Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ernabella Church Restoration

Last week I had the privilege of being in Ernabella for 5 days leading to a service of dedication of the renovated church on Palm Sunday. Ernabella (Pukatja) is a 5 hour drive south west of Alice Springs. A Presbyterian mission started there in 1937 and the church was built in 1952. Some years ago it fell into disrepair and, because of its damaged asbestos roof, was declared unsafe. Since then the community has worshipped outside adjacent to the church building. With the oversight of the Ernabella community, and the help of a government grant, numerous volunteer church work parties, some amazing work by Northern Synod staff and volunteers from different states, the renovation is now complete. It was great to see the church packed to overflowing on Palm Sunday with locals and many vistors from around Australia.

I'd been invited to go up a few days earlier to lead some bible studies because the commuity there wanted to prepare spiritually for the big day so that not only the building was renewed. We had a great few days of fellowship, study, sharing, prayer and worship.

It became clear to me that Ernabella has a more positive 'mission story' than some other indigenous communities. It was ahead of its time in terms of early commitments to honouring the language and culture, solidarity in land rights and other justice  issues and developing local leadership and responsibility. It was clear that there remain deep and respectful relationships between the local church community and those who came to serve there over the years.

Ernabella has had its share of struggles and challenges over the years. In my Palm Sunday sermon I noted that Palm Sunday was probably a better day tomark such an occasion than, say, Easter Day. Palm Sunday has that note of festivity and celebration as Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. But there is also the note of future struggle and threat. At Ernabella last week both elements were present. A strong celebration of the past and hopefulness for the future. But also an awareness of the challenges facing indigenous people in this country in general, and the particular challenges facing the Pitjitjanjara people in the present.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Uniting Church condemns shameful Opposition comments

President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Rev. Alistair Macrae has condemned the recent comments by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and other Opposition members concerning the acknowledgement of traditional Indigenous ownership of land as ignorant and destructive.

Tony Abbott has criticised Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Ministers as engaging in “tokenism” and unnecessary political correctness when they acknowledge traditional owners while speaking at functions.

Rev. Macrae said, “such comments reveal a concerning level of ignorance about the significance and function of the regular acknowledgment of the traditional owners of land. They are extremely unhelpful in building bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“Mr Abbott’s comments give tacit approval to others to make ignorant and racist comments which can only unravel the goodwill that exists between so many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“The acknowledgement of traditional owners at public and community gatherings is the least that we can do in the light of the invasion by Europeans and the consequent dispossession experienced by Australia’s First Peoples. Hopefully such acknowledgments represent substantial commitments to reconciliation and spur the community to engage with more than words. For the Uniting Church in Australia, repeating that acknowledgement in an attitude of deep respect whenever we gather serves to remind us that we are committed, together with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, to the on-going work of reconciliation.

“The attitude of some members of the Opposition is deeply disrespectful. We look to our politicians to provide leadership for a better Australia but these comments display no evidence of a commitment to such leadership. They are disappointing and offensive,” Rev. Macrae said.

“The Uniting Church in Australia is grateful for the relationship we have with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. We remain committed to working together for a better Australia – a country that can admit the mistakes of the past and look ahead to the future with hope and pride.”

Monday, March 1, 2010

Christmas Island Detention Centre

I’ve just returned from a Church leader’s delegation to Christmas Island for a ground level view of how asylum seekers arriving by boat first experience Australia. The spike in boat arrivals in Australia in the past 6 months represents the tiny tip of the massive worldwide refugee crisis. Countries in other parts of the world are looking askance at what they regard as a mean-spirited Australian response to the crisis. Compared with many other countries we are simply not carrying our share of the load.

Our delegation also wanted to explore how the churches and other religious communities in Australia might join with other voluntary and not-for-profit groups and caring locals to help humanize the strange and artificial world of Christmas Island Detention Centre.

My response to what I saw and heard is mixed. The concerns consistently expressed by the Uniting Church about the very existence of an off-shore detention centre were reinforced. Such a place should not exist. Australia has a legitmate right to manage its borders but the policy of processing the arrivals’ bona fides at a remote offshore location in an environment resembling a high security prison compound is unjustifiable. Christmas Island is a four hour flight from Perth and a mere 300km from Jakarta. The Detention Centre is a compound carved out of the tropical forest with high, razor-wired fences capable of carrying 50,000 volts of electricity.

To be fair the Government is trying, with some success, to change practices within the facility to render it less like a prison and more like a transition camp. Minister Evan’s seven core values include respect for ‘clients’ (not ‘detainees’) high on the list. The shift is worthy if not yet consistently realized. Just six months ago the detention Centre housed around 600 asylum seekers. Last week the number approached 1800. This escalation of arrivals is due largely to the war in Afghanistan and the huge number of displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka. The sheer logistical challenges in accommodating, feeding, clothing such a large and culturally diverse group of people cannot be underestimated.

Of most immediate concern are the 90 or so young people referred to as unaccompanied minors. These children are 18 years and below and they have arrived here on their own. Some carry deep scars of painful memories, others bear the burden of expectation of the families and communities who have pooled together precious resources to send them on a journey of hope and promise. All exist in a limbo of longing for a visa, their passport to hope, and of homesickness and loneliness that comes from being separated from loved ones with no immediate hopes of reunion. Given that Christmas Island Detention centre will be there for a while at the very least these young people and the other children with their families should as a matter of course be accommodated in a community placement on the mainland.

The asylum seekers are not criminals. Nor are they queue jumpers - where they come from there are no queues. Nor do they enjoy luxurious accommodation on Christmas Island, far from it. The facilities are adequate but rudimentary. It is not a place that I would want anyone I care for to stay. It is a liminal, betwixt and between place where fear and hope cohabit. It is a holding-pen housing people who know they cannot return (unless they are forced to by failing security checks) but who cannot dare to hope for too much from this country to whose big-heartedness they have appealed.

We heard many stories in our short stay. Those who have arrived more recently, especially those from countries whose visa applications are processed relatively quickly, are on the whole buoyant and positive. The Department of Immigration aims at an average of 90 days (it’s currently 110 days) to assess whether asylum seekers meet the international criteria for refugees – ninety-five per cent achieve this. Then there is a security checking process. For the Tamils from Sri Lanka this is taking considerably longer and some of the people we met had been in the Detention Centre for more than nine months. It was disheartening for them to see groups of people who had arrived months later receiving visas and leaving for the mainland, their own prospects uncertain. We urge that more resources be invested to expedite these checks more quickly.

Let’s not allow this humanitarian crisis to become once again a cheap political plaything. There is a legitimate place for border protection. And there is a compelling humanitarian case for ensuring that people fleeing persecution and seeking safety here be treated expeditiously and humanely.

Let's keep campaigning for closure of this facility as soon as possible, and in the meantime, for the immediate implementation of a policy that all children and family groups be housed on the mainland while their applications are being processed