Real saints and soldiers
The very good work of the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship of Australia
“We had a review and they told us we’re not financially viable and nobody even blinked,” says Pastor Tony Riches, CEO of Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship of Australia.
“What else is new?” he laughs. “We’ve never been financially viable and we’ve been going for 50 years. We’ll keep going too! God will find a way.”
Yet, despite significant funding challenges, AEF’s work is remarkably hopeful, future-focused and effective – and exactly the kind of “seriously good news” we look for at Eternity.
One example is the Solid Chaplaincy youth program run under AEF’s Family and Youth Services.
Since 2012, Riches and his wife Francine have run youth chaplaincy training that equips Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to provide pastoral care and chaplaincy support to youth.
“There were 28 people involved and we were expecting between six and ten. So it was very, very needed.” – Pastor Tony Riches
They organised training for group in Melbourne, where Riches also works as a pastor at Melbourne Indigenous Church and chaplain to the local AFL team, Fitzroy Stars.
“There were 28 people involved and we were expecting between six and ten,” he says. “So it was very, very needed. We train a lot of people who may not become pastors in the future but who are those kind of second tier of leaders, so they can visit hospitals and prisons and people in youth detention or remand and know how to do it safely and do it well.”
In recent years they’ve focussed on training Christian people to deal with youth suicide, mostly in the Kimberley region of Western Australia (WA) where youth suicide rates are some of the highest in the world.
“We go up to the Kimberley once a year. Francine’s from the area, so we have really good connections up there. We’re able to go from one end to the other, and we adapt the training for the community’s particular needs,” Riches says.
They also oversee the organisation’s Community Chaplains program – which was launched 50 years ago when AEF first began, was revived in the 1980s and has been going ever since.
Currently, there are seven retired Aboriginal pastor couples who are AEF chaplains. And, while AEF chaplains receive some support through AEF, Riches says, “money toward fuel and that kind of thing” but “none of them are actually on the payroll or anything like that”.
These couples carry the weighty work in Indigenous communities, caring pastorally for communities, conducting funerals and speaking at community events.
“They’re all highly regarded in their own communities,” Riches explains. “Significant Christian leaders. Real saints and soldiers.”
While AEF chaplains do similar tasks to many chaplains and pastors, the Aboriginal communities they care for means they shoulder a much greater volume of emotionally distressing work.
“Suicide plays a big part … And it’s also often in tragic circumstances.” – Pastor Tony Riches
“One of the AEF pastors now in the COVID period has taken two funerals a week in his community. He has the emotional and spiritual care for the people needing the funerals. He wouldn’t have the worst of it, though. Suicide plays a big part. There’s others. And it’s also often in tragic circumstances,” Riches says.
And then there’s the reality of racism. One of AEF’s chaplains, who is also on their council, got run over by a car.
“He was walking on the footpath and a car came off the road to run over him – at 8am! He went up the road, turned around, came back and drove off the road, up the curb, on the footpath. Ran him over and left him unconscious.”
It was a verified racist attack. “I think he was angry about Australia Day,” says Riches. “You can’t name any other Federal Council in the country that have had somebody experience that. But he’s still going. He’s actually one of our chaplains.”
The “fallout” of drug use is another problem that AEF chaplains deal with.
“It’s such a fractured community that it just takes a toll on your ability to do the work. You do need a breather, now and then. For example, one of our dear Aboriginal pastor friends had five youth suicides in a month.
“And he had medical problems after that. And he’s on top of it and still going on in the work. But, I mean, who does that in our country? It’s like being in a war zone.”
“It’s always on the Aboriginal church to explain themselves – to justify themselves. And then to make moves toward reconciliation.” – Pastor Tony Riches
Reconciliation Week, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and Aboriginal deaths in custody
Riches describes the wonderful work that AEF does as “a good news story inside the framework of bad news”. And both national and international bad news effects the communities served by AEF.
So how has the past few weeks been, with Reconciliation Week, the death of Black American George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman, and the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests in the US and in Australia, with a specific a focus on Aboriginal deaths in custody all condensed into a small period of time?
“It’s been terrible,” Riches says, plainly.
Reconciliation Week is always tough, he says, because “it’s always on the church – the Aboriginal church – to explain themselves – to justify themselves. And then to make moves toward reconciliation.”
“But it’s starting to get better,” he says.
The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder has been more difficult. Riches has been disappointed by the way peak Christian organisations have attempted to shift the current conversation from Australia’s reality of racial injustice to serve their own agendas.
“Then people took their knee at the footy. And the broader community came out in total condemnation of any support of Black Lives Matter,” he says sadly.
“So it’s actually been a really tough few weeks. We’ve been in the thick of it a little bit because, you know, national stuff comes through to us. Usually I just let it slide, but this time I couldn’t because senior Christian leaders were adding to the problem and not the solution and that’s affecting the Aboriginal Christian community.”
“It’s throughout [the Bible], cover to cover, that God made only one race. And we’re supposed to be treating each other well.” – Pastor Tony Riches
The case of an Aboriginal teenager who was slammed into the ground during a brutal arrest by a NSW police officer in Sydney was also “crushing”, says Riches.
“All this was in the media and the next day, this happens. His family is a part of the Aboriginal church in Sydney. Now that’s going to have to get processed through the church,” he says.
“How does the church respond and say our time will come and God will bring us justice? How do you respond to those things?” he asks.
“What page of the Bible can you turn to say, look, this is how we’re going to approach it? Because it’s throughout it, cover to cover, that God made only one race. And we’re supposed to be treating each other well.”
Riches is concerned that good work happening in Aboriginal communities will become neglected as a result of current conversations.
“What happens in these times that people clamp up, they assume it’s all not good. But there’s still good things going on and have been going on for a long time, and they’ll keep going on with or without help.”
AEF’s work shines in its context
The importance of AEF’s work is especially evident in the light of WA state government’s evident struggle to respond to the region’s crisis.
In March this year – more than a year after receiving a report and recommendations following the suicide deaths of 13 Aboriginal youth in the Kimberley – the WA government announced it would spend $266.7 million in funding to address Aboriginal youth suicide.
But, as the WA Today’s Heather McNeill reported, the government’s announcement was swiftly criticised by those who understand the region and the problem.
“It sounds a lot of money but it’s not,” National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project director Megan Krakouer explained. “It’s $266 million for communities but there’s 282 Aboriginal communities in WA, and a package drip-fed over years will go nowhere fast.”
Riches has seen firsthand how the results achieved by government-funded initiatives and services are limited.
“They work set hours. They’re paid for maybe a day or a week to cover an area with hundreds of people. And, of course, that’s just not really going to make a lot of difference, you know?” he says.
“We’re glad they’re there and that they do some training, but we actually need to have community people that are really solid in the area – who know what to say and when to say it, and have some authority in the community and speak up for the protection of young people.”
The Riches have also developed an AEF program called “Speaking Four Ways” that gives Aboriginal people the tools to address problems in their community from their own perspective and to engage in broader community issues.”
“Because there are people that are working in this field – part time or in the medical centres or something – and they’re burning out. They’re not Christians, but we want to be able to reach out and help them too.
“So that is dear to our heart. We’d love to see that program one day employ people full time, do national training, and just be free to adapt programs and models to fit the people that need it.”
“We’ve got plenty of good programs. Plenty of good people. And definitely we’d benefit from support because we can do so much more.” – Pastor Tony Riches
AEF is a non-denominational program – or “transdenominational” as Riches tells me one of the old men on the council likes to call it.
“That means that people who are in different denominations are welcome to be in ours. We welcome people from all kinds of work, where they have this similar faith and have the love and care for Aboriginal community and church,” he says.
“And the strength of the work is that it’s not necessarily tied to a bigger, non-Indigenous understanding of where the church should be and how it should fit,” he explains.
That also means there’s no single denomination that owns the responsibility of AEF’s funding, which explains its “financially unviable” assessment that opens this article.
“The thing is that if people pray for us, that’s already support. If people know about us, that’s at least giving them the chance to pray for us,” he says.
But an influx of financial support would be good, too, wouldn’t it?
“Yeah,” Riches says. “We’ve got good programs. Plenty of good programs. Plenty of good people. And definitely we’d benefit from support because we can do so much more. We don’t want to scale back. We want to expand.”