Australian Indigenous Religions: Aboriginal Christianity

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Aboriginal Theology was a radical movement beginning in the late 1960s and becoming more prominent in the early 1970s. The movement pushed the barriers forward toward the creation of an Indigenous theology that leaned heavily towards Biblical social justice. It was an autonomous post-Western, post-denominational movement that emphasized prophetic obedience, action and liberation. It attempted to hold up Aboriginality (e.g. identity, culture and spirituality) as the guiding principle, and to maintain traditional Aboriginal religion by drawing up Ancestral Narratives [Dreamings], ceremonies, rituals and laws as the divine grounding for contemporary faith and identity. It held traditional practices such as ceremonies and stories as potent reminders of important cosmic and temporal truths. And it embraced Aboriginal Dreaming as a timeless guide for active engagement.

Out of the many Aboriginal Christian leaders involved in the development of Aboriginal Theology, the three most remembered by Aboriginal Christians today are Pastor Don Brady, the Rev. Charles Harris and Pastor David Kirk; these men are considered by Aboriginal Christians as the pioneers of Aboriginal Theology and Church (with reference to the Aborigines Inland Mission, United Aborigines Mission, and the Methodist Church in Queensland). These Aboriginal leaders condemned the dominant white society's subjugation and exploitation of Aboriginal people and also raised important issues of justice and equality. Further, they condemned white missionaries as destructive influences upon the Aboriginal peoples and cultures. In this way they mixed deep faith with political commitment. The impact that these three leaders had on Aboriginal Christian understanding was radical. Historically, missionaries (both Catholic and Protestant) had determined that Aboriginal access to God only could be obtained through them. Now presented to the Aboriginals was a different image of accessa direct connection to God. Aboriginal leaders made clear for all Aboriginal Christians that they themselves had direct access to God, and that their relationship to Jesus Christ was established a long time before the white invasion of their land, through their lived experience with God from time immemorial.

The Rev. Don Brady

The Rev. Don Brady was a pivotal figure in Aboriginal religious, social and political movements. Indeed, Aboriginal people recognized that his life and ministry were pivotal to the development of Aboriginal Theology. He was the first Aboriginal church leader to lead political marches, calling for the abolition of the racist and oppressive Queensland Aborigines Act, which subjected Aboriginal people to inhumane social, economic and health conditions, controlling where they could live and work, whom they could marry, and how far they could advance in school. Brady's ministry was to influence many generations that followed.

Pastor Brady was from Palm Island, the former prison compound in far north Queensland, which was used to contain and control Aboriginal people. He came to the Lord there, and eventually was amongst the first of the male Aboriginal students to receive training through the Aborigines Inland Mission (AIM). He married fellow student Darlene Willis, of Cherbourg, another Aboriginal mission in southern Queensland. They ministered together within AIM for a number of years.

Pastor Brady was a gifted man, who was able to see through the lack of effectiveness of mission practice, program and policy. In the early 1960s, he began a further two years of theological training in the Methodist College at Kangaroo Point. In the late 1960s, Brady worked with the Methodist Church in Queensland in the heart of Brisbane, at Spring Hill. He was enormously popular, particularly among his own Aboriginal people, because his ministry was (w)holistic. Brady was concerned, not only about the spiritual side, but also the physical and emotional sides of people. He had a way of connecting with peopleof seeing brokenness and being able to heal it. The appeal of his ministry extended far beyond the bounds of his own Aboriginal community, as many non-Aboriginal people were also drawn to his charisma.

Pastor Brady's prophetic stance grew out of his experiences overseas. He had won a Churchill Fellowship, and had traveled to several communities in the United States and begun to sense a new direction. In his own words, "In Chicago I heard a call, 'Don arise, you are going to do a new thing'" (Brady, 1971, p. 39).

Brady was the first of all the Aboriginal pastors and leaders to combine the application of the Gospel with Aboriginal cultural practice. There were two things for which he stood out: (1) he was right at the cutting edge of "Gospel and culture"; and (2) his emphasis on social justice issues. His ministry demonstrated the priority of Christ for the poorChrist's identification with the poor. It was Brady's particular ministry in relation to these two factors that worked so well. He tried to bring Aboriginal culture into the church, which enormously affirmed Aboriginal people. Aboriginal church leader, the Rev. Graham Paulson, remembers Brady's influence, and states, "Brady was right at the cutting edge of Methodist ministry with urban Aboriginal people" (Paulson, 1995).

Pastor Brady saw the poverty of his people and heard their cries. He felt that God was on the side of the oppressed and was leading his people out of bondage. He questioned how he could minister to the spiritual needs of Aboriginal people, when they were enslaved by Australian legislation that oppressed them and literally denied them their human dignity and rights. Brady earned the title, "The Punching Parson," by simply going around and picking up those of his homeless people in the parks and other places who were vulnerable to arrest and further abuse by the system. He took them back to a refugesometimes having to "knock them out" first, but they always thanked him the next morning. That sort of work, so far as the church was concerned, had never been done before in the history of mission amongst the Aboriginal people.

Brady was a catalyst, in the sense that he created a Black church, challenged the institutions, and began a Black movementone that was to be felt across all of Australia. He lit the fire in people; he lit the spark, the will to fight, and the need for them to struggle for justice. He instilled in people the hope, the will to live. Brady revealed to Aboriginal Christians that the God of justice, who freed the Israelites from the bondage of Egyptian rule, also was with the Aboriginal people as they struggled for freedom from Western oppression, racist laws and imperialism. Together with other secular Aboriginal movements (such as the Aboriginal Land Rights Movement) throughout the country, Brady brought the force of his Black Church with him, led by the conviction of equality and freedom for all. Black people began to share in the hope that God was on their side, and that God would send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to be their strength, hope and courage in the face of the racism inflicted upon them by the white Australian society. He raised the consciousness of his peoplethat Christ came and died for them, and they too were free, and inheritors of the Kingdom. The pressures on Brady were enormous, because he was the lone voice in the Methodist Church at that time, saying things that Aboriginal people had never heard before.

Brady questioned the political system (such as the Department of Native Affairs in Brisbane), and other policies in his concern for the people, and raised a number of social justice questions. In the process, the conservatives and whites in the Methodist Church began to distance themselves from him. He found himself more and more isolated by the system that had affirmed him from the very beginningthat is, until he began to raise questions of justice in terms of social issues. Increasingly, Brady found himself a lonely and deserted leader. Also, from his conservative beginnings in AIM, some of his former colleagues were sniping at him as well. They could not understand his political leanings and were trying to spiritualize away all the political, social and economic issues.

Brady's belief in doing and bringing the Gospel through Christ's action led to severe repercussions. He was spiritually and emotionally shattered. The church pulled back and 'defrocked' him, and his status and the basis for his drive in the communitythat which gave him the basis for justice and morality and integritywas pulled away from him.

Brady gave his life for what he believed, and in obedience to what God called him to do. And, even though the church turned against him and tried to silence and discredit him, the legacy of his ministry was to be continued and made visible in the lives and ministries of those who were to follow. Brady's efforts were not wasted; on the contrary, his influence lives on in those who have the courage and the conviction to carry the cross today. David Thompson, a lifelong friend of Pastor Brady, describes him as "a man ahead of his time," and "a man of strength, character and vision, who laid the foundations for the future" (Thompson, 1995).

Pastor David Kirk

Pastor David Kirk was another pivotal figure in the development of an Aboriginal organization-fellowship. He grew up in Cherbourg, the mission compound in southeast Queensland. He, like others during his time, grew up under the oppressive authority of the Queensland Aborigines Act.

Kirk came to the Lord in Cherbourg, under the ministry of an Aboriginal preacher, Herbie Fisher, and entered the Bible College at Singleton, in N.S.W., in the mid-1950s. He worked with Howard Mileswho later became president of AIM in the Northern Territoryand after he was married, he worked at Caroona, in central New South Wales, with his wife, Dawn Dates. Kirk served for many years with AIM, and the highlight of his ministry was the development of his work at Cherbourg, which he built from nothing under the previous white missionary, to the point where the church became the dominant social institution in the area. There were many operations and programs that had their central focus either in or from the church or from the Christians, and the church was continuously packed. At Cherbourg, he was interested in upgrading secular education, because Queensland's Department of Native Affairs policies still had not changed since his youth. He worked with the community in social programs, toward the improvement of the quality of life of people within Cherbourg.

In the early to mid-1960s, Kirk was asked to serve as Deputy Principal at the Bible College in Singleton. His commitment to social justice was visible through his work of trying to change the system from within. He did not see Aboriginal people being empowered by the system, as there were no Aboriginal leaders participating in the decision-making bodies of the church. They were not in positions of status, nor in positions of power; they were continuously oppressed and kept down by the mission. Kirk felt that because it was called the Aborigines Inland Mission, those whom AIM had trainedthe indigenous people themselvesshould be at the forefront of running the mission. He spearheaded the drive for as long as he could, before finally leaving the mission. The confrontation was so great that the Aboriginal people and the non-Aboriginal people decided to go their own ways.

Ultimately, at a meeting of the Aboriginal people at Cherbourg twelve to eighteen months later, the Aboriginal Convention decided to form the Australian Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship. Unbeknownst to them, Kirk's colleagues had been aware of this movement and were leading their own counter-movement amongst the United Aborigines Mission (UAM), a sister Mission of AIM in Western Australia. Both of these had worked together in the initial stages at La Perouse, in Sydney. The Aboriginal Conference in Western Australia formed the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship. Within one week of each other, and without prior notice, these two Evangelical Fellowship organizations, independently of each other, had arrived at the same name, with almost the same mandateone in the east and one in the west. In 1968, they began joint conferences and, finally, in 1970, decided to merge the groups, and formulated the national umbrella, the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship of Australia (AEF).

Kirk sought the development of the Aboriginal Church by Indigenous principles. Up until this time he could not see the church being self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating. However, he began to see evangelism spread within the Aboriginal community (self-propagation), and see the beginnings of self-support. Australian Aboriginals were and still are at the bottom of the ladder of socio-economic development, and what concerned him most, was that the Aboriginal people had no power of decision-making. How could they get out of this mess, if they could not decide for themselves? The teaching of Roland Allen's book, The Indigenous Church, was the driving and motivating force for Kirk. He sought to employ the principles of Roland Allen within Cherbourg, but when he went back into the mission the missionaries continued to hold onto control and would not give up their power base.

In 1978, Kirk, along with others, worked to prepare the property and program to become a Bible College. Kirk saw that the mission's policies and programs were not working in truly liberating the Aboriginal people. It was only bringing them so far, but still keeping them in bondage within the mission system. What Kirk wanted was true autonomy. The mission taught that the truly Indigenous church was to be self-governing, but it would not allow the Aboriginal people the opportunity to govern themselves within this system. This caused Kirk to lead his people against the oppressive system. Kirk saw the hypocrisy of the mission, on the one hand teaching self-government in its training program at local church level, and on the other not letting self-government go through all of the other levels of the church's bureaucracy. The whites held on to power within the decision-making and management processes, and marginalized the Aboriginal people. He saw their Westernizing within the context of their missionizing as racisma form of racism that was very subtle and that they had systematically perpetuated against Aboriginal people for 80 to 90 years, literally dominating all aspects of their lives.

Further, Kirk saw the mission getting money in the name of Aboriginal people, and Aboriginals not being the direct beneficiaries of this income. It was mostly going into building up the mission bureaucracies in which Aboriginal people had no part. He led the charge against the mission, and led the breakaway with the AEF.

Where he sought empowerment for the indigenous people through the establishment of their own churches and institutions, Kirk, however, did not see the need for the development of an Indigenous Theology. He thought that through Aboriginal control, he had achieved indigenization; but, instead, what had in fact been done was the creation of a Black bureaucracy founded upon white theology, missiology, ideology and misogyny. The only thing indigenous about this move was the black people who controlled it. What they all failed to see was they had all internalized their own oppression, as they were Aboriginal people thinking, acting and speaking white. They had not seen the need to incorporate into this new structure, or into the churches, their own identity, culture and theology. Paulson's assessment of Kirk's ministry was that "he was still applying Western theology to Aboriginal situations, rather than conceptualizing a new framework for theology" (Paulson, 1995). Kirk affirmed his culture and identity, but saw these as secondary and separate to his focus. While Kirk had not constructed a theology of liberation, he nevertheless had radicalized the mission. Kirk believed that Aboriginal people should govern their own Christian lives, institutions and theological education, be the preachers and interpreters of the Gospel message in their own churches, and determine the mission and evangelism of and to their own people.

After the first ten years, he began to suffer isolation as some of his colleagues questioned "where he was going" and "where he was leading AEF." Coming with a more conservative theology, they sought to impose their viewpoints. Kirk saw this imposition as detrimental to the cause of pushing ahead for an Indigenous Church. Eventually, as a result of this radical push, Kirk suffered repercussions. Colleagues wrote letters to him, advising that they were cutting themselves off from him because they felt he was too radical. The white missionaries pulled back, accusing Kirk of racism and separatism; they then used their influence over his Aboriginal colleagues to do likewise. Both began to ridicule him together. It was when his own people turned against him, that Kirk found nothing left for which to live. In 1986, feeling so abandoned, Pastor David Kirk took his own life. Kirk's ministry was cut short due to the overwhelming heartache of leadership under these conditions.

The Rev. Charles Harris

The Rev. Charles Harris was a third pivotal figurethe Founder of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, and the visionary behind the 1988 March for Justice, Freedom and Hope.

The Rev. Harris was born in Ingham, in north Queensland, during the Depression. He grew up on the fringes of white towns during the time of the Queensland Aborigines Act and the "White Australia Policy" (this policy excluded non-Europeans from entry into Australia on the basis of race). Eventually, his father moved the family to the bush near Victoria Station, where they lived in a small "house" with palm tree floorboards, kerosene tin walls and roof, and hessian sugar bags for partitions. The eight children, four boys and four girls, kept warm during the cold winters by wearing the hessian bags. The family lived on what they were able to plant (yam, taro, sweet potato) or keep (fowl), and on the scraps of his mother's cane farmer boss. The children walked two and a half miles to school each day, where they could only afford to have damper with treacle (a syrup). Young Charles would watch the white children eat their nicely cut packed lunches, while he sat over in a corner where no one could see his meager damper and treacle. It was at school that Harris first realized the power of racism to create the hunger and poverty he and his family were experiencing.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Harris completed nearly four years of study in conservative, white, Western theological colleges (including Nungalinya, Wontulp-Bi-Buya and the College in Brisbane), where he remained unaware of the issues of justice and struggle.

In the 1970s, the Rev. Charles Harris followed Brady at the ministry in Brisbane, taking up the mantle of direct ministry with the Aboriginal people at Musgrave Park. His work continued the prophetic stands for justice, eventually culminating in his vision of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in 1985. His subsequent writings reveal a true passion and "thirst" for justice.

When he came to work with Pastor Don Brady in the inner city suburbs of Brisbane and the centre at Paddington, however, he encountered a reality that shocked and changed him. While Harris was sitting with the alcoholics in Musgrave Park, God gave him a vision of his own people "crushed beyond hopelessness, just drinking themselves to death, having no hope for the future" (Pattel-Gray, p. 122), and he felt the pain and suffering of the Aboriginal people. There, he met not the imported God, but the Aboriginal Godthe One that called him to a radical new vision of a Gospel which liberates, and one that could "break through any barrier and bridge any gap that existed not only in the Aboriginal community, but also in the world" (Pattel-Gray, p. 122). Harris was made aware that the Bible could address current issues, those that affected his people. "Unless the Gospel does address and can address the [current] situation the current issues, then it's not the Gospel to me. It's definitely not the Gospel, it's something that man has imposed upon his fellow man" (Pattel-Gray, p. 122).

In 1980, Harris was ordained to the Christian ministry in the Uniting Church in Australia. During this period, Harris had a vision of a Black, autonomous church, with its own leadership and ministrya place for Aboriginal people to gather and to share their hopes, faith and ministry. In 1985, as the visionary behind this initiative and under his direction, Harris founded the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), under the umbrella of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA). What Kirk had envisioned, Harris made a reality for Aboriginal Christians of the UCA. Harris' achievements included not only separate organizational structures, but also securing the economics to sustain national and various state entities throughout Australia. No longer would Aboriginal ministry be in the hands of the West; now, it would be secured firmly in the hands of Aboriginal peoplefulfilling the goal of self-determination so sought by Harris. His accomplishments became the impetus behind the Aboriginal Christian movement within the church for a separate Aboriginal ecclesiastical structure, yet with an equal place in the life of the whole church.

During his time of leadership as President of the UAICC, Harris had yet another vision: a March for Justice, Freedom and Hope, which would be a protest against the white Australian bicentennial celebration. This march was to go down in history as the largest protest ever seen. On January 26, 1988Invasion Daydespite government and general community insensitivity towards the Aboriginal call for a Year of Mourning, most of Australia marked a "year of celebrations." For whites, this date (Australia Day) commemorated the claiming of Australia for the "English Crown" by the first British governor of New South Wales. Nevertheless, Aboriginal people managed to draw national and international attention to the hypocrisy of the bicentenary with the March. On Invasion Dayand for the first time thousands of Aboriginals from across the nation met in Sydney and marched to mourn past and present injustices against Aboriginal people and to celebrate the Survival of the Aboriginal Race. As a popular song by an Aboriginal rock band said: "We Have Survived!" On that day 20,000 Aborig-inals marched for justice, and another 30,000 non-Aboriginals came to march in solidarity with them.

During and after the March, the Aboriginal and white leadership turned against Harris as a result of his radical leadership, which led to a conservative backlash among his peers (both Aboriginal and white), his colleagues feeling threatened by such radicalism. Moves were made to oust Harris from his position.

In the closing months of 1988, while attending a church conference in Taiwan, the Rev. Harris suffered a severe heart attack. Complications led to his being ill for several years afterwards, and in 1993 he passed away. In one of his last interviews, Harris stated, "the ultimate vision is that once again my people, Aboriginal people, the Aboriginal & Islander Nation, will walk tall and again find their dignity that they had before 1788. As they are able to do that they can make a contribution to any world community, any nation throughout the world, any society" (Reid, pp. 1921).

Brady, Kirk and Harris were pivotal in facilitating the significant developments that were to follow. All three walked the narrow road, and all three paid a high price for their radical stance on justice and their challenges to oppressive racist institutions. Their vision, obedience and leadership pioneered a new way of understanding Christianity, which still is evolving (alongside and in conflict with other, more conservative ways).

Other Leaders

Following the significant achievements of Brady, Kirk and Harris, Aboriginal people saw the rise of several Aboriginal Christian leaders who would also take up the gauntlet and continue to struggle against white oppression of Aboriginal communities, in the hope of securing the equal rights and liberation so desired by Aboriginal people. Yet, this struggle quite often came at a high price.

In 1975, Patrick Dodson became the first Aboriginal person to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest. Like Brady and Harris, his stands for justice were far too threatening for the hierarchical, institutionalized church, and he left both the priesthood and the church. After his departure, Dodson served as Director of the Central Land Council, Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and Chairperson of the (Federal) Council for Aboriginal Reconciliationall positions which reflect his continuing commitment to justice and equality for all peoples. His writings include: "This Land Our Mother," in the CCJP Occasional Paper; and, "The Land Our Mother, the Church Our Mother," in the Compass Theology Review.

Others have followed these great leaders with a strong theology and a passion for justice. Father Dave Passi, a Torres Strait Islander priest of the Malo group (which is the traditional religion of the Torres Strait Islander people) is also a fully qualified and ordained priest of the Anglican Church of Australia. He was one of the original plaintiffs in the landmark Native Title (Mabo ) land rights case, which shattered the white "legal fiction" that the Australian continent was terra nullius (or, uninhabited landready to be "worked" and colonized). Passi was led by his strong theological commitment to justice.

The Rev. Dhalanganda Garrawurra, of the Uniting Church in Australia, was a former Assistant to the Principal at Nungalinya Theological College in Darwinthis despite the fact that he was denied food rations by Christian missionaries when he did not go to the church on the Aboriginal Reserve as a youth.

The Rev. Trevor Holmesalso of the Uniting Church in Australiahas been at the forefront of the defense of a small parcel of Aboriginal land on the Swan River, in Perth, Western Australia. His theological stand has cost him: psychologically (he has been smeared in the media), physically (he has received death threats and, on numerous occasions, he has been beaten or arrested by police), socially (he is "unpopular" in Perth), and professionally (he is shunned in some white church circles).

Though he probably did not consider himself to be an Aboriginal Christian theologian, Kevin Gilbert nevertheless provides one of the most comprehensive critiques of Christian theology and Christianity itself. His works demonstrate vast knowledge of both the Bible and of Christianity, though he stood at the fringe of Christian hermeneutics. His sharp insights offer a major contribution to Aboriginal theology.

While "Aboriginal Theology" has been passionate about justice and the need for liberation of their people, it nevertheless has failed to address the particular concerns of oppression suffered by the Aboriginal women, youth and the disabled. Indeed, all of the theologies mentioned thus far are weighed down by Western patriarchal structures and sexist attitudes and actions. This endeavor to develop an Aboriginal systemic theology will encompass everything from Aboriginal cosmogonythe timeless oral tradition of Aboriginal Ancestral narratives to the modern written tradition of critical exegetical and hermeneutical work. The goal is to preserve the ancient wisdom of Aboriginal culture and tradition, as well as reinterpret and reformulate more recent Western theological concepts.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in Australia and New Zealand.


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Anne Pattel-Gray (2005)

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Australian Indigenous Religions: Aboriginal Christianity

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Australian Indigenous Religions: Aboriginal Christianity