By Robyn Douglass

The Fourth of July is an uncontroversial day of national celebration in the United States. Australia’s national day has become an annual argument.

We’d never say no to a public holiday, but Australia Day, January 26, marks the day in 1788 when 11 shiploads of convicts claimed Sydney for white settlement. Australia’s First Peoples regard it as “Invasion Day”, not one for celebration. Increasing numbers of Australians respect that.

So National Reconciliation Week, which falls from May 27 to June 3, is taking on a wider significance. It was started as the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation in 1993 and was supported by Australia’s major faith communities. It’s the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which changed the Constitution to include Aboriginal People as citizens, and the 1992 High Court “Mabo” decision which wiped out the legal fiction that Australia was founded on “terra nullius,” empty land. It also marks “Sorry Day,” the national apology to the Stolen Generation – the untold thousands of Aboriginal people who were taken from their families by police and welfare agencies to be brought up in institutions.

National Reconciliation Week stretches beyond seven days, and beyond the churches.  But it started with the churches.

The Anglican Church of Southern Queensland (also known as the Diocese of Brisbane) covers an area larger than the state of California, stretching from the subtropical eastern coast to the deserts. It includes the metropolis of Brisbane and the Gold Coast, subtropical rainforest and desert mining towns.

Sandra King | Anglican Focus

Sandra King has been Southern Queensland’s Reconciliation Action Plan co-ordinator for 18 months. This year has been easier than last year, when events were held on Zoom and activities were devised for shutdown.

“Aunty” Sandra spoke to TLC in the middle of more than two weeks of events and presentations, to Anglican agencies, parishes and schools. Many of the speakers came, like hers, from shattered families.

Her own family hid the secret of being stolen for 70 years. The children promised never to talk about it and were never allowed to “go back to country.” They were finally told the truth in 2008 when the national “Sorry Day” broke the silence.

A proud Quandamooka and Bundjalung woman, Ms King said many stories are simply heartbreaking.

“Some people are still trying to find out who their mob is and who their family is,” she said.

Saddest of all, the intergenerational trauma continues. Broken families, higher rates of imprisonment, poorer health and poverty are the legacy of white settlement and many Aboriginal people simply don’t trust the churches.

King was surprised by the progress of the church in Southern Queensland, said the church is doing “its best to learn and understand how they can help ­– they want to learn more.”

And there is much to share. Many Aboriginal people hold fast to a strong Christian faith, she said.

“Aboriginal people are very spiritual people. We have always believed in a higher power – God or dreaming, it’s up to the person what they call it.”

King said Christianity shares with traditional beliefs the trust in the creator “who made the land and humans, and put everything under the law.”

Aboriginal people are required by their law to respect the land and other people, and “only take what is needed from the land, from what God created.”

So the churches hosted all kinds of forums to hear from Australia’s First Nations people, from meditations to a popular demonstration of “bush tucker” (indigenous Australian food) by a renowned Indigenous chef.

In St. John’s Cathedral, a “yarning” (story-telling) event was held for people to hear from “wise warriors,” Aboriginal women. It was well attended, in person and online.

The Dean, the Very Rev. Dr. Peter Catt, said the cathedral hosted events around this time every year, and this one had been inspired by a climate conversation earlier this year.

“That event involved listening to a number of First Nations people to get their perspective on climate change and care for the planet,” he said.

Not far from the grandeur of Brisbane cathedral, the inner-city church at Milton nestles under the shadow of a huge sports stadium.

The Rev. Ceri Wynne said the parish acknowledges Indigenous ownership at every service.

“We are on sacred ground, not just when we worship, not just in the church but for the  people who were the original custodians, the Jagera and Turrbal people,” she said.

The parish’s monthly reflective service on Saturday evening was dedicated last month to hearing the words of Aboriginal people. Wynne said the contemplative nature of the service was helpful.

“If you are listening to words of lament from Indigenous authors about their history and their present, and you sit in silence with those words, you are trying your very best to let the Spirit talk to you. It is an encounter with the divine that would definitely resonate very deeply with a lot of people,” she said.

Wynne hopes the work of listening will move the parish to local action. “As a community we acknowledge we haven’t really started, but it’s about getting out of the way – getting our egos out of the way and listening to the words of people.”

There was a different reconciliation service in the suburban Green Hills parish. The Rev. Canon Bruce Boase is acknowledged as a leader in the diocese on reconciliation issues.

A gently spoken Wakka Wakka man, Boase said reconciliation with Aboriginal people has to start with our relationship with God.

“As a Christian, I believe we have to reconcile ourselves with God first to reconcile ourselves with fellow human beings,” he told TLC.

‘”That’s what we have to do to heal rifts – learn things from one another and come together in a situation where we can actually hear one another’s stories.” He said the service in his parish was inspired by his Catholic brothers and sisters, and includes an act of reconciliation.

This year, he said, he asked people to take a stone, warm it with their hands and near their hearts, and place it at the foot of a cross, “as a symbol of their reconciling themselves with God, and also as a starting point for the reconciliation with others. That’s fairly powerful.”

Boase holds hope that the wider Australian community will come to terms with our First Nations, and be a community of equals.

“Reconciliation is an integral part of our Christian life … that’s where we come from and if anyone needs to take the lead in it, then it ought to be the Christian churches,” he said.