This July, the people of the Torres Strait are celebrating the 150th anniversary of “The Coming of the Light” – a festival dedicated to remembering the arrival of the gospel on the islands, which lie between Cape York and Papua New Guinea. 

Uncle Ben Harry, a Torres Strait elder from St John’s, Glebe, will be attending the festival for the first time in 50 years, and bringing along with him a number of guests from the congregation.

The festival recalls the arrival of the Rev Samuel McFarlane in 1871, when he sailed to Erub (Darnley Island). The elders of the clan of Erub accepted him and took him in as their guest, enabling Mr McFarlane to share the Bible with them and spread the gospel in the Torres Strait. 

The first big Coming of the Light festival was held 50 years ago. “My grandfather took me and my sister, and we travelled in the boat for seven days [to get to Darney Island],” says Uncle Ben, who grew up on Yam Island. 

“When we get there, we go straight to where McFarlane landed on the beach. Today it’s called Kemus Bay. Everyone comes together there and we do prayers and hymns.” 

The festivities carry on for two or three days in the Torres Strait, with singing, prayers, dancing, a reenactment of the landing and plenty of feasting. “Coming of the Light is the biggest event in the Torres Strait,” Uncle Ben says. 

The gospel has always played a big part in Uncle Ben’s life, thanks to his grandfather encouraging him to go to church as a child. The church bell would ring daily, he says, adding: “My grandfather was a church warden for 30 or 40 years, back in the Torres Strait on Yam Island”.

It’s important to recognise that the Torres Strait Islander experience is vastly different from the Aboriginal experience. While the arrival of Mr McFarlane is seen as an arrival of light in the Torres Strait, there is much grief and mourning among Indigenous people associated with the arrival of foreigners to mainland Australia. 

However, for Torres Strait Islander people around the country, July 1 is a significant date. “Every year in Sydney and around the cities, Torres Strait Islanders will celebrate,” Uncle Ben says. “Pastor Mark [Wormell] asked me what it’s like [to celebrate], so I said, ‘If you want to see it, come for yourself’. 

“I will take them up there and show them how people up there react to God and Christianity, to the church, the culture, and the history of Darnley Island.”

For those who are not of Torres Strait Islander heritage, July 1 is a day to offer thanks for the way God has worked in the islands. “I’d like them [non-Islanders] to recognise the date, first of July, as when the gospel came to the Torres Strait,” Uncle Ben says. “So, when it comes up on that day, we will all get together and celebrate and pray.”