Hobart woman Margaret Collis admits she was quickly struck by the lack of blame for past white atrocities she felt laid at her feet by Aboriginal community members in Northern New South Wales, she met during her participation in the About FACE program at the beginning of this year.
“I have heard of places where some Aboriginal people are [understandably] still very angry with white people and want to hold it [what happened in the past] over them,” she said. “But, that was not my experience. There were no accusations directed at us.”
Margaret, who worships at Bellerive Uniting Church on Hobart’s eastern shore, was one of 17 participants in About FACE 2015 which was organised by the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania’s Commission for Mission, running for 16 days in January. She was one of 3 aged over 50, with the remaining 14 under the age of 30.
About FACE stands for Faith And Cultural Exchange and has been an activity of the Uniting Church in Australia since 1984 with the aim of building meaningful relationships with Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) communities. It celebrates the covenant relationship between the Uniting Church in Australia and the UAICC, and encourages participants and those supporting them to be actively involved in covenanting and working together for reconciliation in the church and in the wider community.
About FACE has a strong focus on working collaboratively with all partners to ensure that the program is beneficial for everyone involved, from host communities to participants. Host communities are identified by the UAICC to strengthen and build upon the already existing relationships with the Uniting Church. This year, the ten female and seven male participants – from Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland – were split between the outback South Australian town of Port Augusta, Alice Springs and Ernabella, in the Northern Territory, Lismore, in northern New South Wales, and Grovedale, in Victoria.
Following a week in their chosen community, participants spent a further week engaging with more than 150 UAICC representatives at the UAICC National Conference in the Northern Tasmanian village of Poatina, as well as participating in briefing and debriefing sessions.
In New South Wales, Margaret spent her time in and around Lismore, Casino and Ballina, participating in diverse activities such as attending a gospel meeting and visiting waterfalls. She had the opportunity to learn from Aunty Di Torrens, who has been a UAICC member since the organisation was founded, chairperson of Congress NSW for almost a decade and one of the first five Aboriginal women to be an elder in the Uniting Church. Margaret said she had not had the time required to adequately reflect on her experiences and expected many of her real lessons would come down the track.
Brisbane university student Haileigh Childs said she, like so many other non-indigenous Australians, had little opportunity in the past to sit at the feet of Aboriginal people and learn more about their way of life. But interacting via visits to such places as Wilpena Pound near Port Augusta – in the heart of country central to the Adnyamathanha people – and taking on many aspects of the cultural differences has opened Haileigh’s eyes.
“I had done some prac in my studies, but I had never experienced the culture,” she said. “I have heard Aboriginal people talking about their land, but now I have heard their stories and seen their connection to that land.
“It has given me a broader understanding.”
Adnyamathanha elder Denise Champion, chair of the UAICC in South Australia, said About FACE was an important beginning point for people seeking to develop a relationship with the First People.
“They [participants] are adopted into our families and we welcome them to come back,” she said. “It [the in-community experience] is just the tip of the iceberg, but it makes it a lived experience which is life changing for many.”
For more info on About FACE visit http://aboutface.org.au/
Image: Haileigh Childs (left) from Queensland and Donna Champion from South Australia at the UAICC National Conference.