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An Australia Day Reflection

One of my more uncomfortable memories is of my twenty-something self. A friend had recently completed her degree in social work. She voted for the Greens. I voted Liberal. Each of us had opinions on- well, on everything.

It was the nineties, and one night as we and our current boyfriends (now husbands) washed the dishes together after dinner, we discussed the current debate raging over the apology that John Howard refused to give to the stolen generation of indigenous Australians.

My friend believed that the government should apologise to indigenous Australians for the terrible trauma and suffering caused by past government policies of removing Aboriginal children from their families and placing them instead into the care of white people, mainly in institutions.

I believed that we could not be held responsible for the actions of previous generations. We had not done anything wrong, so why should we apologise? I thought that the events of the past regarding the treatment of indigenous Australians were terrible. I felt sad about them. But it wasn’t my fault.

Over a decade later, in February 2008 (our argument long forgotten!), newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made his new governments’ first order of business an apology to the stolen generation. I was barely aware of this historic moment. I was wading through days crammed with the needs of five small children, full-time ministry and part-time study. I had changed my voting preferences, had little knowledge of the history of Aboriginal Australians, and was entirely unaware of their current situation.

But God’s grace notes were at work in my life.

In January 2008 I, with some other leaders from the small church of which I was on staff, attended a missionary conference which had a particular focus on indigenous ministry. By the end of the conference, we felt compelled to act to help Aboriginal people in some way.

That journey is another story, but eventually teams from our church began visiting a small indigenous community in a remote part of the Northern Territory. I began to spend time in the community twice a year.

Initially, we were largely ignored in the community. For good reason, too. The indigenous community were accustomed to white-fellas sweeping in and out to implement do-good programmes that would all too soon be replaced by another white-fella organisation or government strategy. They were cautious about sowing into relationships that frequently dissolved as soon as the white-fella’s quick-fix failed.

Gradually though- after years of visiting- we were acknowledged. Then we were welcomed. We got to know people and we laughed together and prayed together and ate together. We were invited to places of staggering beauty special to the local people. Eventually I realised that on some level I had forgotten about my ‘mission’ to help. I just enjoyed being there. I considered these people my friends and I hoped that they felt the same.

I never even thought about my stand on the apology. It was buried beneath other memories. Then one afternoon, as a few of us sat in the shade with a local women, she began to share a story that we had never been let into before. It was the story of her ancestors, precious few generations ago, being hunted like animals. They hid in caves, terrified of the white ghost-like men who rode horses and came to kill. She told of a merciless massacre at the billabong, where just that morning, we had gathered in Jesus’ name and praised God for his creation.

In all our visits, in all my fancied friendship, in my self-important ‘helping’, no-one had told us these stories before. They had simply accepted us and shown us grace and good humour. We didn’t even begin to deserve it.

God broke my heart that afternoon. Our friend had told her story so plainly, without blame, without bitterness or anger, just with a statement of the facts about what had happened. Her entrusting of these stories to us was- impossibly, incredibly- a gesture of friendship!

I felt such tremendous shame; such responsibility for what my predecessors had done; and for the little I had done to fix it. I felt overwhelmed with helplessness knowing that I could never change what had happened. I felt deep guilt that I had indifferently benefitted from the blessings of living in this country at the cost of the lives and freedom of others.

All I wanted to do was to say sorry; to say sorry, and to make things right.

That day I learnt a lesson about grace that I will never forget. I felt God’s gentleness, his kindness and his patience. And I felt his rebuke.

As I think on this Australia Day of my shameful and immature refusal to apologise, I am reminded that apology is what lies at the very heart of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus is repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation and liberation and hope. All Christian people know this. They know it because they’ve experienced it.

I am reminded, too, that repentance is not just words. Repentance comes in a package. It’s the ‘sorry package’ I taught my kids when they were little- own it, admit it without excuse, say the words of sorry, and fix it up. Easy to describe, harder to do!

We celebrate our nationhood again today. It is years now since we opened the package of sorry. We have said the words. We have- perhaps- even owned the wrong. But we have not fixed it.

Indigenous Australians still have the highest rates of everything- and not the good things- no, the ones that no developed country should have. Diabetes, infant mortality, domestic violence, child abuse, unemployment, illiteracy, incarceration, and more.

I don’t really know how to go about ‘fixing it up’. I am not an expert in indigenous affairs. But I do know that carrying a burden of purposeless guilt is not the answer. I know that I can advocate for my friends. I can pray for them. I can partner with them. And I can continue to treasure their grace-filled friendship as the gift of God that it is.

Belinda Burn

January 2016 I have spent the last ten years working as the Ministry Worker in team leadership of an Anglican Church plant on Sydney's North Shore. I absolutely loved it. Now wondering what next? Have completed 99% of a degree in primary teaching and 40% of a degree in theology. Married to John and we have five children and a dog named Sweetie. I love helping others to understand the Bible, and learning to understand it myself. Time and time again I have been moved by God's grace and kindness, by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and struck by the fact that Jesus is someone I really want to follow. I like to pray. I also like coffee, preaching, surfing when no-one's watching, singing and all things music, visiting my indigenous friends in the Northern Territory, playing Soda Crush (is it OK to say that?), watching Biggest Loser (or that?!!). I care about being authentic, about justice and about taking God's word seriously. I am learning: to play cello; to embrace middle age; that God actually does love me, a lot; to trust him.

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