Talk on the margins

ONE of the conversations which I followed with interest as an observer at last week’s Uniting Church in Australia 14th Assembly, was the conversation about the First and Second people and addressing dominant cultures within a community of faith that is striving to be inclusive. The stories from the assembly below illustrate the conversation.

First Peoples are

sovereign peoples

The assembly accepted Proposal 25 to explore with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress what it would mean for the practices of the church to recognise and affirm that First Peoples are sovereign. The proposal had been put on hold until the congress could give more information about the words “sovereignty” and “treaty”.

Uniting Church president Stuart McMillan said the journey towards Indigenous recognition in the Australian community echoed the Uniting Church’s deepening relationship with First Peoples.

“As a church we have recognition of indigenous peoples. Now we need to think about how we take that further, and we are only taking the first steps towards that now,” said Mr McMillan.

“We need to have that conversation — if we recognise First People as sovereign, what does that mean? It is not just about saying the words, it’s about what that means for the way we engage with one another, the way we deal with property, and all those things.”

Tasmania Mission Development Presbytery Minister Michelle Cook noted that although there is a definition of sovereignty in the preamble to the Uniting Church Constitution, “The proposal is intended for the Uniting Church to explore what it means practically, with the use of property, ministry in our schools, everything”.

Another request was added to the proposal for Assembly Standing Committee to develop resources to educate the church on the need for a treaty.

Opening a door for

indigenous recognition

The president, along with the chair of Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in Western Australia, Reverend Sealin Garlett, publicly demonstrated their support for the Recognise campaign in the middle of the Perth CBD last week. The Recognise campaign aims to garner support for a referendum to mend the historical exclusion of First Peoples in the Australian Constitution, and to eliminate racial discrimination in the founding document.

The two church leaders met with James Back from Reconciliation Western Australia outside the Wesley Uniting Church in the city. A five-metre long banner was hung on the front wall of the church building, and a giant sticker featuring Recognise branding was placed on the busy pavement in front of the church.

Uniting Church in the City Minister Reverend Craig Collas offered a prayer as he stood by the sticker.

Mr Garlett said the prominent placement of the banner and sticker was a tremendous statement in support of indigenous recognition and would be a conversation starter for the hundreds of people who passed the church every day.

“This jars the door open for the community to meet us where we are,” said Mr Garlett, who is also a Nyungar elder.

“One of the things our community is very strong on now is that we have a lot of unanswered questions. There tends to be a normality of illusions and conclusions that people make. They put a mould on Indigenous people and put a capacity on where we are meant to be.”

He said recognising First Peoples in the (Australian) Constitution was just the beginning of the conversation for the community. By unveiling some of the false illusions placed on his people this recognition would allow the Australian people to take the next step towards true reconciliation.

“We’ve worked with a lot of good intentions… it’s time to walk the talk.”

One of the proposals before the 14th Assembly was to continue to support recognition for Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution “as long as the form of recognition offered can be seen as a step towards and not a blockage to the larger issues of sovereignty and treaty”.

Week of prayer and

fasting for First Peoples

Every year the Uniting Church will have a week of prayer and fasting in solidarity with First Peoples on their journey towards justice and reconciliation.

The Standing Committee, in partnership with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), will facilitate the week of prayer and fasting, which may involve a pilgrimage to the Capital City.

The aim of the week of fasting and prayer is to deepen the church’s covenant relationship with First Peoples, rather than being an end in itself.

The first week of prayer and fasting was held in 2014 as part of the A Destiny Together campaign calling for justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

It included a prayerful protest on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra, and involved church members from all over Australia, led by former President Reverend Professor Andrew Dutney and former chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Congress Reverend Rronang Garrawurra.

Throughout the week, members, groups and congregations engaged in a discipline of fasting and prayer.

The first week of prayer and fasting was organised as a response to the story-telling and listening to First Peoples at the 13th Assembly in 2012.

The decision to make this an annual event was presented along with a number of other congress proposals aiming to take the relationship between First Peoples and the wider Uniting Church to the next level.

The Uniting Church president said the church’s call to prayerful protest was an important step in moving forward and journeying together.

United against

community closures

The 14th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia also stood as one to oppose the forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities.

The symbolic action of solidarity was the result of a heartfelt plea by a contingent of youthful members who pleaded with the assembly to respond to the potential closures.

The entire assembly meeting including Mr McMillan, Nyungar elder Mr Garlett and UAICC chairperson Reverend Dennis Corowa moved outside the venue of the assembly, the University of Western Australia’s Winthrop Hall to signal as one their solidarity with indigenous people in threat of being forced off their land by Federal and State Government policies.

The full text of the youth statement can be read at: http://assembly2015.uca.org.au/standing-united-against-community-closures/

More on the Uniting Church and First people can be found at http://assembly2015.uca.org.au/14th-assembly-approves-congress-proposals/

Whether we belong to a church, a faith community or merely just wish to live in harmony with the diverse communities that have come to know Fiji as their home, there is much we can learn from these conversations that the Uniting Church in Australia is having.

We in Fiji can reflect on the issue of dominant cultures and minority cultures; the sovereignty of indigenous people, issues of justice, of listening to the hurt of people, and the hurt of the land.

We can respond to these conversations by how we chose to live as a multicultural community that respects the deep spirituality of people, respects an understanding of relationship to the land, creation and each other, and listens to those in the margins not just as minorities, but as those whose experiences can empower others.

“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity.”

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of The Fiji Times or the Methodist Church in Fiji.

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