Non-Aboriginal Australians are the ones who have to change if we are ever to close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, says Tanya Riches, a Sydney-based pastor and researcher.
On National Close the Gap Day, Riches says Australians have to be willing to sit under the leadership of Aboriginal people and make more effort to learn about and celebrate their culture.
She was speaking to Eternity a month after the release of the ninth annual Closing the Gap report, which found no progress in six of the seven targets in the strategy, with setbacks in the areas of employment and child mortality and improvement only in the number of Indigenous students finishing year 12.
“We’ve been focusing on Aboriginal people, but in actual fact most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders would say they’re working hard in their community, but the rest of us aren’t working as hard to change our understanding and listen to the elders and what they’re saying about their communities,” says Riches, who wrote a PhD dissertation on Aboriginal senior pastors across the country.
“…to a large extent the gap is our [non-Indigenous Australians] gap of knowledge.” – Tanya Riches
She believes recognising the diversity of Aboriginal cultures across the land is a first step in how non-Indigenous Australians can change their thinking.
“There seems to be an understanding in our society that the gap is caused by life choices but a lot of research shows that it has a lot to do with stress and racism that is encountered by Aboriginal people in their everyday lives and the gap is a measurable way to look at how Aboriginal people are excluded from society,” she says.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about Aboriginality. It’s highly diverse. There are over 400 nations so in every local area there’s a different way to be Aboriginal – it’s not a homogenous group of people. That’s one of the areas we can start to change our thinking. I think allowing Aboriginal people and their culture to be diverse is a first step.”
She believes churches have perpetuated the idea that Aboriginal cultures are negative rather than part of the great diversity that God had made.
“There are certain elements of culture that are negative but it’s very true of our western culture as well,” she points out.
“There’s this idea that they’re somewhere behind and they have to catch up, whereas in actual fact they have a completely different culture so it’s not about ‘we’re more developed and they’re less developed,’ it’s about saying [that] there have to be other ways of being Australian and live, particularly in our cities, and still retain what it is to be Aboriginal and to not have to necessarily look like anyone else in the city, but to for us to be able to embrace and celebrate what it means to Australian and Aboriginal.”
She believes Aboriginal languages should be taught in schools as an important way to understand culture.
“We have asked Aboriginal people to do much of their lives in English and we haven’t really learnt these languages,” she says.
“There’s an amazing project going on in Mt Druitt (in Western Sydney) where an indigenous choir in a church called Initiative Church is revitalising the Darug language in worship songs. So there are ways we can do that and celebrate that from a shared basis of faith.”
“I think sitting under Aboriginal leaders is an incredibly powerful movement among Christians.” – Tanya Riches
Riches’ boldest suggestion is that Christians have to be willing to sit under the leadership of Aboriginal senior pastors.
“Many of the Christians attending g churches with an Aboriginal senior pastor felt that their pastor had an advantage rather than disadvantage because they were bicultural – they had the capacity to understand both cultures.
“Often walking beside actually means to lead. So I think sitting under Aboriginal leaders is an incredibly powerful movement among Christians.”
She said there were a lot of Aboriginal-led churches round Australia that have multi-ethnic congregations. “And those are probably some of the unsung heroes of the denomination – they’re doing incredible work, particularly out in urban areas.”
She cited Australian Christian Churches Pastor William Dumas of Ganggalah Church on the Gold Coast, which has both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members, and has a strong voice in the ACC movement.
“The only thing that hasn’t been tried to date is letting Aboriginal people take the lead.” – Tanya Riches
“But there’s a long way to come to really see churches acknowledging that Aboriginal conversion rates have been so high and Aboriginal Christianity is so vibrant.”
She urges churches to take active steps in cultural training.
“The onus has been on Aboriginal people to educate us but that’s actually exhausting. We’re talking about three per cent of the population educating 97 per cent of the population – it’s not possible, so we need to read.
“There’s online courses; there’s lot of great books. One is Why Warriors Lie Down and Die by Richard Trudgen; that is an important book for those wanting to learn more about the history of Australia and what possible steps forward we can take.
“I think the majority of Australians aren’t engaging on this and I think that’s sad and that to a large extent the gap is our gap of knowledge.
“The only thing that hasn’t been tried to date is letting Aboriginal people take the lead and redressing the power balance and allowing them to show us how we can sit under their leadership because they have extraordinary leaders who have developed amazing abilities – incredible pastors who have understanding of the Spirit, the word and are very passionate about the land and about people and who love regardless of colour and race and I think they can really show us what it is to live out effectively to change some of these outcomes for our nation.”
Tanya Riches recently completed her PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary, looking at Aboriginal-led urban Pentecostal churches. She is a researcher for The Centre for Disability Studies and lectures at Hillsong College.