A reflection on "Voice and the Church"

Becca De Souza reflects on the recent ‘Voice and the Church’ conference held by Scarred Tree Ministries on the lands of Gadigal Clan of the Eora Nation (St John’s Anglican Church, Glebe, Sydney).

Common Grace recently partnered with Scarred Tree Ministries, as part of their event ‘Voice and the Church’, hosted on the lands of Gadigal Clan of the Eora Nation (St John’s Anglican Church, Glebe, Sydney) on 15 October 2022. Wuthithi and Mabuiag Island woman, Safina Stewart and Gomeroi woman, Bianca Manning from Common Grace joined Gubbi Gubbi, Gureng Gureng, Ambryn and Torres Strait Islander woman, Larissa Minnecon from Scarred Tree Indigenous Ministries, to bring a live panel discussion after each keynote speaker. 

Keynote speakers included:

  • Uluru Statement from the Heart signatory, Gabriel Bani, a direct descendent of Athe Bari, Head Man of Wagadagam, a sovereign nation in the Torres Strait;
  • Professor Gracelyn Smallwood OAM, former member of the Indigenous Voice National Co-Design Group that developed the National Voice proposal under the Liberal government;
  • Pastor Geoffrey Stokes, member of the First Nations Regional Dialogue Perth (one of several dialogues held around Australia that culminated in the Uluru Convention)
  • Maori Anglican priest Rev Dr Rangi Nicholson.

The event was designed for Christians to listen deeply to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as they shared their reflections on the Uluru Statement from the Heart and what a Voice to Parliament would mean for them. Over 150 people gathered for the event and were encouraged to listen with open minds, eyes, hearts and ears, and to sit in the discomfort and challenges of what was shared. 

Left to right images: Bianca Manning, Safina Stewart and Larissa Minnecon; Leah Saltner, Prof Gracelyn Smallwood, Gabriel Bani, Rev Dr Rangi Nicholson and Geoffrey Stokes; Aunty Jean Phillips.

Becca De Souza, friend of Common Grace and member of Central Church in Port Kembla, shares her reflections from the day:

Uncle Ray Minniecon (descendant of the Kabi Kabi and Gurang Gurang nations) and Aunty Sharon Minniecon (Ugar woman), along with Scarred Tree Indigenous Ministries, beautifully hosted the Voice and the Church Conference on Gadigal Country on 15 October, 2022. 

Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Maori Christian leaders shared stories and perspectives, prophetic lament, calls to action and tenacious hope. What a gift it was to sit and listen. 

The format itself was Indigenous in the way that power was held; an elder would share their message for twenty minutes and then three emerging leaders would respond and let us know where the spirit of the words had landed in their own bones, what questions were growing, what pain was acknowledged. Safina, Larissa, and Bianca exemplified deep listening and how wisdom can move us to respond; this alone was worth the cost of attending. 

Whether it was Pastor Geoffrey Stokes or Aunty Jean Phillips or Uncle Gabriel Bani, the call for human rights for First Nations peoples to be a first priority was clear. Policies that benefit mining companies and other large corporations but leave Indigenous people living in poverty next door must be changed. 

Uncle Gabriel spoke from Genesis 4 where God says to Cain that “the voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground”. He offered us the Yolŋu concept of makarrata, a process of conflict resolution, peacemaking and justice, making way for a fair and truthful relationship between those of us living on stolen land and those who are the rightful owners.

But first the need for truth-telling was made clear - we must have a common memory in order to truly find common ground. Are our churches listening to the cries coming from this land and her peoples? Are we actively walking the path towards makarrata?

Professor Gracelyn Smallwood OAM shared midway through the afternoon and gave those of us who are non-Aboriginal people specific ways that we can support this movement of Voice, Treaty and Truth. Are we telling our friends and neighbours and churches about the true history of these lands, or are we continuing to perpetuate the lies of white supremacy? Are we truly listening to the diverse voices and opinions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and do we trust that they do in fact know what is best for their communities?

We need to ‘support the yarn’ and allow time for the dialogues to be happening within communities. 

The policies, wounds and trauma of colonisation are deep and complex and so will be the path towards healing. Non-Indigenous Christians can listen deeply, evaluate our use of power, pass the microphone, commit to truth-telling around our own tables and pray for justice and right-ness to flow like a healing river in these lands now called Australia.

Left to right images: Voice and the Church pamphlet; Attendees looking at Aunty Jean Phillips' ministry table; Common Grace team including Safina Stewart, Bianca Manning, Jane Kelly, Monique Hughes, Ellaina Welsman; People gathering at lunch.

Many of the Common Grace team also attended the gathering and it was a deep joy to be in partnership with Scarred Tree Indigenous Ministries. As Common Grace looks towards 2023, we will be equipping Christians to Listen to the Heart, Calling for Justice and Voice. We honour the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices that have been speaking up since 1788 and we believe that a Voice to Parliament is a significant step towards First Nations Justice. 

Common Grace will continue to pursue a country where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children as young as 10 years old are not imprisoned, but cared for and supported to live full and flourishing lives; where our nation listens deeply to First Nations peoples and the truth of our history, and does whatever it takes to bring about reconciliation and friendship; where we exult and celebrate that we live alongside the oldest continuous cultures in the world and we find ourselves blessed and transformed as we do so.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice