Murray Seiffert brings a personal perspective to bear on life and ministry among Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, and highlights some (at times) unflattering contrasts with life and ministry in the south.
This is a rather personal tale which reflects on living and working with Christian Aboriginal leaders in the Northern Territory, then returning to Melbourne. It is seven years since I returned to Victoria from that life-changing experience. Of course most of the first five years were dominated by researching and writing two books linked to that work: Refuge on the Roper: the Origins of the Roper River Mission, Ngukurr (2008) and Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land (2011).
What was I doing there?
Having spent much of my life in teacher education, I was appointed to be Academic Dean at Nungalinya College in Darwin. All students at the College are Indigenous adults, the majority coming from the Top End of the Northern Territory, although most States were represented. The College was established in 1973 by the Anglican and Uniting Churches, being joined in the 1990s by the Catholic Church.
My wife Marjorie and I had felt God’s call to work as missionaries with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and did so from 2001 until 2007.
My work involved many challenges, not the least being asked to lead the transformation of an Indigenous college into a Registered Training Organization meeting the increasing demands of national ‘quality control’ standards for the twenty-first century.
My most memorable experiences come from living almost six years on the campus; sometimes Marjorie and I were the only non-Indigenous people in residence. It was in the non-structured time, outside business hours, that most of our most precious times were lived. Some of our best fun was ‘hunting’, which included anything out in the bush from shooting magpie geese to gathering plants for dyeing. Many of the residents were already community leaders – mature Christians from remote communities – and we were learning about each other’s lives and looking to serve our Lord in daily life. I also had the privilege of contact with many of the homeless men and women of Darwin.
No longer are Aboriginal health statistics dull figures: they have faces of wonderful men and women who have died before their time, others whose lives have been dominated by poor health, young people with kidney problems and so on. This was the constant background of College life for us both, and Marjorie also spent time as one of the Chaplains at the Royal Darwin Hospital.
What did I learn?
Upon reflection, one of the key tasks for the CMS missionaries was to assist the Anglicans of Arnhem Land to build their churches amidst the dramatic changes there. One of the main factors was the existence of traditional Aboriginal religious concepts and practices in most communities. This meant that the Christians, or ‘Church mob’ could see lives which were lived outside the reign of Christ; thus evangelism and reaching out were a central part of the life of these churches.
While the Parish Councils were usually the oldest on-going Aboriginal committee in the community, they were still working at building their church life. Thus one of the key questions was ‘What are the essentials of an Anglican Church?’ To be ‘Anglican’ was significant, even if for the older folk, the first link was with CMS. Word and sacrament were central for the life of the church and its worship; alongside this were significant caring ministries. Teaching and nurturing children and young adults in the faith, and in healthy living were given high priority
One can see something of the nature of Aboriginal Christians by considering the story of the Rev. Canon Michael Gumbuli Wurramara AM. In his early days, he went through all of the traditional initiations and ceremonies. A key point of these is that ‘knowledge’ resides with the elders, and they are the authority on all important matters. When Gumbuli became a Christian in his teenage years, his key mentors were older Aboriginal Christians. In 1973, he became Australia’s second Aboriginal Anglican priest. The first was ordained just before him, but passed away after just a few years, thus Gumbuli has been the senior priest, by date of ordination, for most of the last forty years – he has been a courageous, wise and compassionate leader.
Whilst I could not work out how it actually happened, over a period of time, Gumbuli transferred his source of authority from the traditional elders, not to Christian elders – who were sometimes the same people, not to the missionaries, not to senior Anglican clergy, but to the Bible. He did not ignore the authority and counsel of others, but the Bible was the final word.
The centre of his message was that people should read the Bible, understand it, and make up their own minds. In initiating the massive task of finalizing the translation of the Bible into Kriol – the local language at Ngukurr – Gumbuli was implementing this principle. Alongside this was a program teaching people to read Kriol.
Students of Scottish educational history will be familiar with the goal of wanting each person to read the Bible in their own language.
This commitment to the Bible led to a strong desire to identify the teachings of Jesus and to apply them in everyday life. Not uncommonly this meant choosing between the way of Christ and the way of the traditions.
Not only were there often clear distinctions between the ‘church mob’ and ‘the others’, but to join the ‘church mob’ could be costly, resulting in various forms of intimidation and/or exclusion. It sometimes meant having to leave that community and move into another place, such as Katherine or Darwin. The idea of grace being costly was often quite real, and songs about taking up one’s cross every day were common. Paul’s comment to Timothy often applied: ‘All who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’ [2 Tim 3:12]
Central to church life at Ngukurr was a commitment to two things: people of all ages regularly meet for Bible study at least once a week, and sometimes daily, and to the use of a lectionary. Many people combined this commitment with formal study at Nungalinya College. In the Anglican communities, a higher proportion of church members have undertaken formal theological study than one would find most southern churches.
One result was congregations with a good number of biblically-literate members, as well as regular preaching on the principles and applications of Jesus’ teaching.
Returning to Melbourne was a rude shock. My impression is that rarely have I heard sermons which are an honest attempt to search the Gospels for the way of our Saviour. Often I hear a message where a predetermined answer appears to be the starting point of the sermon, with Bible quotes found to suit that answer.
Another shock was to realize how rare it is to find an Evangelical Anglican church with a commitment to using a lectionary, something which the English Evangelicals of the nineteenth century valued highly. Months might be spent on an Old Testament book, then months on an epistle, or series of epistles. In these circumstances, wrestling with the words of Jesus becomes a rarity. Any person entering the church wanting to meet Jesus may have to wait a long time. What a contrast to my experience with Aboriginal Christians! It is one thing to set up a series of sermons every now and then, it is quite another to totally abandon the regular systematic teaching of the lectionary. It seems to me to be the formula for producing an ignorant laity, open to unhealthy teachings and trends.
All of this has made me wonder if people in Melbourne’s evangelical churches really recognize the importance of the Anglican things that they are abandoning. My interstate friends tell me that these observations have wide application.
People in Melbourne, often asked me how Aboriginal Christians dealt with aspects of Aboriginal culture that were contrary to the Gospel. I usually answered ‘Better than the average Christian living in big cities!’ On one hand, traditional Aboriginal culture can be contrary to the gospel, such as attributing creation to something other than God, its suppression of women, limits on the freedom of individuals, and fears linked to the supernatural; however, on the other hand there are aspects which are exactly what the gospel is about, such as sharing and supporting strangers.
The Christian origins of Australian culture masks many attitudes and activities which the gospel rejects, but sadly Christians seem to be reluctant to examine what these might be. Paul’s words: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect’ [Rom 12:2] are a challenge to us all. I think that the Aboriginal Christian leaders I know take this more seriously than I have seen since returning to Melbourne. It takes courage to preach sermons that are going to be unpopular because the listeners become uncomfortable when they recognize the challenges. I was encouraged by Aboriginal leaders who were fearless in their preaching, or better, who feared God more than their listeners.
Here is an example of a different way of looking at things: one day in class I commented about four young men who had entered a cottage near our house. They virtually emptied the fridge, cooked and ate a meal and then walked off, leaving the two residents with a mess to clean up and fridge that would remain empty until pay-day. I implied that I thought that this was not fair. Then one of the senior ladies gently but firmly chastised me: ‘But Murray, they may have been very hungry!’ There is no doubt which view reflects Jesus of Nazareth!
Central to so much of traditional life is the commitment of the individual to the welfare of the group. Working together is simply the natural way of life. This needs to be respected as linked to Aboriginal survival in one of the world’s harshest environment. However this approach to life contrasts sharply with Western competitive individualism, and its capitalist economic system. While Western ways have been amazingly successful in raising living standards, it is interesting to search the Scriptures to find which looks more like the way of the Cross. As an aside, I think these matters are at the heart of remote communities choosing not to embrace Western ways, and the perceived need for the ‘Federal intervention’ to introduce business models into communities. It is also a symbol that the work of the missionaries did not destroy Aboriginal culture, even where the Christian faith found fertile ground.
People ‘down south’, that is everywhere south of Katherine, often forget that it is only about 50 years since money appeared on some of the missions. In the 1990s, one of the College’s most popular courses was assisting people to learn to live in standard houses.
Having spent decades as a teacher and researcher in a university, I have been interested in the reasons students give for choosing their course and anticipated career. In Melbourne, with rare exceptions, these were individualistic, concerned with personal goals. The usual response from students at Nungalinya College was to help their community, their family – which was similar – or the church.
This is the antithesis of the view of what motivates Aboriginal people presented by Andrew Forrest on ABC Lateline on 23 October 2013:
When you're so motivated that you're coming off welfare and you're seeing for the first time the opportunity of an income which you've made yourself, not which someone else has given to you because they think you probably can't cut it on your own, but you've made that money yourself and you can see a rising level of income in front of you if you stick at it, you start thinking about the car you might want to buy, the house you might want to live in, where you might want to send your own children to school, not have someone choose it for you, and the incentive to stick with it becomes very strong
Aboriginal Anglicans of Arnhem Land are far more concerned about their community and their family and its survival in the twenty-first century than they are about the accumulation of material goods.
Connection to community resulted in strong support for people within the community. However the traditional was also to be wary of helping someone in another group; this has similarities to Luke 13: 27. The reason was that if something went wrong, such as a person died or became very ill, the helper might be blamed for those events. In the Anglican communities, this tradition appears to have been overcome through the teaching of leaders such as Gumbuli Wurramara.
The Arnhem Land communities are essentially traditional relationship-based communities, similar to those I have encountered amongst Asian migrants, such as Vietnamese. This was true of the communities of the New Testament. I noticed that these relationships were often easily understood when our students read the Gospels, and I have found my own understandings enriched too. These matters have been the focus of scholars researching the social context of the New Testament.
It is important to realise that there are many Aboriginal Christians who have no interest in adopting Western lifestyles, but who wish to be God’s Aboriginal People. That is, being 100% Aboriginal and 100% Christian.
The World of the Spirits
A few years ago health researchers from the University of Wollongong found that spirits and spiritual matters were commonly stated as reasons for death in south-eastern Arnhem Land; missionaries had always known this. Not surprisingly these are matters which influence the preaching and work of the church. Disembodied spirits are taken as part of the natural order; this means that Anglicans in Arnhem Land have no difficulty in dealing with Jesus casting out demons, or with demons taking possession of pigs.
It seems to me that it is impossible to understand traditional Aboriginal spirituality without recognizing the centrality of the spirit world. This has many implications for ministry: most importantly, faith that the victory of Christ has overcome all opposition, and that the Holy Spirit is the strongest spirit, able to overcome any opposing spirit. Alongside this is the commitment to bringing healing as a key ministry of the church and its leaders.
Black and White Together
It was an interesting experience to live as a minority in an Aboriginal community. Visiting Darwin’s big Casuarina shopping centre gave an experience of seeing Aboriginal people involved at all levels of activity. Returning to Melbourne presented the shock of blonde people everywhere and few Aboriginal people. Of course I was now able to recognize Victorian Koories more effectively than before.
One joy has been to see the lead taken by Archbishop Philip Freier in having the Diocese become serious about its commitment to the original peoples of this great land, but there is a long way to go! Some Aboriginal Christians remind us that music sounds best when both black and white notes are played together, and I long for the day when the word ‘Australian’ means everybody here! I encourage churches to frequently pray for reconciliation and look for ways to make it happen. Many of my Aboriginal friends are convinced that the Church is the only organization with the capacity to bring reconciliation to our nation. I would like to encourage readers to accept a long-term commitment to work towards this end.
One matter of frustration to me arises from seeing non-Indigenous Christians in Victoria trying to make sense of so-called Aboriginal spirituality and Aboriginal religion. Aboriginal Christians have always lived with these issues. Thus, the wise way to proceed is to find out what those people have made of the issues. In practice, this is not easy to do, but this was exactly one of the key reasons for my commitment to documenting the pilgrimage of one of our great Aboriginal leaders. It seems to me that the academic study of Church History in Australia needs to start taking Aboriginal Church History as an integral part of the life of the Australian Church, rather than simply as a by-product of Mission Studies.
Murray Seiffert spent two decades in teacher education before being appointed as Director of Community Development in the Diocese of Melbourne in 1995. He holds degrees in agricultural science, education, and theology; his PhD was in sociology. One of the great joys of his undergraduate life was his four years in Ridley College regularly hearing the sermons of Leon Morris, Keith Cole and other staff.
His first book, Refuge on the Roper: the Origins of the Roper River Mission, Ngukurr (2008), was short-listed for the 2009 Australian Christian Book of the Year. Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land (2011) was short-listed for the 2012 Chief Minister’s Northern Territory History Book Award and was awarded 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year. Both are available from Acorn Press at http://acornpress.net.au/ . Most of the issues in this article related to life in the north are developed in detail in Gumbuli of Ngukurr.