Building "Allies" in the Australian Church

Tanya Riches reflects on the role of being an ally to Aboriginal brothers and sisters.

I was born on Dharug land. I didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I heard of Dharug people, who had fished and hunted and danced on the land under our suburban Sydney house.

I happened to have chickenpox the week my North Shore primary class studied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. The teacher set us a creative assignment. So my mother and I filled a shoebox with sand to create a diorama of Australia in pristine condition, with carefully made trees and little snakes. I could find no Aboriginal dolls to place within it, so we left it bare.

Although I was covered in spots, I made mum drop my assignment off at school. By the time I returned, the rest of the class had moved on, and somebody had squashed the shoebox in a game. That was all Australian history I received.

My understanding of what it meant to be globally indigenous was formed a year later when my cousins came as asylum seekers to Sydney. My uncle Moses Havini, a chief and lawyer, explained the Bougainville crisis to us as best he could. The stories he told included the genocide of his people, and environmental degradation. It was a rude shock to find many Australians were intentionally naïve on issues of land.

It was difficult to understand why groups such as Australia’s Communist Party were willing to talk with him about these matters openly while many church leaders were not. The topics of massacres and frontier wars, broken families and trauma have been ignored by many of Australia’s Christians.

Some Christians promote Jesus as God of the entire earth and see advocacy for marginalised peoples as central to their faith. But others don't. At times it was difficult to predict which group is which. It certainly isn’t about their denomination.

It’s hard to grasp the fullness of what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples really deal with on a day-to-day basis. Some scholars now call it “stress” or “trauma.”

Soon after my uncle died, we lost two family friends to illness. I then realized how hard it is to think clearly when you’re experiencing grief upon grief. That’s the only way to explain how I think it must feel.

In our nation, we speak about “Reconciliation” but there isn’t yet actually much of that. There is misunderstanding, and there is prejudice. There is fear, and there is anger. These things often mark our national holidays, and many of the government systems are built to keep us apart.

I don’t actually think we can speak for each other. We have to just listen.

Over the last seven years, I’ve intentionally tried to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the church. And I’d like to be a part of changing the injustices of ordinary life. But I’ll be honest, it gets pretty discouraging at times.

After a year, I actually tried to move away from Indigenous studies, and change the topic of my Ph.D. I remember making an appointment with a Professor named Glen Stasson. I walked into his office, and I admitted that I was confused, and I wasn’t sure I could do anything of value. He sat there and listened, and then he told me about “allies,” people who willingly walked with the hurting and marginalized.

An early lesson on how to ally was from Melinda Shobrook of the “Indigenous Rise” Facebook group. She taught me about “lateral violence.” This lesson proved invaluable. When any group experiences extreme pressure, it tends to build up, and release in various ways. Sometimes, I’ve found myself the recipient of language and action that is not really directed at me.

But on the other side, the ignorance in the non-Indigenous community is astounding. There’s a strange phenomenon that when I mention the people I’ve been working with, I often have to listen to the other person’s favourite racist joke, or stereotype. It’s annoying.

Allies often live in between cultures, stuck in the middle ground of no man’s land.

There are only a few resources written to encourage non-Indigenous people in the church to create space for friendships and to amplify the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

As controversial as it is to say, unless we have more “allies” in the church, we will never see real change. We will never move towards real Reconciliation.

One conversation with Brooke Prentis, Waka Waka woman, and Common Grace’s spokesperson, really stood out to me. She said that non-Indigenous peoples have to help educate other non-Indigenous peoples. It’s too exhausting to place that responsibility on her and other Aboriginal leaders. It’s not her responsibility. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

But it also makes sense to amplify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians and encourage their voice in the church, because of the many resilient leaders who can help us better understand each other from a common faith.

Over the years I have tried to open as many doors as I could for my new friends. I haven’t had a lot of success. I’ve had some. We’ve published some media pieces, and written peer-reviewed scholarly articles to highlight the accomplishments of Aboriginal Christian leaders.

My friends helped me host four Aboriginal leaders in Los Angeles, speaking in ministries across California and Arizona, including Fuller Theological Seminary’s African-American department. On that tour, I felt so privileged to learn some of the histories I missed in school.

We’ve hosted a number of Aboriginal leaders at Hillsong College, and built relationships, hosting conversations on various topics.

And it was amazing to be able to share the stage with Larissa Minniecon at Christian Media & Arts Australia’s CONNECT17 Conference last week on The Gold Coast.

cmaa-photos.jpgLarissa Minniecon and Tanya Riches at the Christian Media & Arts Australia’s Conference last week.

So from that experience, here are some basic things elders and leaders have taught me that I think non-Indigenous Australian leaders and conferences need to take seriously. I’d love for you to add to this list.

1) We need to give honour where honour is due (Rom 13:7).

Aboriginal peoples have a welcoming culture. Although some non-Indigenous peoples claim that “Welcome to Country” is tokenism, that’s not what most Aboriginal Christian leaders I’ve spoken to say. They are asking Australian Christian churches and conferences to include a Welcome or Acknowledgement to Country to recognise the elders, and the land each meeting is held on.

Some churches have created beautiful signs that can be seen as you enter the building, or include an acknowledgement within the audiovisual presentation before the worship service. It’s about communicating respect, or honour. 

2) We need to acknowledge the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The word "Aboriginal" is not an Aboriginal word. It represents well over 300 nations and languages - that are distinct from both "Torres Strait Islander" peoples from the islands above Cape York, and "South Sea Islander" peoples who served as indentured labourers in many of Australia's farms.

So it is better to be more specific, even if you think your audience may not understand. Ask for and use nation names "Bundjalung" or "Nyoongar" because these are connected to specific lands.

2) We need to find the right person, not just the most available person.

Engaging the right voices takes extra time. We have cultural differences in who we think should speak. Culturally, an older Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander has more authority to speak. Some older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have passed the baton on to younger Aboriginal leaders but these younger leader still will choose to ask for permission (or need permission) from an Elder or leader first to participate.

Each leader has their own spiritual giftings – we need to recognise these just as we do in the non-Indigenous church. I’ve learned to ask the question “who is the right person for that?” … and encourage other non-Indigenous peoples to do the same.

3) Many cultural connections are being found or revitalised.

Knowledge moves so quickly now, replacing lingering old and incorrect images. Often, there is someone who knows the correct nation name or information. It’s just about finding them. We have to continue to learn and adapt, as these knowledges are shared. 

4) “Us” and “We”, versus “I” and “Me.”

Non-Indigenous Australian culture is hyper-individualistic. We are free to speak our opinion on any issue, at any time. We often speak in singular or factual terms, and we can ask questions that anticipate similar answers.

This contrasts the interdependence of many Aboriginal families. I’ve learned that the best answers to questions on current events or culture may include a disclaimer, "this is just me, not the view of everyone." 

5) Actions are public; opinions are personal

It is much easier to relay actions than it is to speak about the opinions of others.

Nobody asks me what my culture or community think about current events or particular legislations! So why do we ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to explain their culture definitively in public events?

6) Please don't promote your white friends who recently started a ministry as “saving” Aboriginal people.

In the literature this is known as “white saviour complex.”

Again, it’s very cultural. In my family, if any problem is amplified, a solution has to be found. In other words, if you’re going to complain, then you also have to make a suggestion. But this doesn’t work with complex issues where you don’t have access to all the information – the solutions promoted by outsiders might not be the best solution, or the one that local people want.

We have to start challenging each other lovingly on this - don’t promote your church’s ministries over work that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders and pastors are doing in a local area.

The Twitter feed @IndigenousX has taught me to look at the leadership pages of a ministry or a business before you donate. Does it promote Indigenous leaders?

I’m not saying that non-Indigenous peoples shouldn’t work with Indigenous peoples, or be paid for their work. What I am saying is that we should be asking, “who is this gift/publicity really empowering?” And I think any ally needs to be smart about who they stand behind. 

7) Don't ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to demonstrate forgiveness if you’re not willing to change.

I’ve learned that sadness and anger are expressed culturally. It’s not always easy to understand where the other person is coming from.

Relationship is a gift that cannot be demanded. Non-Indigenous peoples need to stop policing the "bitterness” or “anger” of Aboriginal peoples, if we are going to turn a blind eye to the injustices and racism they experience.

Instead, we need to do what is right, and believe that God will open a way for friendship at the right time.

Reconciliation is never a one-sided task. Who is the best ally that you know in the Australian church?


Go Deeper:  Brooke Prentis on "Loving God, neighbour and enemy"

Brooke Prentis gave a challenging keynote address at Surrender Conference Adelaide 2016 on "Loving God, neighbour and enemy".

"Many of you would have heard me that when I take off my shoes and I walk this sacred and ancient land - I hear that the land is hurting, I hear that it is weeping, I hear it is screaming for that better tomorrow.  The sound is deafening.  My fear is that when non-Aboriginal peoples walk the land they hear nothing.  That great Australian silence.  What I don’t hear is the deafening sound of us, God’s people, followers of Jesus, screaming for that better tomorrow.  And that is what we should be hearing.  But it means living out Reconciliation.  It means non-Aboriginal peoples sitting with us, standing with us, walking alongside us."


This post is part of a series of posts we're publishing each day throughout Reconciliation Week. If you'd like to follow along you can signup with your email or follow us on Facebook.

This reflection was produced by Tanya Riches who has completed a Phd working in Pentecostal Studies and Missiology exploring the worship and work of Indigenous Christian leaders in some of Australia's major cities. Photos are from the Christian Media & Arts Australia’s Conference.

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