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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.