Voice in the Wilderness stirs whitefella Christians to shut up and listen
The author of an eight-part study designed to help the church listen to the Uluru Statement from the Heart is very encouraged by signs that a First Nations voice to parliament may be introduced by the Albanese government.
Celia Kemp, previously the Reconciliation Coordinator for ABM (Anglican Board of Mission), wrote A Voice in the Wilderness to “open up conversations about a Christian response to our history and present situation” and create spaces for the Australian church to listen to First Nations people.
Published in 2018 as an illustrated book with art by Indigenous artist Glenn Loughrey, A Voice in the Wilderness is already in its third print run and is being used in formal small group studies not only in Anglican churches but also by Catholic and Uniting churches, and even Quakers.
“I have found grappling with the Statement from the Heart to be challenging but deeply worthwhile.” – Celia Kemp
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It is a powerful and moving document, partly because it is so easily digestible. It is not a treatise but a blend of stories, Scripture, discussion points, quotes, links to videos and reminders from the Statement from the Heart, linked by beautiful and poignant artwork.
Speaking personally, I was shocked that I hadn’t engaged with this material before. Of course, I knew the historical background of gross injustice done to Aboriginal people, sometimes in the name of Christianity, but facing up to the power structures that we still endorse just through the way we live was confronting enough to change my heart and create a desire to listen more carefully.
“This is not an easy Study because the material is confronting,” writes Celia, who is a writer and theologian living in Central Australia.
“The Statement from the Heart throws up difficult questions, and this Study does not attempt to give definitive answers or a conclusive church response. My hope instead is that it will open up conversations about a Christian response to our history and present situation. I have found grappling with the Statement from the Heart to be challenging but deeply worthwhile. I believe it helps us hear God’s voice in Australia at this time and may show the way to becoming a truly Australian church.”
Most of us are far removed from the challenges of Indigenous life and knowledge of Indigenous Christianity and theology, even if we don’t want to be. And so, one of Celia’s stated aims in creating the study was to amplify the voices of the Indigenous church.
Asked what the overarching message of the study is, she responds: “The woe of our past is not over and done with. It is woven through the way we currently see and understand the world. And so, we need to stand in the difficult real – both of what has been and of what is – before we can find a truthful way forward. This is a deeply theological call.”
She says she felt convicted “in the God-way” that the Uluru Statement was “fire in the desert for our own time.”
She says she came to an understanding of the issues by having had “the opportunity to meet a huge variety of people, to work and live in many different places and to study and read widely. I spend a lot of time praying and reading Scripture and a lot of time thinking. I drew from all of this.”
“I spend a lot of time praying and reading Scripture and a lot of time thinking. I drew from all of this.” – Celia Kemp
Some key experiences were working in criminal and coronial law across the Northern Territory and Western Australia, “which showed me how many systems were working, or failing to work, on the ground. I met a series of First Nations people who deeply influenced me during that time.
“I became ill and fell out of my professional career and found myself on the other side of systems I had once worked in. It was painful and stigmatising, but it was also a through-the-looking-glass experience that changed how I saw the world.”
She worked for five years for ABM with First Nations priests and theologians and was invited to sit in some of their meetings and conferences and listen to the conversations. As she listened, she felt that “what I was hearing was the living edge of the church, and I wanted to point people more broadly to what I was being shown.”
One of the statements in the study that hit hardest to me was the assertion that we don’t need to solve the Aboriginal problem but rather the whitefella problem.
This is why Celia believes the most significant change that needs to happen in “whitefella” hearts is to stop being the “helper” and, by implication, the more active, knowledgeable, and important agent.
“I think an unconscious assumption of the position of superiority is the shadow side of some of our understanding of Christian mission,” she says.
In the Study she writes, “The Statement from the Heart doesn’t ask for help. Instead, it calls for empowerment through a representative body that gives First Nations Peoples a Voice into Parliament. The proposed body would have no legislative power. All it would do is give First Nations people a say in the decisions that affect them.”
“I think an unconscious assumption of the position of superiority is the shadow side of some of our understanding of Christian mission.” – Celia Kemp
Celia urges churches to continue to publicly throw their weight behind the Uluru Statement as a way of moving into the future together.
“I think we also need to continue to look at how it applies to ourselves, that is to say what the Uluru Statement means for what it is to be church in Australia,” she says.
“The Uluru Statement calls for a ‘voice’ to parliament. We need properly funded structures to support a ‘voice’ to the churches.
“Colleges like Wontulp-Bi-Buya [in Queensland] do extraordinary work in raising Indigenous Christian leaders but with painfully threadbare and insecure funding. I believe if Wontulp were given decent funding, it would transform Christianity in Australia from the ground up.
“Generally, we need to hand over power and money to Indigenous-led spaces so First Nations Christians have the time and independence they need to develop their own theologies and speak them into the church. If we can do this, it will be for the life of the Australian church.”
Stephen Daughtry, who is ABM’s Education Missioner, believes one of the things Celia has prompted Australian Christians to do “with great energy” is just to shut up and listen.
“It sounds a bit rough when you say it like that, but we are so used to being people who understand and people who can fix things, the concept that we should just listen – and not just for half an hour, but over time because Indigenous cultures, particularly certain tribal groups within Australia, won’t speak until they know that you are listening – is such a gift.”
“We are so used to being people who understand and people who can fix things.” – Stephen Daughtry
He believes the book is best read as a group study because many people come to this subject with a level of suspicion or misunderstanding or a sense that they don’t know anything about it.
“And we are a bit ashamed that we don’t know something about it. In a group, you’re able to recognise that other people also may be at the same place, and then, as you read it, you’re gently taken through the process in a way that allows you to expand your knowledge within that group and also to voice what it is that it brings up for you.”
As the study has been endorsed by the National Aboriginal Bishop Chris McLeod and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council, it is only right to give an Indigenous voice the last word.
In the introduction to Voice in the Wilderness, Chris McLeod says: “‘The Statement from the Heart’ is an important voice for the aspirations and hopes of the First Nations peoples of our land. It deserves to be heard by many, and for those who have stopped their ears, it could become a chance for ‘hearts of stone to be turned into hearts of flesh.’ (Ezekiel 36: 26).”