Matt Busby Andrews describes the impact of the gospel on one man, and one man’s impact on a nation.
I feel for Doug Nicholls. He was, like a lot of other Indigenous guys you see around today, just naturally athletic; very talented and skilful; quick-witted, immensely likeable; good with the cameras, good with the press. He never wanted to be an Indigenous justice leader. But he said in one interview, “You know, it all goes back to William Cooper.” That heavy hand on his shoulder. It was William Cooper that started getting him back to church again; his mother, as well, started to take him to the Church of Christ.
After his conversion, he stayed on the footy field; very successful VFL player, he was in an all-Australian side. But he was radicalised really by the gospel given to him by William Cooper, and by the sheer deprivation of Indigenous people that he met as he would tour with the footy sides. It broke his heart, going across the Nullarbor and seeing naked, unhealthy, malnourished people in the Western Desert. And he never forgot them.
Doug Nicholls was a man who acted on instinct a lot. Quite famously, as he was brought to one of these remote communities in the centre by a mining company, he noticed that a waterhole had been fenced-off. And he just put down his foot – he wasn’t a big man, but he knew how to put down his foot – and said that there was going to be no feast until his people were able to access their water. It’s almost like a Jesus figure, you know, or an Old Testament prophet, who makes plain demands for simple justice.
Doug Nicholls was a nationally known football character. He was also extremely good at just getting on with everybody. So, there’s a story about, if you read, Pastor Doug, one day he and his wife Gladys, just driving home through Carlton, spots Bob Menzies as he’s heading off into his club. Says “I’ll be back in a minute, darling” and goes over and has some quick negotiation with Bob Menzies. Those guys were very capable at getting on with power; they weren’t intimidated at all. They were articulate.
For Doug Nicholls, first of all as an athlete but then as a preacher, he knew how to form an argument and how to command an audience. He was also an extremely capable media operator. It’s not really a surprise that when Don Dunstan, the Premier of South Australia, went looking for a new Governor, turned to Pastor Doug – and in so doing made him the very first and I believe only Vice-Regal Aboriginal person.
Pastor Doug, he was a man absolutely unashamed of his Jesus. He said of that moment, you know, “Jesus made me a great footballer, and now Jesus will take me to Buckingham Palace.” Quite disarming and almost unnerving in his plain faith.