Crossing the stream: building connections with First Nations communities
How Indigenous and non-Indigenous can work together to strengthen the church
Pastor William Dumas is the minister of Ganggalah, an Australian Christian Churches (ACC) church in Tweed Heads, NSW. He works with First Nations faith leaders and ministries across Australia to help bridge the gap between churches and First Nations people. Here is what the Australian church can learn from him …
William Dumas was radically saved in Long Bay Prison at age 19. The transformation in his life was dramatic, as purpose entered his heart for the first time. Soon after he met Jesus, he received the word, “go”. Over 39 years he has preached the gospel and pursued ways to develop Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders throughout the nation.
For Dumas, connection is made possible when we connect with God’s purpose, seeing from a Kingdom perspective. Cross-connection is the term he uses to describe this ministry of connecting and strengthening ministers and churches throughout Australia. “The gospel has no barriers. The gospel has no system connected to denomination. It has this way of connecting to all humanity,” he says.
If there are no First Nations people in leadership positions, then their voices are not being heard and there is a gap that needs to be filled.
Crossing denominational and cultural lines is a vital skill in today’s culture, Dumas asserts. It requires putting aside what divides us and looking for what we have in common. “I’d take the example of Jesus,” he advises. “He was embedded in a Jewish tradition and context, but it didn’t stop him from crossing to fulfil his mission – taking the kingdom into those areas that needed to be touched. He crossed over Jewish law to connect to community, to people,” says Dumas.
Dumas works with First Nations leaders across Australia to bridge the gap between churches and First Nations people. He emphasises the need for non-Indigenous churches to connect with First Nations people and to make space for their voices. If there are no First Nations people in leadership positions, then their voices are not being heard and there is a gap that needs to be filled, he points out. “I think it’s crucial to have a voice that’s expressing our First Nations people. We’ve got a lot of diverse cultures expressing in the church, but we don’t still don’t have the First Nations expression,” he says.
For churches that do not have First Nations people in their congregations, Dumas encourages leaders to research the area’s demographics and seek out Indigenous organisations in the community. That’s the first contact. “Take a bit of interest in them. Knock on the door and introduce yourself. Find out if there is any way that you can support, or what are the stories for that area?” he advises.
“That would straightaway develop you as a person capable of crossing to a place where that may feel pretty foreign.”
“Non-Indigenous people should feel a sense of responsibility to help the humanity of our First Nations people. To have an ear to listen. That’s not about politics; that’s called justice.” – William Dumas
Indigenous people need more non-Indigenous people to partner with them in their passion to learn, Dumas stresses. “We have a history, but we also have a present. The church of Jesus Christ has a critical part to play because we’ve always been part of Reformation,” says Dumas. “Non-Indigenous people should feel a sense of responsibility to help the humanity of our First Nations people. To have an ear to listen. That’s not about politics; that’s called justice.”
Noting that the church has a heritage of and a mandate for speaking up for disadvantaged people, Dumas continues, “First Nations people, the people of this land, are still at a disadvantage. It’s only 50 years since we’ve become citizens of our own country.”
According to Dumas, Indigenous people don’t want to dominate or dispossess others; they want equality, a voice in the conversation. “When we don’t listen, we don’t become sensitive towards each other,” he says.
When Pastor Dumas speaks of the First Nations people of the land, he’s referring to the first of the diverse ethnic groups that Australia has welcomed. But instead of being honoured for this special place in our history, First Nations people continue to be disadvantaged in a way that undermines their identity. Only by hearing First Nations people’s stories can non-Indigenous people come to understand them.
“If more leaders of non-Indigenous churches could look … at ways we can help each other, we can begin to strengthen each other.”
“We have this broken communication. If more leaders of non-Indigenous churches could look to their First Nations people within the church and those in another stream. If we look at ways we can help each other, we can begin to strengthen each other,” says Dumas.
Dumas shares that the greatest strength of Aboriginal people and leaders is their connection to community and to eldership. Aboriginal youth grow up in community with eldership. “In our context with our youth, they always refer to the elders. That’s where respect is, where you get favour for the community.” Dumas teaches that “Jesus had favour because he respected the heritage of his Jewish culture. He respected his father and his mother, even though he was the Son of God.”
Non-Indigenous church leaders can learn from First Nations leaders, he adds. For example, First Nations church planting is not about buildings and programs; it’s about establishing people in faith and releasing them to do the same in others. “Western church planting says you go out in the community, get a hall, set up a place, and then advertise. We don’t do that. We do it without all the infrastructure stuff,” says Dumas. Western culture may not understand this kind of leadership, he adds, but Indigenous leaders know how to work within the context of their communities.
The wisdom and knowledge of First Nations people have persisted for thousands of years, despite adversity. Dumas credits this partly to the culture of honouring the elders and “walking backwards into the future,” which they have stewarded. He says that by listening and building bridges to cross over, we strengthen First Nations people and the broader church and community. The church has the gift of the gospel in this endeavour. It transcends every barrier and brings everyone together to co-create a new path forward.