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Reflections on visiting the Northern Territory with the Archbishop

Posted: 15/08/13

Ridley student, Duku Atuku reflects on his visit to the Northern Territory

The trip was to me an educational tour. I learnt many things I could reflect on – being my first trip to the Northern Territory, and my first to a rural Aboriginal community at Katherine. Some of my observations raised questions and touched my nerves, so a long process of learning begun. Travelling from Melbourne to Darwin was like going from one country to another and I would like to reflect this feeling, based on my past experience and give my thoughts on the national reconciliation. I was reminded, during the trip of my first days in Hobart, when I arrived in Australia about 13 years ago.  Then I felt so cold, even in September. I also felt cultural shock, which paralysed me for some time and took me some effort and use of stored reserves to recover, before I could start making sense of my new home.

This tour caused me to experience similar feelings although it was very hot this time, even hotter than anywhere I have ever been. I found the heat physically and mentally exhausting. Thank God, our accommodations were well equipped with fans and air conditioners. I made sure they worked around the clock. This time, my cultural shock was rather a disparity shock, as I struggled to reconcile between my urban, first world and materially rich experience of Australia with the poor living conditions I saw. This stark contrast was overwhelming for me. No amount of preparation would have made me ready to withstand its shock, even though the Archbishop and Mrs Freier or ‘Mama’ as I prefer to call her, had done their best to prepare me and the rest of the team for such an eventuality. Indeed, I felt like I had visited a bottom third world country. As a responsible citizen, I appreciated the visit as I thought it necessary to understand and grapple with this reality only experienced in these rural settings.

The main goal of our trip was to take the team, which included; the Archbishop and Mama Joy, Jill Batterbury and five of us who were of South Sudanese desent, to attend the annual Katherine Christian Convention, which brought together many Aboriginal Christians, their leaders and missionaries. The evening before the convention, I walked from our apartment to the shops and I witnessed a relatively good number of homeless Aboriginal people or rather “street families” – including women and young children trying to make themselves comfortable for a night sleep in the streets. This level of desperation was new and shocking to me, though it is common around Darwin and other parts of the Northern Territory.

At the convention, I was very encouraged to find an Indigenous community free of alcohol and teeming with life. The joy of healthy children playing and dancing was a moving testimony of the transforming effect of the gospel on a people. It was like starlight in the midst of deep darkness, a spring of water in the desert and hope in the midst of deep and unspoken despair. Here we were able to rub shoulders with Aboriginal people in their hundreds. We sang and danced together praising Almighty God after hearing the life changing Word – the theme of the convention, based on Luke 15:1-32. It did not matter which language the song was, the Holy Spirit was obviously present among us. I quickly remarked, ‘could this be the best solution to Aboriginal long-term emancipation’?

the first evening of Katherine Christian Convention, an annual event, on 4th May 2013

picture: the first evening of Katherine Christian Convention, an annual event taken on Sat the 4th May 2013

 

One of my favourite places visited was an organization called the Australian Society for Indigenous Languages or AUSIL that works to translate the bible and other Christian literature into Aboriginal languages. In addition to bringing the Word of God to the Indigenous peoples, it works at the same time to preserve languages that are at the brink of extinction. AuSIL’s work is commendable and the load is enormous. It is now possible to buy the first complete bible in an Australian Aboriginal Kriol. We were very encouraged; however, there are many challenges associated with this work.

We also had opportunity to visit Nungalinya Bible College in Darwin, which trains Aboriginals for ministry. It draws students from Arnhem land, West Australia, Sydney and various Islands and places. When we visited on the 7th May 2013, we learnt the total enrolment was 350 students. We joined about 30 students on campus in the college chapel for a service. There were only two male students among those present and I wondered what this meant. The courses offered are up to certificate III level, and are modelled along TAFE lines; offering more than theological training. For example, English is taught as a second language to address the low literacy levels of students, as well as other skills. Students are flown in from their remote locations by the help of the government. Those we met on campus were in for 2 weeks studying theology units and would be flown back home and return after some time for four weeks to study English in rotation and routine. All denominations send their trainees to the college, making it an important component of Aboriginal Christian ministry. According to the principal resourcing, the college is a constant challenge.

I was interested when we visited Kormilda – a very large Christian college in Darwin; that has a vision to draw Indigenous children from remote communities into year 7 -12 levels. It does this by providing hostel facilities and vocational skill training programs such as motor-mechanics, nutrition, carpentry and child-care training in addition to a normal curriculum. Although it has plans to annually, have 350 Aboriginal children, this year Kormilda only has space for only 250 students, as the funding was reduced. In addition, for example, we found the mechanic workshop lying empty, also due to reduced funding. According to the principal, only about 6% of the students enrolled will make it to completion. This confirmed my concerns, and is consistent with the degree of difficulty the children and their families go through.

In all places visited, I saw that the levels of literacy and numeracy among Indigenous people were unacceptably low to be found in a country as wealthy as Australia. This has compounded Aboriginal continued disadvantage and exclusion from accessing the good many of us take for granted. Even with a well-developed world-class medical system, the Aboriginals still suffer and die much earlier from preventable diseases without any end in sight to this horrifying misery.

I was moved by both the degree of disadvantage and the struggles of those trying hard to help in those places we visited. They are better placed to comment on the specific details of these issues. Nevertheless, I feel this should not stop me from expressing my heartfelt concerns, even if I have not travelled widely and read extensively about the plight of Aboriginal people. Learning about and relating to Indigenous Australians has not been a prime concern among newly arrived citizens, individually or communally, something that needs to be encouraged as in this trip. I have been greatly motivated to seek and learn to know more, in order to contribute meaningfully and make a difference to the national healing process.

I realize that there have been many and various efforts in the past to bring about this healing and an end to the tragedy that continues to unfold before us. We have recently marked the national reconciliation week, in which I reflected seriously on the question, why has Aboriginal disadvantage persisted for long, despite all these efforts? Why has it stubbornly defied the intellect of our brilliant politicians and academics, as well as our collective good will and compassionate generosity? I came to conclude that there is need for a radical shift of approach and change of attitude; otherwise, the situation may continue so for another 200 years.

For instance, in this visit, I came to learn in a little more detail, what transpired and led to the stolen generation. The church has often been criticised for not standing up to protect Aboriginals against past injustices and colluding with the government. I agree it should have done more and must accept its fair share of blame. However, I learnt that the church did act because it is in its nature, although it was late. For the people living around the Roper River, it was the missionaries and the church that prevented total wipe out of some tribal communities at the beginning of the 20th c. They built mission stations that sheltered Aboriginals from being hunted and shot down.

Later these mission stations that had church and educational facilities remained to be protection centres for mixed race children with their Aboriginal mothers, often teenage mothers. This particular group was disliked among Aboriginals and never felt at home among white Australians and needed protection. Generally, they were not proper marriages or relationships but forced sexual encounter aimed to inflict suffering on the Aboriginal people by those who were racist and sexist. This would have constituted child sexual abuse but given that the Aboriginals were recognized as people in 1967, any crime against them before then, did not constitute a criminal act in the Australian law.

It was the success of these church protective and educational programs, which seems to me to be the basis of the government’s bungled policy of forced removal or stolen generation, perhaps based on ill advice. Unlike the church’s initial practice of letting the parents and children come alone seeking protection within their local areas, the government forcefully removed them from the only known parent and took them far away, never to meet again. Later it proved an absolute disaster.      Until the apologies are followed on by heartfelt discussions and education, healing cannot happen through issuing blanket or paper reconciliation.

This is an example of one layer of injustice upon another layer of injustice. Thank God, the government, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd did apologise. The church as an entity has also apologised. These government and church apologies have to be followed by other entities such as the judiciary as they are independent entities and the others entities also have to examine their own records for traces that require apology. These however, by themselves are not sufficient to bring about healing, as it is only a recognition of those often ignored, denied or dismissed injustices.

Having apologised, the church now needs to step up and show the lead to the nation as what a true reconciliation is like. The church can work with the government but should not let it get into the way of her mission as in the above example. It should also hold the government and other entities to account. The church must continue its practical, face-to-face reconciliation and being present at the forefront to provide educational and health services as well as catering for spiritual needs of the people. This will require a sacrificial commitment, fore going one’s own privileges and rights or even comfort. The radical shift may be going back to do things that we know worked in the past and reworking institutional relationships such as between church and state, even if now we tend to dismiss the church as irrelevant in these matters. If the nation genuinely desire better outcomes for Aboriginal citizens, it has no option but embrace this radical approach.

A part from my ‘disparity shock’, which I somehow hid from the others, the trip was a memorable one. It became great fun event when we tried to sing together in our different languages. It was also interesting to watch how cultural differences translated into simple things such as food choice, shopping and conversations. We enjoyed the food and hospitality from friends of Baba (Archbishop) and Mama Joy. Everyone was a teacher and student. Baba taught us by his actions of servant leadership. At first, we were respectfully fearful but soon the reservation melted away and we had to remind ourselves constantly not to go too far with our jokes! Jill taught us English and the learning has continued even after our return.

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