particular church leaders Jerry Jangala at Lajamanu – his “mainstay”, to whom he devotes a chapter of the book – and Theresa Napurrurla Ross at Yuendumu – “an absolute gem, a genius”.

Jangala was his main teacher and without him the Warlpiri Bible would not exist. He had a great love of his language which his transmitted to Steve, who describes classic Warlpiri as “euphonious, melodic and smooth”: “It lilts up and down like an intermittent breeze.”

These church leaders still use the Bible, but for its full benefit to be felt by Warlpiri Christians the translation would probably need to be redone and “probably it won’t be in my life time,” says Steve.

“You’ll say, what was I thinking?” he says, pre-empting my question. To answer, he reads the final sentences of his memoir: “Why did I do it? … God called me to do so – I obeyed.”

It seems to bring us full circle, back to the little boy under the stern, sometimes cruel authority of his father.

“I’ve thought about this … it’s often said in Christian circles that our image of God, whether we’re male or female, is set at an early stage by the image and relationship you have with your father.

“Not discounting the importance of mothers, but that’s how you relate to God the Father, as you related to your own earthly father, good, bad or indifferent.

“I can identify with that. There were a lot of good things [in my relationship with Dad] but there was also the violence, the corporal punishment and so on. It was not pleasant, it may not have been right. But it was what it was.

“I find it hard to think about God the Father in terms of love, affectionate warmth. I know He is those things, but it’s hard for me, something I struggle with in matters of faith, to say OK, the heavenly father is not like my father, He is loving. He sent his own son [to die for us] – talk about an interesting interaction between the second member of the Trinity and the first member of the Trinity and where that ended up and what its implications are now.”

He and Bev have three children, a son and two daughters, all of them now with their own children.

“I see a confidence in my son that matches mine but I also see a gentleness, and the same in his boys. That makes me happy.

“Maybe the cycle has been snapped. If so, I’m grateful for that.

“These are complex things but not uncommon.”

Translation consultant checking, from right, Steve, Liddy Nakamarra, Chris Kilham, Steve Etherington, unknown Warlpiri woman, Alice Springs, c 1995. 

Steve has learned to be kinder to himself. A first step back in 2003 was to allow his translation task to come to an end. He can remember the moment, still working on the Old Testament, when “one day I sat up, sighed, and said, ‘That’s it, I can’t do any more.’”

It meant leaving Wycliffe, leaving “being a full time missionary on no fixed income to being on the job market in the scary secular world.”

But he managed, and his linguistic training helped with finding work in education programs at IAD, in the prison, and with the Aboriginal Interpreter Service.

He’s retired now, still here, still goes to church, still has “a level of faith”.

“I hope in some ways it’s stronger. For years I would see my Dad reading his Bible every morning before work … For years, I read daily, several chapters a day. I would work my way from start to finish in a calendar year. I probably did that about six times.

“Now I don’t do it. I’ve returned to using little devotional guides with snippets of Scripture. I don’t have to read tons and tons to earn God’s favour.

“A lot of repressive aspects of my faith have been broken – I’m thankful for that.

“Religion should be a response of love, not compulsion. That’s where I think I’m heading.”

Does he think his story will inspire anyone to do mission work?

“Mission work is tremendously hard yacker. I would tell people who wanted to do it, run as fast you can. If He wants you to be there, you will be there. Don’t go thinking it is fun, quick, and that you’re actually going to save people.”

He learned from immersion in the Warlpiri language – which of course also meant getting to know people and their culture – that their traditional laws and structures, as they existed 50 years ago, 1000 years ago, enabled them to live “proper and good lives”. This culture could still be plumbed, he suggests, “if people were able to think about it outside the bounds of ceremonial life”, for application to health, education, welfare, the law – all those areas targeted by Close the Gap: “Their lives would be much better.”

These hard-won perspectives aside, he does hope his book will inspire, in particular with a message for people with mental illness.

“For Christians there’s a reluctance [in responding to mental illness] to go beyond prayer. I need to pray more, read more, fellowship more, have people pray for me. I’m not dismissing that but maybe what you need for a while is some anti-depressants until you steady.

“The number of hours I spent praying, reading the Bible, other people praying for me! It may have worked to the extent I’m not dead but I still had the bipolar until I got professional help” – medication at regular medium-level doses that has stopped “the stratospheric highs and lows”.

So he wants the book to provide hope; “Hope and help, entertainment, hope you laugh, hope you cry, one of those books.”


Photo at top: Steve, Bev and their children Caleb and Jessica (Anna came later) with church leaders in Lajamanu, from left, Jerry Jangala, Lionel James, Mary James and Robin Green. Early 1980s.

All archival photos courtesy Steve Swartz.

Broken Pot: The Making of the Warlpiri Bible is on sale at Red Kangaroo Books.




  1. Thanks for these history stories.
    Your paper must have a great archive now of many people talking personally to the Central Australian histories.
    Would make a serious collection in a book one day.
    [Hi Craig, we have a fully searchable archive of about seven million words! Kind regards, Erwin.]

  2. Alex, the Lutherans had the wisdom and good sense to fully embrace Aboriginal languages from the start, including Western Aranda and Pintupi-Luritja. They helped the Baptists establish their work at Yuendumu with Laurie Reece being assigned there first, I think. Reece had a great appreciation of Warlpiri, but with a few notable exceptions thereafter, Bible translation into Warlpiri and the active use of the Warlpiri Scriptures in the life, teaching and training of the Warlpiri church just didn’t happen. Very sad, and among several regrets, looking back, the biggest is my inability to figure out how to work more cooperatively with the Baptist missionaries, particular those assigned to Lajamanu in the ’80s. What’s done is done!

  3. Thanks to Steve for being so open and allowing us an insight to his extraordinary life. And thanks to Alice Springs News for continuing to bring us such great reading.

  4. Understand what you’re saying, Steve, but I rather like the apparent synchronicity between a missionary named Schwarz turning up in Central Australia in 1877, and another missionary named Swartz turning up in the Northern Territory one century later!

  5. I’ve ordered the book and look forward to reading it.
    Some of the Warlpiri people who helped Steve with this herculean effort, are (and were) the “products” of Yuendumu School’s bilingual programme started in 1974.
    Steve, you’ll be pleased to know that Yimi-Nyayirni-wangu Kaatu-kurlangu is being used at the Yuendumu Baptist Church at the Sunday services.

  6. @ Steve Swartz: The early Lutheran missionaries wanted to assimilate the Aranda people and were smart enough to know that this ambition required being able to communicate with them.
    I wouldn’t say their embrace of Aboriginal languages showed wisdom and good sense.

  7. I see your point, Jason. As for the Lutherans, I believe their first motivation was bringing the Gospel to Central Australia, not assimilation, if you define the term as the complete disappearance of one culture into another. Whether you believe that is a good thing or not is a topic for discussion. The existence of the Strehlow Centre and the preservation of countless and priceless artifacts (many sacred) gives some testament to a desire to preserve rather than destroy culture.

  8. @ Steve Swartz: Yes the first motivation of the Lutherans was to convert Aranda people to the Christian faith.
    They considered the religious beliefs of the Aranda incompatible with Christianity so they bought the sacred boards and encouraged women to trespass on men’s scared areas.
    This was to break down the opposition to Lutheran beliefs rather than preserve the religious artefacts although purchasing sacred items did lead to preservation of some of them.
    Congratulations on the publication of your book.

  9. Wow! Look at you two as younguns! Two lovely people who we were proud to call our friends when we lived in Alice Springs.


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