How Brooke Prentis learned to be 'fully Aboriginal and fully Christian'
An emerging leader shares her passion, hope and frustrations
This article was first published in April 2018. We have republished it for NAIDOC Week 2018, which has the theme, “Because of her, we can.”
It took Brooke Prentis, a descendant of the Waka Waka peoples in Queensland, a long time to reconcile her faith in Jesus with her Aboriginal identity.
“I had once accepted myself as a Christian first, and then Aboriginal. But once I found access to, and learned from, Aboriginal Christian leaders to reverse that identity, I became free in Christ.”
“Then I became a Christian, and no one cared if I was Aboriginal or not.” – Brooke Prentis
Brooke says she felt an intense calling towards social justice but struggled with the question of “Who am I?” for a long time. As she fought to match up her Aboriginality with her Christianity, she also had to fight to uncover how her Christian faith and social justice passion could co-exist.
Brooke, a spokesperson for Christian activist group Common Grace on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, seems bewildered when I ask her where her passion for justice comes from. She can’t get past the suggestion that a quest for justice isn’t something natural, inbuilt. Because that’s the way it is for her.
“I mean, I guess the pursuit of justice was instilled in me from when I was a small child. Definitely before I was a Christian. But it has certainly been strengthened since I became one,” she tells me.
“I could always see that not everyone had the same start in life.”
“Then I became a Christian, and no one cared if I was Aboriginal or not.”
While studying to become a qualified company director (which she completed this year) and working as a chartered accountant, Brooke has also become an Aboriginal Christian leader. As well as her role with Common Grace, she also coordinates the annual Grasstree Gathering, a growing network of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders, who gather “in God’s timing, when the spirit calls”.
Her rise as a sought-after spokesperson for Aboriginal justice issues within the church – and outside of it – has culminated in Brooke’s delivery of the Morling College Annual Tinsley Lecture last week. In her address, she spoke about the meaning of “community” and how Aboriginal wisdom can enlarge and change the Australian church’s understanding of community and mission.
“Saying I’m an Aboriginal Christian … frees me to read the Bible without a Western lens.” – Brooke Prentis
Growing up in Redcliffe, north of Brisbane, Brooke says she’s always gravitated towards leadership, even in school where she learned a lot about her Aboriginal heritage as a descendant of the Waka Waka peoples.
“I was the one who wrote the reports of our cultural excursions for the annual year book,” she laughs.
In 2001, aged 21, Broooke was invited to church by her first friend in university, a fourth-generation Salvation Army soldier. She hadn’t known that Christians were involved in social justice.
“I came to the Salvation Army and heard the story of William Booth [the founder of the Salvation Army and a 19th-century English social reformer] and thought, ‘Oh! He speaks my language! Christians can be into justice.”
Coming to faith was simple, but connecting her faith and Aboriginality proved more difficult.
“Once I left high school, it was hard to find ,and connect with, other Aboriginal people at university. I felt like I was in limbo land. And then I became a Christian, and no one cared if I was Aboriginal or not. It just didn’t come up. There were no other Aboriginal people in my church.”
“I can display my Aboriginality in my Christianity.” – Brooke Prentis
It wasn’t until 2012 that Brooke had what she calls “a revelation”. It was a big year: she became leader of an Aboriginal church in Ipswich – the Salvation Army’s only Aboriginal church in Australia – and she also attended her first Grasstree Gathering, founded by Aunty Jean Phillips, an Aboriginal Christian Leader, with over 65 years serving in Christian ministry.
“Grasstree was where my whole world opened up,” she says. It was there Brooke met other Aboriginal Christians from other churches and denominations. She learned what other denominations were doing in the social justice areas she cared about. And she learned it was possible to be “fully Aboriginal and fully Christian.”
“By reversing the idea that I’m a Christian and an Aboriginal, to saying I’m an Aboriginal Christian, it frees me to read the Bible without a Western lens, and to embrace the Aboriginal way, which can strengthen my faith.”
In her original church, Brooke says, she became caught up in the “Western” way of structuring activities: “Church is on Sunday; there is a youth group; there is a children’s ministry; there is a Bible study … but there wasn’t much time to express Aboriginal culture through those “church” norms.”
“But I can display my Aboriginality in my Christianity.
“I can’t separate those two things now – they’re one and the same.”
“God told me it was time to go and be with my people full time.” – Brooke Prentis
In the ten years between becoming a Christian and her first Grasstree Gathering, Brooke became disillusioned with the church. She felt intensely the call to social justice, and was confused that only a handful, and not all, of her church friends’ would roll up their sleeves.
“William Booth’s plea was to fight for these issues,” she says, “but I felt like there was no one, or only a handful of people, there fighting with me. I got the sense that even the Salvation Army was actually a middle-class, white church. And that’s not where William Booth wanted us to be, and not where Jesus wants any church of any denomination to be.”
For Brooke the connection between church and social justice as missions were “one and the same”. She spent 12 months praying, “God, what social justice area do you want me to be involved in?
When the opportunity to lead the Salvation Army’s only Aboriginal Church came up, Brooke took it as an answer to prayer.
“God told me it was time to go and be with my people full time,” she says. When that church was closed down just one year later – in 2013 – the hurt and sense of loss were so severe they have never left her.
Brooke’s passion is to reach out her hand in friendship to help all denominations
But now, as a spokesperson for Common Grace for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice, Brooke can see her social justice calling as an Aboriginal Christian being lived out. “Each of the issues that Common Grace is looking at – domestic violence, asylum-seekers and refugees, climate change – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice flows through all of those things.” Brooke’s passion is to reach out her hand in friendship to help all denominations, including the Salvation Army, and individual Christians to come on the journey with Aboriginal peoples in community, mission, and church.
Brooke has seen many Aboriginal Christian leaders go unrecognised by the wider Australian church. She is determined to be a part of raising up a new generation of leaders, but also to be a loud voice pointing to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who have made a big impact. She’s talking about people like Aunty Jean Phillips, one of her heroes (she was pivotal in Brooke’s’ own Christian development) and the founder of the Grasstree Gathering, and Uncle Graham Paulson and Uncle Ray Minniecon, who Brooke describes as leading Aboriginal theologians.
“This year’s Grasstree Gathering was really strong in terms of seeking out a new generation of leaders,” says Brooke, who is gradually taking over the reins of the recurring event.
Brooke says the pursuit of justice is all about empowering others, an understanding she traces back to her mother. “She would always serve others and support others. That’s the example, I guess, that I’m trying to carry on.”