John and Phyllis Mercer served with CMS in the remote mission station of Numbulwar, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, during the 1950s and ’60s. Both John and Phyllis were born into non-churched families: John was the eldest of eight born to Scots who migrated to Australia between the wars and settled in North Ryde; and Phyllis was the second of two children born into a painter’s household in Armadale, Victoria. Their childhoods coincided with the Great Depression, and the austerity of the period called for thrift and enterprise.
While a student at high school, attending an ISCF camp at Berwick in May 1946, Phyllis came to saving faith in Jesus. Straight away, she joined the local Presbyterian Church and soon was teaching a Sunday School class of eight and nine-year-old boys.
At a similar time, John Mercer had come to saving faith through the witness of work colleagues on the factory floor, discipled under the ministry of the Rev Donald Begbie, and was led to enroll as a candidate at Melbourne Bible Institute. John was appointed to Armadale Presbyterian Church for practical training during his course at Bible College and began teaching a Sunday School class of 11 and 12-year-old boys, right alongside Phyllis. A friendship formed and a courtship ensued, leading to engagement in 1951.
The next two years, almost the entire time of their engagement, were spent apart with Phyllis completing her teacher training in Melbourne while John spent his first 18-month deployment at Roper River Mission, before being sent to begin a pioneering work further up the gulf at Rose River or Numbulwar in August 1952. For that entire time, they had to content themselves with a monthly mail delivery to keep in contact.
The very fact of John’s taking on such an assignment was in itself a work of grace. John had been struck down with polio as a boy, resulting in severely deformed feet and ankles, requiring multiple operations and surgical boots to enable him to be able to walk again. Conscious that this affliction may limit his usefulness on the mission field, John imagined being given home assignment or a desk job. But one day in chapel, a visiting speaker preached on the text of Psalm 147:10-11. “His pleasure is not in the strength of a horse, nor His delight in the legs of a man; the Lord delights in those who fear Him, who put their hope in His unfailing love.” Immediately every restriction or limitation to service was abandoned.
On his first furlough, John and Phyllis were married at St. Anne’s Anglican Church Ryde in 1953. The ceremony doubled as a commissioning of them both for missionary service. Preparations for their first two-year deployment to Numbulwar involved shopping for groceries that had to last them six months. Their first home was a sparse and rudimentary house built by John from largely locally milled timber that had no electricity or hot running water.
Phyllis’s first responsibility was to establish a school for Aboriginal children under the shade of a wattle tree, with an easel blackboard, and the children sitting on the sand, until a school-house could be constructed. They also ran a daily medical clinic and dispensary, and ministered the gospel to the tribe through word and deed, music and song. Contact with the outside world was through a monthly visit from a supply boat, bringing visitors, groceries and mail delivery. Construction of the airstrip was an early priority, with most of the tribe involved, achieving the feat without earth-moving equipment, using the genius of Aboriginal bush craft and plain hard work.
While John was pressing on to finish the airstrip, which was vital to enable medical aircraft to visit the station, Phyllis gave birth to their first-born son, Paul, in Darwin in May of 1954. Three weeks later, John finally got to meet his son when mother and baby were among the first plane-load of passengers to land on the newly built airstrip. It was quite some homecoming, with the entire tribe lining the runway to greet the arrival of the first plane and to meet the first white baby any of them had ever seen.
Over the next 10 years, John and Phyllis laboured fruitfully among the Nunggubuyu people of Numbulwar, then as superintendent of the mission at Groote Eylandt. A special friendship developed between John and Mardi, the chief of the tribe. Through cyclones and medical emergencies, the Mercers devoted themselves to a group of people who had until recently been nomadic and under the dark power of witch doctors and evil spirits. The Aboriginal people were overjoyed to hear the message of the good Spirit and to be freed of their animistic past. John was even made an honorary elder of the tribe. We might well exclaim: “What God has wrought!”