"Because of her, we can"

Like many countries colonised by European nations, Australia has a sorry two century history of poor treatment of our indigenous peoples, resulting in a significant reduction in their numbers and the quality of their lives. But they have survived, their numbers are building again, and many indigenous leaders are become more forthright in their pleas for greater recognition.

NAIDOC week, which is finishing as I write this (I wrote this Sunday night but only posted it Wednesday morning), has been set up as a celebration of the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It has been, in my view, a resounding success.

NAIDOC week 2018

“NAIDOC” stands for “National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee”, originally the name of the organising committee, but it has become the name of the week itself, so it has become “National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Celebration”.

During the week, indigenous and non-indigenous people are invited to participate in celebrations, activities and exhibitions that highlight indigenous culture and history, and aim to make non-indigenous people more aware of what is often a forgotten history and neglected culture.

The theme this year was “Because of her, we can”, a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. It recognised that in many places it has been the women who have remained strong and preserved the culture, and given the example for many younger indigenous women to step out and be leaders.

A great success

We have participated in some aspect of NAIDOC week in the past, and again this year. But it seems that the week gained a great deal more exposure and recognition than previously, perhaps because the theme honouring women resonated with many people.

So there were news items, radio announcements, support from Commonwealth, State a Local governments and, it would seem, growing support from the general public. It seemed like there were mentions of NAIDOC Week everywhere.

For example, while visiting The Rocks area of Sydney for a Bastille Day carnival (of all things), we came across this exhibit (right) showcasing 10 outstanding aboriginal women.

Some indigenous women, despite some having their children taken from them by paternalistic governments and despite some being forcibly removed from their country and settled on missions and reserves, were courageous and persistent in caring for members of their communities, raising children in their culture, teaching them their stories, visiting those in prison (aboriginal people are over-represented in prison, often because of social inequality or active discrimination) and advocating for better treatment from governments.

Mum Shirl

Aboriginal people express their strong sense of kinship and respect for elders by calling respected elders Uncle or Aunty. But Shirley Smith became known as Mum Shirl after she began visiting her brother in prison, and saw the need to visit many other indigenous inmates who received few or no visitors.

When asked her relationship to the person she wanted to visit, she would simply say she was their mum, and eventually she was allowed access to all prisoners. She continued her support when prisoners were released, helping them and other indigenous people find shelter food and friendship. She helped single mums, alcoholics and the destitute, and in her life took in over 60 children, impoverishing herself in the process. She advocated for land rights and helped start the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern.

Mum Shirl, who died 20 years ago, was awarded the MBE and AM in recognition of her selfless life and service.

Common Grace

Common Grace is a “movement of Australian Christians seeking to live, speak and act more graciously, more compassionately, more like Jesus in today’s world.” It focuses on 4 strands:

  • Justice for people seeking asylum.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice.
  • Domestic and Family Violence.
  • Creation and Climate Justice

Common Grace has enthusiastically supported NAIDOC Week. Common Grace’s spokesperson on indigenous issues, Brooke Prentis, has led a daily tribute to individual indigenous christian women via video and a daily email mailout. We have appreciated these tributes, and attended a church service where Brooke spoke with her customary clarity and challenge to begin NAIDOC week last Sunday.

Aunty Jean Phillips

Aunty Jean Phillips is a senior Aboriginal Christian leader and an inspiration for many of the younger Aboriginal Christian women. She has been a christian missionary, pastor and advocate for 60 years.

Over 2,000 Aboriginal people from many different nations and clans were forcibly removed from their land and sent to Barambah reserve or mission in Queensland, later named Cherbourg. To support the operation of Barambah, Aboriginal men and women were sent out to work on local farms, while their legitimate wages were “controlled” by the Government.

Aunty Jean was born into this environment. The Aboriginal church at Cherbourg was large, with many women leaders, and these women helped instil a strong faith in her. While still young, she became a missionary to Aboriginal people via the Australian Inland Mission, and has since served in many churches and indigenous communities.

In recent years it seems her focus has been on developing the next generation of Aboriginal Christian leaders and teling hard truths to white Australians who have tended to want to forget the murky past and move on without acknowledging the evils our people have committed against Aboriginal peoples, inviting white Australians to support Aboriginal Christian leaders and join our indigenous brothers and sisters in building God’s church in Australia.

Because of Aunty Jean Phillips, so many Aboriginal Christian women know they can be leaders and make a difference. See her speaking with Brooke Prentis on this Common Grace video.

It’s all about following Jesus

Jesus was a beacon in his time, challenging the sense of spiritual privilege he saw in the Jewish religious leaders of his day, and caring for the outcasts and victims of the status quo. He had empathy for women and counted them among his close associates, he hung out with tax collectors and he touched (and healed) sick people considered “unclean”, all unheard of in a rabbi.

Christianity is supposed to entail following him in these ways, though we don’t always get it right, and sometimes (sadly) we don’t even try. It is also a religion built fundamentally on repentance, forgiveness and restoration.

Indigenous people in Australia and many other countries have had their land taken off them by force, have been treated as less than human in the past, and have often been pushed to the margins, both literally and figuratively.

At the very least, white people owe them an apology, some special empathy, and respect, and I believe christians should follow Jesus and lead the way. More is needed of course, including (I believe) a treaty which recognises and acknowledges the past and lays a foundation for a better future.

Aboriginal christians want non-indigenous christians to walk with them on a journey to reconciliation and restoration, and for their potential to offer a deep spirituality to the Australian church. They very graciously are willing to forgive the sins of the past, in which the christian church was often complicit, even if their intentions were often good according to the ethics of the time.

We Aussie christians have a way to go to meet them halfway, but I believe it will happen, and is beginning to happen. It will be a blessing for both groups.

Not just in Australia

I know little of the situation in USA, Canada, New Zealand and other colonised countries, but I can only hope that christians of good will are pursuing justice and reconciliation with their indigenous peoples. I think maybe some of those countries are way ahead of us here in Australia, but at least we are on the way.

Graphic: 2018 National NAIDOC Poster by Cheryl Moggs, a proud descendant of the Bigambul people of Goondiwindi, Bungunya and Toobeah regions in South West Queensland, and used by permission of NAIDOC. You can see the graphic full size just by clicking on it.

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  1. I’m sure that you are aware that many children of white and other ethnic cultures have children removed from their families if it is considered that they are in danger or not being looked after properly ?
    There are terrible cases of children being mistreated in Aboriginal communities including sexual assault such that removal of them from the community seems the only solution, and maybe this is not being done because of fears of stoking another “stolen children” conflagration.
    If the Aboriginals don’t accept responsibility for caring for their own children, then they shouldn’t be playing the racist card when others step in.

  2. I don’t think stolen generations is the main issue here, but since you raise it, I think if the only time children were removed was when there was genuine abuse, then that would be one thing (though it would still be best if they were cared for by responsible people within their own communities). But too often children were removed and adults and families forcibly relocated not for the good of the children or families, but for the benefit of whites, and/or because of patronising or inhumane attitudes (e.g. terra nullius) that allowed whites to treat aboriginals as sub-human.

  3. I’m sure you are right about what happened in the past, but that has been apologised for, for whatever that is worth.
    What matters now is what is happening now, and it appears to me that child abuse is still going on in Aboriginal communities and action by the government may not be taken because some decide to play the racist card over the past and try and embarrass the government into inaction, thus putting children’s welfare at risk.

  4. I still disagree with you, I’m sorry. I don’t think the objections to removing children are necessarily racist. I think people are justifiably concerned that the past might be repeated. But let’s agree that where children are at risk, something needs to be done. But this is still approaching the problem from the wrong end, I think.
    Aboriginal people have a very different culture to ours. I think after 60,000 years of separate development, they may have a different metabolism to ours. And they certainly have different levels of immunity. So it is unreasonable to expect them to change totally to our culture quickly and automatically if at all. It is unreasonable to expect them to adapt quickly to a culture built around food and alcohol excess, fatty and sugary foods,and a face-paced anxiety-filled way of life. And it is well-known that they were originally decimated by western diseases they had no immunity to.
    So we have effectively invaded their lands, pushed them off without even dignifying them with accepting they are fellow human beings, killed them if they resisted our superior weapons, treated them like dirt and left them on the fringes to suffer from pointlessness and loss of self respect. The men, who were supposed to be the warriors, suffered the most, and many descended into alcohol, drug, lethargy and abuse.
    So I say we owe them a lot, and so far we have paid them back either negatively with neglect or positively with money that was not spent wisely and was given in culturally inappropriate ways. So I would hope we might pay them back for all we have taken, in culturally sensitive ways that re-build their communities and self respect.
    But that isn’t really what this post is about. Rather, I think here I am talking about next steps forward, to recognising the positives their culture could bring to the church and to the nation.
    I’m interested in what leads to your way of seeing this.

  5. I’d like to hear what culturally sensitive actions we could take to redress the problem.
    I see the problem being that some aboriginals want the best of both worlds. They appear to want to live “traditionally”, and still access taxpayers money but blame the whites if they don’t spend it wisely.
    I don’t think that it’s good for their children to be continually told that the white man is bad and that separation from and distrust of western society is best for them. I agree with the question of metabolism, but research and education should overcome that difficulty.
    All children need education to make their way in the modern world, but as long as resistance to anything that the “invaders” offer is maintained, I don’t think that aboriginal kids will have a good future. Sure they want to protect their culture, which they can do, but isolation from 98% of the population is not good for them imo.

  6. Another reason that I think the way I do is that we seem to be spending ever more money on “closing the gap” schemes and they all seem to have failed. I think its cultural resistance to “white man’s ways”, but I’m prepared to be persuaded otherwise.

  7. My post is mainly about christians supporting aboriginal christians, so their gifts and potential contributions can be valued and they no longer feel like 2nd class citizens. For that to happen, I think white christians are just a little ignorant and uncaring, which can be remedied if we want to get off our butts.
    I agree that money has been spent badly in closing the gap and other attempts to help them. And I don’t know exactly what needs to be done. But I think at least a reduction in some of the bad social statistics could be achieved if we had laws and law enforcement that was sensitive to their different attitudes and culture.
    There is no doubt that this is a tricky problem, but we owe it to the aboriginal people to try everything we can to fix these issues since we were the ones who destroyed their old way of life.

  8. Of course Christians should support and encourage Christian aboriginals and hopefully they may go into outback communities to spread the word and achieve some sort of reconcilliation between modern and ancient societies.

  9. I think that is all true. But I think the christian aboriginal leaders that I met believe they have something to offer the white church that we need. And I think I agree with them.

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