Listening through Repentance

Pastor Helen Wright shares her church's journey of seeking to build deeper friendships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leaders and living out the reality of Always Was Always Will Be.

Do you remember what was going through your mind when COVID-19 restrictions first hit?

As a church leader I remember a weird sense of grief hit when overnight we had to shut everything down. We were in the business of connecting people together and all of a sudden that was the most dangerous thing you could do. I also felt a strange sense of displacement. A surprising ownership and a ‘right’ to be in our buildings that was suddenly taken from us. I guess our spaces are where we seek to build spiritual family, and we’d made ourselves at home there. 

In the weeks ahead as we sought to connect people together in new and different ways, I started to reflect on those initial feelings of displacement and some of the darker side of those thoughts and feelings within myself. The realisation that I, and the church in general, are too quick to claim ‘our spaces’ when the longer story tells us they’re not in fact ‘our spaces’ at all. The reality is our buildings are built on land that was stolen and never ceded, often with the consequence of displaced Aboriginal peoples, a wound in our history that has never healed. I had heard Brooke speak in recent years about Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s concept of ‘The White Possessive’ and here I saw it rear its ugly head within myself, in my connection to buildings where I lead spiritual communities. 

At Newtown Mission we are on a journey of seeking to build deeper friendship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leaders and Aboriginal peoples and we’re asking ourselves the question, what does it look like to live into a new story? 

In the early weeks of COVID-19 restrictions I felt a strong conviction that, here, was a moment in time to consider re-entering spaces with a different posture. 

Over the past month my to do list has been full of COVID safe information, agendas, policies, proposals, procedures, strategies and a deep anxiety about getting it right. Throughout the months of restrictions, I’m thankful for a number of supported spaces where I was encouraged as a leader to think about some of the bigger questions of these times. What are we learning about ourselves? What are we learning about what matters in this world? What will we take with us and what will we leave behind? Some important thinking came out of those questions, not just individually and for the community, but for the world. But to be honest, when the momentum for return strategies hit, it was easy to get caught up in the urgency of it all. In the midst of that was a different grief. Like we might all just return to life as it was, not allowing God to bring redemption out of the darkness, not allowing the earth to breathe, not allowing our relationship to place to be reconsidered, not remembering we’re designed to love our neighbours and more.

And so recently, in that space between strategies being formed and activities recommencing, at Annandale Creative Arts Centre (part of Newtown Mission) we took a moment to breathe and take a step to live into a different story (with plenty of distance, hand sanitising and contact recording to be clear!). Fairly spontaneously a dozen of us gathered with Aboriginal Christian Leader Brooke Prentis on our site. We took time to acknowledge country and to pray as step one in re-entry. Our time together was profound. For me a little beyond words, yet extremely significant. 

It was a moment for Brooke to lead us in acknowledging country and for us to respond. It was a moment to voice repentance and to start afresh. For me I repented of many years of ministry and leadership not acknowledging country and being part of a system that continues to benefit from the profits of stolen land. Others expressed their heartfelt thanks at Brooke’s offer of a hand of friendship and committed afresh to journey together learning about and embodying acknowledging country in our lives and community life. And so it was with this posture that we re-entered the space again for the first time and in quietness and stillness, we prayed to our Creator together. 

Our night ended with projecting onto the facade of the building an Acknowledgement of Country and the words “Always Was, Always Will Be”. We let the community know and reminded ourselves, that the space was slowly coming to life again and this was the story that mattered. 

This time was one step in the journey. And there’s much more to be done to live into a new story. We’re not yet open to the public, so we’re thinking about other steps to take. Perhaps a Welcome to Country with local Elders and an opportunity for more people to respond. Perhaps we’ll finally get organised to put an acknowledgement plaque on the buildings. Perhaps we’ll collaborate on an artwork for the spaces to mark the moment. And we’ll continue the journey in other ways in building friendship, learning, listening and letting all of that disrupt and influence our budget lines and building plans. 

No matter what the specifics of all of that looks like, I’ll never forget that Sunday afternoon in June 2020 when Aboriginal Christian Leader Brooke Prentis once again extended towards us a hand of friendship, and once again, we said yes and thank you.


Going Deeper

You are invited further into this story of acknowledgement and prayer on this video on the Annandale Creative Arts Centre Facebook Page.

Brooke Prentis and Rev Dr Geoff Broughton presented at the Global Network of Public Theology conference in Cape Town, South Africa in October 2016 on Reconciliation without Repentance: The Politics and Theology of Postponement of Aboriginal Peoples’ Justice in Australia. This paper has was published on 24 December 2019 in the book “Enacting a Public Theology” edited by Clive Pearson, available for purchase here It also includes their chapter Recognition without Dignity: The Politics and Theology of Postponement of Aboriginal Peoples’ Justice in Australia.

These two chapters were presented as three Podcasts of Bible Studies at the Surrender 2016 Conference (reflecting on the above articles):

Embodying Justice: Jesus and Aboriginal Injustices

Embodying Reconciliation: Jesus and the Great Australian Silence

Embodying Recognition: Jesus, Guests and Hosts

You can find these on our website



Helen Wright is a singer / songwriter.  Take some time to listen to this song she wrote, sang and prayed through these times this last month, Blank Page… “I can hear the sound of possibility, will a new story be seen?”

Have you reentered your church building in community following easing of COVID-19 restrictions? 

Do you know the Aboriginal peoples land on which your church sits? Do you know the history of the lands and buildings?

Did you or could you reenter with a deeper consideration of the lands on which your church sits? 

What does it look like to live into a new story where as Australian Christians and as followers of Jesus and as churches we proclaim “Always Was, Always Will Be”?


Helen Wright is a singer/songwriter and the Creativity and Justice Pastor at Newtown Mission. Follow Helen's music @heartcriesworship 

NAIDOC Week 2020