Aboriginal people do "community" differently

What the rest of Australia can learn from the first peoples

Aboriginal woman, Brooke Prentis, gave the Annual Tinsley Lecture at Morling College in Sydney. This is an edited version of the lecture which was titled “Reclaiming Community: Mission, Church, and Aboriginal Wisdom.” 

It took a Cree man from the Swan River Band in Alberta, Canada, to shine a light and help me identify the reason for a 228-year-old problem in our nation.

You see, I thought, “community” meant “community”.  When Christians talked about community I thought they meant community, like the Aboriginal community. I thought I had allies with non-Indigenous Australians Christians because we spoke the language of community, a common language. However, I was confused as to why I kept extending the hand of Aboriginal friendship and it was not gladly taken by the Australian church. I asked why the Australian church was not engaging with the Aboriginal community.

I was confused as to why I kept extending the hand of Aboriginal friendship and it was not gladly taken by the Australian church.

The Cree man was Indigenous theologian Ray Aldred, and what he illuminated for me was that when as Aboriginal peoples we talk about community, and when as Christians – predominantly the non-Indigenous Australian Christians – talk about community, we are actually not talking the same language.

Whilst these are the same words, they have very different meanings. It took me 17 years as a Christian to realise the way I used community and the way the Australian Church uses community were two very different things.

Common phrases I hear in Australian churches or see as part of logos or church visions are: “Church in community”, “outreach to the community”, “serving the community”.

Why didn’t I wake up sooner?  I should have realised the community the Australia church speaks of isn’t the community I speak of. There are key phrases missing. Where is kin, brother, sister, sharing, resilience?

Where are the images that say, as we do as Aboriginal peoples: “Come in, sit down, take a load off, have a cup of tea and a yarn, Do you want a bikkie too?”

Aboriginal community

Many of you may have gone immediately to an image of a remote Aboriginal community, perhaps Kiwirrkurra, about 700 kilometres south of Kununurra. Our remote Aboriginal communities have unique cultures and challenges and deserve much of our love.

However, I was born, raised, and live in an urban Aboriginal community context, identifying with the second largest Aboriginal community in Australia, that of Brisbane or Meanjin, with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of 54,000 peoples in the Greater Brisbane area.

For me, Aboriginal community is a place to find comfort, to celebrate, and to commiserate – whether that be in mourning or in injustice. For me there is a big difference with how non-Aboriginal community is initiated and mobilised.

The contrast is stark.  The difference in how we view community and mobilise as community has an impact on mission and church.

Let us first look at Aboriginal community and celebration. Our major celebration is NAIDOC week from the first to the second Sunday in July, every year. In every capital city and many regional locations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples gather to celebrate our cultures. In Brisbane we have nearly 100,000 people attend the NAIDOC celebrations in Musgrave Park. We invite non-Aboriginal friends to join with us. Still we have no public holiday to share this significant time and celebration as a nation. And still many in the Australian community do not know about NAIDOC week. Many Christian schools celebrate NAIDOC week but our churches larger remain unengaged.

Secondly we look at commiseration. Our major time of coming together as Aboriginal community is January 26th. This is a time where we mourn together as a Day of Mourning, where we console each other through a Day of Invasion, and where we commemorate together as a Day of Survival. Although the media often portrays a small gathering of angry Aboriginal people, the truth of the community that gathers is so far from that portrayal.

One of the largest gatherings is in Melbourne, Naarm, where over 60,000 people gather on this date. This is very interesting as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of greater Melbourne is only 24,000 which shows that our community is attracting many non-Aboriginal peoples as well.

Another key time we come together as the Aboriginal community is for funerals. You will notice that I used the plural funerals, not funeral. The reality of the lack of closing the gap hits us hard, both in the life expectancy gap and the numerous health issues as well as our high rates of suicide.

In Brisbane, on average, there are three Aboriginal funerals held each week. Most of our funerals have upwards of one thousand people in attendance. We are in a constant state of grief from loss of family members.

We come together to comfort one another. It is based on cultural practices and community that is over 60,000 years old. It is based on a collectiveness – there aren’t individual invitations to NAIDOC, January 26th or funerals – you often attend as a group.

I’ve thought about how non-Aboriginal community is shaped and formed, remembering that non-Aboriginal community is also part of who I am.

For me, non-Aboriginal community comes together mainly in times of celebration – birthdays, anniversaries, weddings. This is often individually – there is an individual invite and you decide individually about attending.

The contrast is stark. The difference in how we view community and mobilise as community has an impact on mission and church.

The impact of theology on mission and church

There is much for Western theology to learn from Indigenous theology. There is much for Westerners to learn how, as Indigenous peoples, we see the world and simply do life. For me, it is the understanding of community from which all else flows.

Aldred points out the Western paradigm of Western theology of truth-telling, which ultimately results in uniformity being most prized rather than unity in the midst of diversity. Aldred continues to point out the ultimate devastation in the result that community is lost and an extreme individualised religion fills the land.

Isolation is confused for diversity and coexistence is equated with community.

For me, Australia as a community, and the Australian church as a community, are examples of coexistence that is equated with community.

Community for us, as Aboriginal peoples, is unity in diversity. This is where Australia, and the Australian church, needs to move towards. For me, this is what I call “Reclaiming community: mission, church and Aboriginal wisdom.”

The personal challenge of one Aboriginal Christian leader

I once ran a thriving and growing Aboriginal church west of Brisbane. It was defunded, closed down, and the property eventually sold. This was not what the community wanted. I kept being told the denomination did not have any funds, but yet I saw other (non-Aboriginal) ministries and programs being funded.

In a meeting with the Head of Church of this denomination, shortly after they closed their only Aboriginal church in the country, I said, “I realise the problem. You don’t think you have anything to learn from us as Aboriginal ministry workers. When you finally change your mindset, and realise the wisdom to be gained from Aboriginal peoples, especially how we do ministry with such little resources, it is then that your denomination will grow, but until that time, your resources and church attendance will continue to diminish. We can help you. But you have to want that help.”

This highlights issues for community, and mission, so let’s look more deeply at mission.

Mission – Argh!

When Australian Christians talk about mission to Aboriginal peoples, one of two extremes come to mind – horror or hope. The history of Christian mission in Australia cannot be separated from colonisation and the reality that the missions established for Aboriginal peoples were either places of horror or hope.

I remember when I first started going to church in 1998, before I became a Christian at the age of 21 in 2001, the church was constantly using the word ‘mission’. Mission meant only one thing to me, and it was something to be feared. The only mission I knew was Cherbourg mission which only serves a purpose to send shivers down your spine.

Cherbourg mission was nothing short of one of the most horrific social experiments in modern Australia. Where Aboriginal peoples from many nations and many thousands of kilometres in distance were rounded up from across Queensland and placed in an area of originally 1,280 acres and then, later, 7,000 acres.  Peoples forcibly removed from their homes, for no reason, thrown together, who did not know each other, who could not speak each others language. Some were grandmothers who walked in chains from Woodford to Cherbourg, a distance of approximately 200 kilometres without any water. Cherbourg was a place where you could be beaten for speaking an Aboriginal language, where children were separated from mothers and fathers – forced to not look at each other, let alone hug one another, in the dining halls for fear of being beaten. Ten year olds were sent out as domestic servants or stock hands and never paid a wage. Permission to leave the mission could only be granted by a white man and permission was often not granted.

But Cherbourg was not an isolated mission.

We can look at Hermmansburg mission, a Lutheran mission in the Northern Territory, where Aboriginal peoples developed scurvy and where 85 per cent of the Aboriginal children died in the 1920s.

We can also look to Old Mapoon in Western Cape York. A flourishing mission brutally disrupted in 1963 when the government ordered Queensland police to storm the mission. They burned all the buildings to the ground, including the church, while the people watched. They forcibly removed the Aboriginal peoples, splitting them up and placing them in several different communities all across Queensland.

The church actively participated in this, or maintained its silence right into the 1970s and even 1980s. We must reckon with ourselves. Today, our remote Aboriginal communities live in constant fear of being removed from their homelands. Where is the Australian church in raising your voices with ours to stop this destruction of which we still have not learnt from?

The reality of mission to Aboriginal peoples today

But what of mission to Aboriginal peoples today? Well, we often say we are the most over-evangelised group of people in Australia today.

As Aboriginal peoples, we find our identity within community. This is why I believe the Australian church should change the sense of mission to one that reclaims community. The Australian church will have to embrace Aboriginal Christian leadership for this to occur.

As Aunty Denise Champion, in her book Yarta Wandatha, displays her Aboriginal wisdom and says, “We’ve lived our lives through many decades – two centuries now – of colonial rule where it’s always been the case where the white way was the right and good way and our way, the Aboriginal way, was not. There was no intelligence. There was even the thought that we were beyond salvation because we didn’t even have the capacity to think. But once you hear the stories you realise very quickly that our society was a very ordered society and it was very respectful of the Creator and all created things and beings. We have been in this country for thousands of years. The missionary movement has been here for two hundred years.”

Aboriginal peoples have much to teach the Australian church about community, mission, and God in this land now called Australia. The question is: will the Australian church make room for this teaching?

Church – Grrrr

When an Aboriginal person is in crisis, often the first point of call is the church. But our reality of our encounters with the Australian church highlight racism, a lack of sharing of resources, a segregation and separation.

There are countless examples of where the Aboriginal community has asked a church for us to hold funerals in their church building. The next stories are not generalisations but are real life examples of a number of churches. We can be told, “no, because the last time an Aboriginal funeral was held in that church the Aboriginal people used all the tea and sugar.” Or “no, we can’t have Aboriginal people drinking onsite and all Aboriginal people drink.” Or “yes, but we will need to charge you.” In our times of grief, we can face so much hurt from the Australian church.

I appeal to non-Aboriginal churches, display our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags

I want a researcher to help me document every Aboriginal church in Australia and photograph the state of the facilities. Aboriginal church buildings are often ones that are leftover and in disrepair.

I have three examples of Aboriginal churches of various denominations being closed down even though they have been growing church communities. The church in Old Mapoon that was burnt down in 1963 has still not been rebuilt. There are Elders, whose dream it has been to see the church rebuilt in their lifetime, who have passed before seeing the dream become reality.

I appeal to non-Aboriginal churches, display our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags – these are a sign of welcome. Commission an Aboriginal Christian artist to paint a painting or cross to hang in your church as a sign that you are committed to recognising us. Display Aboriginal Psalm 23 by Uncle Rev Ron Williams. Invite us, or simply accept our invitation to speak in your churches. And above all, call out racism as a sin; hold your congregation accountable.

Strong Communities – Aboriginal communities leading Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian artworks are a great way to display the Aboriginal wisdom I refer to. My dear friend Safina Stewart, a Wuthathi and Maubiag Island women, gave me permission to share a painting, “Stronger Communities”, as part of this lecture.

Community is us and we, not you and I.

Whilst this is a painting of encouragement for Aboriginal community, for me, it is also a painting of encouragement for the Christian church in Australia.

The Aboriginal wisdom that must be applied to community, mission, and church is not one founded in the individual – community is us and we, not you and I.

As the Christian church in Australia, we need to become community if we are to grow and if we are to be more like Jesus. The church is crying out for community, Australia is crying out for community.  Let our churches be the campfires that provide life, sustenance, and heart.

Community has the ability to love all our neighbours which is the example Jesus set for us. Aboriginal community is a great example of this as it extends right across this land now called Australia, especially the Aboriginal Christian community.

Let us move away from the individual, embracing the ancient Aboriginal wisdom of the Creator, the Holy Spirit and Jesus in this land, who have been here collectively and as one since time immemorial.

Australia needs community, I believe if the Australian church embraces and empowers Aboriginal Christian leaders as teachers and leaders, we will see community thrive, our churches grow, and revival in this land we call Australia.  The time is now.

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