Sunday, September 11, 2011

West Arnhem reflections

Between Jabiru and Maningrida
I've just returned from a week in West Arnhem Land with Ken Sumner, chair of the Uniting and Aboriginal Islander Christian Conference, and Lindsay Parkhill (who works with the Northern Regional Council of Congress and Frontier Services) as our guide. I've been to East Arnhem a few times but never West. Our main ports of call were Jabiru, Goulburn Island and Maningrida. Ken and I assisted in commissioning 9 new pastors for ministry in their local contexts in two memorable services, the highlights of which were the 'testimonies' of the pastors and Ken's tea and damper holy communions.

David, the Community Minister in Maningrida, at the Commissioning Service
 I've returned exhausted, only partly from sleeping four nights on floorboards of a house or on hard ground in a tent. Those foam mats seem thinner and thinner the older I get! The other reason is that visiting such communities makes me feel like an alien in a parallel universe. For a change, I experience vulnerability and powerlessness. I don't understand the language - I speak one and a bit, most indigenous people up that way speak 3 or 4 languages plus English! I don't know the protocols and often feel awkward and gauche. I keep wanting to ask 'what's the plan? what's happening?' realising that I'm seeking some sort of control. I learn to relax, let go, wait and trust what will emerge. 

We had many conversations - culture, theology, family, politics, ministry. At one level the situation in these communities seems bleak. There are very few jobs. School attendance is low. In one place we witness episodes of anger and aggression.

There is mixed response to the Federal Government's Northern Territory Intervention. The construction of new housing is long overdue. Some communities welcome the extra police presence, but in one place where there are now 3 police there was previously none, and no great need for them.

But the overwhelmingly negative aspect of the Intervention is suggested by its name. Once again it is a 'top-down, one-size-fits-all' approach. For communities functioning well it marked yet another instance of disempowering paternalism. We heard the lament that has been the consistent response from NT Elders - governments must abandon the 'template' approach and develop regional approaches grounded in significant consultation with local leaders. Everybody wants better outcomes in health, education, community safety, employment, housing - but the issues and priorities are not the same in every place.

A classic case in point is the decision to move resources away from 'homelands' to selected 'hubs'. It smacks of being driven more by financial and ideological motives than good outcomes. The research and anecdotal evidence is clear that education and health outcomes, for example, are significantly better for children in the homelands than children in townships.

The Northern Territory Government's policy of teaching in English only, rather than bi-lingually, has recently been slightly modified. It needs to be scrapped altogether according to educators. Not only has it resulted in significantly reduced school attendance, the consistent research indicates that bi-lingual education achives much better results, even in English!

We witnessed two very heartening things. It is 'ceremony season' in Arnhem Land and it is clear that traditional custom, law and ceremony are alive and well. Has this been a continuing thing or is there something of a renaissance happening? I don't know. Indigenous people need to live biculturally and I suspect there is a parallel here with bi-lingual education - that young people grounded in their our culture and language will have stronger confidence and identity from which to engage and participate in mainstream culture to the extent they choose.

We also experienced the vitality of Christian community in the North. While facing many challenges, they have a deep spirituality, a hunger for scripture and a love for God that makes my own look insipid. There is interesting conversation between Christianity and traditional spirituality and an emerging indigenous theology that will continue to challenge the received Christian tradition and enrich the whole church.

Commissioning service at Warruwi, Goulburn Island
 Overall it was an inspiring and unsettling week for me. Inspiring because of the faith and resilience of people who, by any measure, continue to do it hard in the 'lucky country'. Unsettling because, as part of the Christian community which bears a mixed legacy in its ministry amongst aborginal people, I need to ponder how to be involved in healing the damage without, even with the best intentions, making things worse.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an incredible time, good on you for getting up there and being a part of it all!