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Making Mission a Two-way Reality with Indigenous People

Mission used to be a one-way street. Churches and agencies did it for you, or to you. A colonial venture like Australia is full of mission stories; some good came of it, but much harm was done.

The Rev. Stephen Daughtry, education missioner for the Anglican Board of Mission (ABM) in Australia, believes good mission is never just one-way. He has worked for ABM in different contexts for 16 years, reporting on projects from places like Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

When the agency was founded 174 years ago, he said, the aim was to convert heathens. Now, he said, “we have a much clearer understanding that mission is reciprocal, that when we engage with a partner church, we expect to learn at least as much — and usually more than — we might be able to impart.”

Mission depends on authentic relationships, engaging in conversation to find out what partners need and how it might best be implemented — and what the wider church can provide in resources and expertise if partners lack that.

“We have so much to learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters, particularly in their care for the environment and lack of greed.” —The Rt. Rev. Keith Joseph, bishop of North Queensland

ABM has partnerships and projects overseas and, as Daughtry said, often Anglican communities consult other denominations in the developing world that are “able to offer theology and missional training and community engagement in ways that they understand much better than we do. Sometimes the work of mission for us is to facilitate those conversations.”

On home ground, ABM has strong relationships with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Commission (NATSIAC).

ABM is involved in supporting, as much as possible, the voices of Indigenous people. The agency cannot, Daughtry said, speak on behalf of Indigenous theologians, but can amplify those voices and provide a platform for them to speak to the church.

“One of the exciting things about this is that the church is actually ahead of the rest of society in terms of the way NATSIAC, and other bodies within other denominations, have been set up,” he said.

“But still we have yet to learn one of the key aspects of Indigenous theological understanding, and that is to listen.”

Indigenous people, Daughtry said, are setting the record straight on their relationship with God before colonization.

“As an Anglican church, and I think this is true of most major denominational churches, we never managed to incarnate effectively, within the country that we love but we fail to understand, because we never listened particularly closely to the voices of Indigenous people and their relationship with land,” he said.

That work of listening is changing structures in the Diocese of North Queensland, a massive chunk of tropical Australia three times the size of the United Kingdom. Land-based parishes are only accessible by road “in the dry season” (May to October), Bishop Keith Joseph said. It takes a plane or boats to get around the Torres Strait Islands (TSI). It’s too remote and expensive even for tourists to reach.

With years of experience in the Pacific region, Joseph is sensitive to the very different needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait parishes.

The diocese’s five Aboriginal parishes were founded by people being taken off their lands and “slammed together,” so there’s a mix of both languages and culture. There are two community shops run by the church, and the thriving enterprises provide an alternative to government shops and support the priest in the parish.

Torres Strait Island parishes lack those resources, but have retained a more coherent culture.

“When we took over the mission from London Missionary Society in 1915, we were very much at pains to insist that language, culture, and dancing were not only permitted but flourished. TSI culture is a lot more coherent and intact, very proud, very vibrant,” Bishop Joseph said.

Just before COVID hit, the diocese had begun moving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands parishes to autonomy, developing their corporations to take care of their property and their own resources, and ministry councils to look after the church’s ministry.

It’s slow and careful work as the teams develop their skills and expertise, and Joseph stressed it’s a work they undertake together.

“My theology is that we are the body of Christ, we are all part of the one body; no part of the church is ever truly independent; we are all meant to be with each other and working with each other,” he said.

And, he added, he “hopes to be the last white fella bishop of this area.”

ABM supports this work, even flying the bishop and priests around at a cost the bishop estimated at AUD$150,000 ($100,000) a year.

“So many people, 70- and 80-year-olds, have been praying for 50 years for mission and giving regularly,” Bishop Keith said.

Every year on July 1, Torres Strait Island churches mark a “Coming of the Light” ceremony.

“God was on both sides of the beach when the mission arrived. The Spirit can’t be withheld, and it’s time to send that light southwards,” Joseph said.

“We have so much to learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters, particularly in their care for the environment and lack of greed.

“All cultures have something of God in them, and the light fulfills that culture. So in the Torres Straits as in Melanesia, they already had a strong sense of community, a strong sense that when someone was wrong, the idea was to reconcile — the idea that a person was not just an individual but was part of a group.

“On the other side, there was lots of violence, even cannibalism and warfare, so when the light came, the light dispersed the dark side of it but brought forward those things which were already godly.

“Our own culture has many dark sides to it, which could do with the light of Christ. Think of our individualism, our greed, our materialism.

“The idea that Western culture or Western Christianity is somehow closer to God is just nonsense.”

It’s this reciprocity that inspires Daughtry, even if God’s work can seem slow.

“So many people, 70- and 80-year-olds, have been praying for 50 years for mission and giving regularly, and they occasionally get someone to come along and do a deputation in the church to tell them something about it and they are encouraged by that,” he said.

“The reality is, their prayers and their giving have had a massive effect on the lives of people they will never meet, and I think that’s part of the wondrous beauty of the Anglican Communion — but more realistically, seeing God at work through the church in the world.”

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