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Indigenous leader’s plea for unity and support

Get behind the biennial convention of Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship

The Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship (AEF) is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary at its biennial convention in South Australia in January.

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Half a century ago, a group of Aboriginal Christians from the east and west coasts overcame cultural and geographical barriers to bring together Indigenous Christians from all denominations in a spirit of unity.

“We’re not a denomination – why don’t your groups come and join this one big group?” – Neville Naden

And yet, the AEF still struggles to gain wide support from the mainstream church and to bring Aboriginal Christians out of denominational silos.

AEF secretary Neville Naden says AEF needs $20,000 to meet the costs of staging the convention from January 4-10 at Port Augusta, 322 kilometres north of Adelaide.

He said the funds were needed to pay for venue hire as well as assisting chaplains and the two remaining founders of the AEF to get to the convention in the remote Eyre Peninsula town.

Naden, who is Indigenous Ministry Officer for the Bush Church Aid Society, also made a plea to Aboriginal Christians to make the trek to Port Augusta from as far afield as Western Australia and Queensland.

“Denominationalism divides people and Indigenous Christians belong to a church that is so fragmented,” said Naden. “We want to see unity and that’s the whole purpose for which AEF exists.”

He pointed out there was unity when the 12 founders formed AEF because mainstream denominations were not working then in the Aboriginal space. The only organisations that recognised Aboriginal ministry 50 years ago were the mission organisations Aboriginal Inland Mission and United Aborigines Mission.

“Now there’s a lot of denominations that are seeing a need to work within that space, but it’s their own little group – they don’t seem to want to work across denominational structures,” said Naden.

“So we’re saying ‘we’re not a denomination – why don’t your groups come and join this one big group and encourage one another in the things of the Lord?’”

Naden explained that AEF existed so groups such as the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (part of Uniting Church in Australia) need not be isolated from fellowship with other groups such as the Indigenous Ministry Committee of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

“Getting together with a bigger group of Aboriginal people will say to them that ‘hey, you guys are not alone in terms of moving forward. You’ve got the Uniting Church’s support, you’ve got the support of other Aboriginal Christians who are part of the AEF, and we’d love you to come along and be a part of it,’” he said.

“We want them to know that there are other Aboriginal Christians across the country that are part of God’s great big family, that they can be supported by and they can lend support to.

“It’s a two-way thing – it’s not just people coming along and being supported, but it’s them and their presence that encourage others who are in attendance.”

“We want people to go away encouraged, empowered, strengthened.” – Neville Naden

Naden said there was no registration fee for the convention “because we want to maximise the number of people who can get there,” recognising travel and accommodation costs can be high.”

He said the main aim of the convention was to equip people with a better understanding of the Bible, and provide fellowship that will encourage and energise them to “continue to do ministry within their own space, contribute to their own denominations”.

“We don’t want people to come and be a part of an organisation as such, or another denomination,” he stressed.

“We want people to go away encouraged, empowered, strengthened to be able to … go back and participate and become a part of the ministry within their own denominations.”

As secretary of an unapologetically conservative evangelical organisation, Naden defended AEF’s decision to ask a non-Aboriginal person – Phil Wheeler, director of Evangelism and New Churches for the Sydney Anglican Diocese – to be the main speaker at the convention. Wheeler will speak on the theme of God’s faithfulness.

“Our guys in ministry serve all year round and we just see that the convention is a good opportunity for them to sit and back and be fed themselves and not give out,” he explained.

“There will be some Aboriginal guys preaching of a night-time but it’s always good to get guys from reputable colleges who are able to come in and speak into the Indigenous space, just to help our guys think through their own understanding of theology.”

Asked if any members had expressed concerns about the choice of Wheeler as main speaker, he commented: “The Lord walked the earth for 33 years and he couldn’t please everyone, so we’re not getting away unscathed … we just want to maximise the opportunity for our guys to get some good teaching under their belt.”

“We’ve already got people putting their hands up and saying ‘I want to study and have a better understanding of the Bible.’” – Neville Naden

As well as donations to the AEF convention, funding is also needed for AEF’s chaplaincy programs. Along with its youth chaplaincy program, AEF also runs one that employs retired Aboriginal ministers whose pensions are subsidised so that can continue to fulfil a role.

“Then there’s a move to get a training program up and running in Melbourne in 2021, so we need to raise funds for that as well,” Naden said.

Stirling Theological College in Melbourne has offered AEF space – student accommodation and a lecture room – to run a Diploma in Biblical Theology to equip Aboriginal Christians for service in the life of a church.

“I’m very grateful for that and we’ve already got people putting their hands up and saying ‘I want to study and have a better understanding of the Bible,’” he said.

To support the AEF convention or its programs, please email CEO Tony Riches, or contact 0438 428 957.

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