(If you haven't read the introduction to the series 'The chronicles of a single chick in a new city visiting every church in the CBD' please do so first at https://www.lightningvalley.com/post/the-chronicles-of-a-single-chick-in-a-new-city-visiting-every-church-in-the-cbd-an-introduction)
I acknowledge the traditional owners throughout the country now known as Australia. I pay my respects to the Jagera people and the Turrbul people, on whose land I now live, and their Elders, past, present and emerging. I acknowledge my family by kinship, the Jawoyn mob of the Northern Territory. I especially acknowledge all the amazing First Nations Christian leaders I know whose tenacity, faithfulness and resilience through testing is an inspiration. I acknowledge the young people I've worked with - you have taught me so much. You are my heroes!
Because of my driving adventure last week, I decided to change it up this week and catch the bus – early – so I had plenty of time for any misadventure! I managed to get off at my stop without any incident and as I walked to the church, said good morning to the young homeless man taking a drag on a cigarette, all his belongings in a shopping trolley by his side.
The destination this week? An historic, inner city church established in the 1800’s by the Methodists. Since I’ve moved from the hot, tropical climate of Darwin, I am used to going ‘prepared’ to places with a cardigan or longer sleeve top of some sort for those overly air conditioned buildings. I had no fear of freezing in this particular building as the ceiling fans hardly moving the air from the extra high ceiling meant that the very rare event of me sweating actualised!
As I arrived early and as there were no ushers to direct me to the seat I needed to sit in, I had my pick from the sparsely populated pews. I chose a pew (yes they were pews, not seats, the kind that have a padded seat but wooden back) that had one elderly lady sitting in it. I asked if the seat was taken and she kindly said I could sit wherever I wanted. After a little small talk, she introduced herself to me, pointing out that she makes the effort to introduce herself to new people, but sometimes she forgets. She told the story - one time, many moons ago, she sat next to a minister. The same man sat next to her weekly and she asked why he chose to sit next to her. It was, came the reply, because if he sat anywhere else, no one would talk to him! I thank the Lord for that lesson she learnt many years ago as I was the beneficiary of a warm welcome.
We acquainted ourselves a little as we waited for the service to start. This, she informed me, was going to be a different service, to acknowledge the Aboriginal people of the land. Without sounding too facetious, I said that I looked up the website and saw that this would be the case. It was one of the reasons I decided to go to this particular church at this particular time.
The choir took to the stalls about 10min before service began. At some point, I was handed a hymnal with the order of service tucked inside the front cover (but as I’m not used to this tradition, I didn’t realise the order of service was tucked inside the front cover so I just rode with whatever came). The first indication that the service was beginning was a young man, with a heritage from a Northern NSW tribe, getting up to play the didgeridoo. And an older gentleman, standing behind an imposing pulpit, saying a few words of acknowledgement of where we were meeting today. There was a call to worship by the minister, who was draped in the white robes of his tradition, and then the singing of the first hymn – Morning has Broken. I reckon I learnt that hymn in primary school (when you were still allowed to learn hymns in primary school) and haven’t sung it since! It was nice to sing an old, familiar tune.
At different times, different things were said with a response from the congregation. I just tagged along as best as I could. At one point, there was a corporate reading of a prayer of lament and repentance for what had happened to the First Nations people of the land. In fact there was a lot of mention of First Nations and Second Nations People (I know First Nations as I had to use that terminology for a paper I wrote a couple of years ago, as opposed to ‘Indigenous’ or ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ which used to be the politically correct terms, but I’ve never really considered myself a ‘Second Nations’ person).
Anyhow, I couldn’t help but think whether this was genuine lament or something that was done just because it was on the calendar to do it every year, the Sunday before ‘Australia Day’ or, as some people designate it, ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day’. But of course, only God can judge the heart. And I couldn’t help but think, ‘what would my Aboriginal mums, my brothers and sisters from the NT think of this if they were sitting next to me?’
A First Nations minister, whose heritage is from the far West of Qld, was invited to respond. Praise the Lord for our First Nations brothers and sisters! This was the first time I heard the gospel for the day; that the finished work of the cross, the sacrificial death of Jesus and the shedding of His blood, had cleansed us from all sin. I wanted to hug that man! Maybe culturally inappropriate but nevertheless, how I felt. His response was short and to the point, but I wanted to hear more from him!
The service continued, with the obligatory announcements of what had been, and is, happening in the life of the congregation. Modern technology had infiltrated this historic building, with two television screens mounted from strategic positions, bringing the visuals to the announcements. One of the announcements was even that they were finally getting their electronic notice board out the front!
We had time to greet each other with the peace of Christ, which means that you get up out of your pew and shake hands with people saying, ‘the peace of Christ be with you’. After shaking a few hands and introducing myself to the lady on the opposite side of me (who had come in late) the service resumed. The older gentleman, who introduced the service, then brought a ‘word for all ages’. He was now down the front and invited the three children present to come down to hear him. He shared about his initiation into the Yolngu tribe of Arnhem Land, an initiation of non-Indigenous children. He had been born in Darwin but his family lived in Gove. As a two or three year old, those who were to be initiated sat in a circle. The chief elder of the tribe explained that he would cut them on the thumb with a very sharp rock and that they were not to make a sound. They were then to rub the blood onto the thumb of the person sitting next to them, and vice versa, and they would all then become ‘blood brothers’. Fresh, mud would then be put on the cut so that a scar would remain to remind them of the tribe they belonged to. (Here I am just recounting what he shared. I do not know if this is customary and usual practice for this area or not).
I don't know what the children would have thought from this talk, but I was thinking how beautifully his story could have been a strong analogy for how we, as new creations, have been ‘adopted’ into a tribe, the family of Christ, through the precious blood of the Lamb and how, as a result, we belong to God’s family – having a bond through the blood of Christ that can never be broken. I was also pondering what my friend, who is next in line to be head elder of a tribe in Arnhem Land, would think if he heard this story. He is a mighty Yolngu man who has discovered his true identity in the tribe of Christ and counts this as of primary importance.
I was delighted that the word of God was brought out, a reading from a Psalm and then a reading from John, given in the first language of a ‘Second Nations’ person of non Western heritage. My favourite part was to come - two lovely women, one Second Nation and one First Nation, sharing from the pulpit. The first lady shared about the Reconciliation Action Plan (or RAP) of this particular churches organisation and then, a sister who’s grandparents were taken from their homelands and put in Cherbourg mission, shared some of her ancestry and story including the current situation of our First Nations people.
She began by acknowledging the elders of the land we were on, but then she also acknowledged the non-Indigenous elders who were present – an aberration from the usual protocol. She then shared that she was able to be there because of what Christ has done in her own life, acknowledging Him as her Lord and Saviour. I love our First Nations brothers and sisters! They are often so much more welcoming than we give them credit for and always recognise Christ’s work in their lives. At one point she choked back tears as she recalled the work of her uncle who was able to start the first Aboriginal run services for Aboriginal people in Qld. She retold how her grandparents worked hard their whole lives, yet didn’t see a penny for their work as it was put in a ‘trust’ for them (which ended up being used on city infrastructure)! I am always moved when I hear of how our First Nations people of the past, especially those of the faith, not only endured hardship and injustice, but gave back to the community in such sacrificial ways. I was looking forward to giving this woman a hug after the service.
After she spoke, the minister prayed for them and the final hymns, prayers and blessings were completed. I thanked my elderly pew companion for welcoming me (I enjoyed hearing her commentary throughout by the way from – ‘not too loud son’, to ‘that wasn’t long enough’, to ‘no need to be embarrassed’) and met her friend next to her. They invited me to go out the back to share in the morning tea, which was so lovely. But I was keen to go and meet my First Nations sister and give her a hug, which I did. We got chatting and found common connections (which you do if you have ever been involved in work with First Nations people), and invited me to catch up for coffee and swap numbers. I exclaimed, ‘thank you, I need friends!’ How ‘God’ is it that one of my first new potential friends in Brisbane is a beautiful First Nations woman of both Aboriginal and South Sea Islander heritage.
To top it off, as I walked from the church towards my next destination, I came across a First Nations woman in the park. She looked my way as I was trying to navigate on my phone. And she asked me if I was lost. I was then able to go and talk to this beautiful woman who calls the park home and I offered to pray for her. She was so grateful and I left with my heart full. Even though I no longer work directly with our First Nations brothers and sisters, my heart is never far from them. How lovely it is to be welcomed into this new city by them, the people who weren’t even welcome in their own home. Now that’s reconciliation!
2 Corinthians 5:16-19
Therefore from now on we recognise no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
P.S. I shut my laptop, packed my gear and headed to the ladies. I checked my phone – one message. And who was it from? My First Nations sister who I had just met at church saying how lovely it was to meet me and how she was looking forward to catching up soon. I tell you, we have a lot to learn from our First Nations brothers and sisters. Are we willing to listen and learn?
(Art credit: Safina Stewart, Photo Credit: Rachel Borneman)