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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artist Safina Stewart, together with Brooke Prentis, contemplates the spiritual art of welcome this advent.

Today, for this advent devotional, we reflect on Luke 2:1-7, when Mary and Joseph returned to their homelands.

For over 60,000 years, this land that we now call Australia, has been home to over 300 nations of Aboriginal peoples. Over 300 nations of culturally and linguistically diverse peoples - co-existing together - relatively peacefully - a time before we ever needed the word “Reconciliation”.

Part of the reason we could co-exist together was because of our dreaming stories and lore. Dreaming that told us who the Creator is, how to care for creation and how to live in right relationship with each other. These are also three Biblical principles. Part of living in right relationship with each other, and therefore being able to co-exist together was part of our traditional welcoming ceremonies.

A welcome to country which is performed by a local Aboriginal Elder and an acknowledgement of country which can be performed by anyone are modern day interpretations of these traditional welcoming ceremonies. Our traditional ways of welcome through ceremony expressed the concept of welcoming you and therefore providing you safe passage on our country and a generosity of sharing in all the resources of the lands and waters. There was only one condition. The one condition was that we only ask that you that you look after the land and only take what you need. Yes, for over 60,000 years we employed sustainable living practices so that we could share this land with others, millennia later, over 2,000 generations later, in 2016.

To welcome is to be generous. Generosity usually doesn’t involve conditions but our traditional ways of welcome, with the condition to only take what you need, was actually a condition of generosity. The condition meant that we could continue to welcome others and therefore continue to be generous.

This year Australia has heatedly debated the theme of “welcome” when talking about our Asylum Seeker and Refugee brothers and sisters and children. Australia, which has much to give, has plenty to be able to be generous, but has at times been selfish, greedy, and cruel. As Aboriginal peoples this is not new to us. When a bunch of white fellas arrived on a ship nearly 250 years ago the same words rang in our ancestors ears - selfish, greedy, cruel.

The Asylum Seeker and Refugee debate is one that Aboriginal peoples have largely been left out of. But all the Aboriginal peoples we know say “welcome”, “let them stay” as we proudly declare this is our land and it is our right to say “welcome”. But sadly, our Aboriginal community voice is not listened to by the Australian government and often it feels like it is not even heard. So we get on with our role as the Almighty Creator’s custodians of this land and we say welcome to our asylum seeker and refugee brothers and sisters.

On a personal scale as individuals, as humans, we say welcome. And more than welcome we embrace each other as brother and sister and cousin. This year Safina met such a sister and brother.

“I met Gomathy, a Tamil Hindu, at a Biggest Morning Tea in June with her newborn baby, Shamakh. I sat with her over a cuppa and we shared our stories with each other. By the end of her story, I was crying, as she shared how she had come to live in the same town as me. But her journey involved sickness, fleeing her homelands of Malaysia, being a refugee in Australia, surviving 12 months in a detention centre, being helped by Catholic nuns, starting with nothing, being without work and government support. She made such an impression on me and her story broke my heart. I met her husband Raj at the end of the morning tea as he came to pick up Gomathy and Shamakh.”

A friendship had begun. A friendship that started through honouring one another by sharing story.

But it came to be more than just friendship as they adopted each other as family.

“Gomathy, Raj and Shamakh wanted to live down the street from us so that they had cousins down the street. They call my parents, Mother and Father. We call each other Sister and Brother.”

Safina has been so moved by their story, and now that they are family, she wanted to use her gifts to say welcome, to help them feel welcome in a land our ancestors have been in for over 60,000 years. So Safina painted this message entitled, “Welcome”.

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'Welcome' by Artist Safina Stewart, Country: Mabiaug Island and Wuthathi country, 2016, Medium: acrylic on stretched canvas, 60x60cm. Please note: This artwork is not to be used without the artist's permission. Go to artbysafina.com.au for more information.

You see, Safina’s heart is breaking as her new family members are not yet fully welcome in our land. We are praying that will not always be the case. They are desperately trying to raise funds for legal fees so that they can stay in this land where they have family, home, love and welcome from a First Nations family. So Safina is donating the original of this painting via an auction to assist towards legal fees. If you are interested in bidding for this painting please contact Common Grace at info@commongrace.org.au.

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Safina and Gomathy together as new sisters beneath an art mural entitled "The Welcome Tree" painted this month by Safina and fellow Indigenous artists from their town.

To welcome others is to be generous. As Aboriginal peoples we have stayed in our homelands and continue to fight to protect God’s creation instead of choosing profit and greed. As Aboriginal peoples we fight many injustices of our own but we also stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who have had to flee their homelands and are asking you and I for justice, compassion, love. Who are asking us for welcome.

Mary and Joseph had to seek compassion and love when they had nowhere to stay. An Innkeeper provided what he could. He provided a manger. We welcome Jesus. As we reflect on the birth of Jesus this advent, may we remember to welcome is to be generous.

Safina Stewart is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman, educator and artist. Brooke Prentis is Waka Waka Woman and Aboriginal Spokesperson for Common Grace. Image credit (header): Harli Marten

Daily Reading Luke 2:1-7

The Birth of Jesus

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

An Advent series on "Being Present"