On Saturday 15 October 2016, speaking over the sound of a grumpy portable generator, I stood on the worn and creaking floorboards of the Mogumber mission church, reading a letter. It was a statement of support on behalf of the Uniting Church WA, to the people assembled that day. It was a difficult letter to read aloud.
The words of the letter are fairly simple, but they spoke some truth, pointed to justice and, for those present, brought a little bit of healing.
Mogumber, or what was previously known as the Moore River Native Settlement, became part of Methodist Mission in 1951, when the government handed over control of the site, until 1974 when it reverted to the Aboriginal Lands Trust.
For the people who came to Mogumber mission on that sunny October day last year, there were many mixed emotions. Some of those present had originally been taken there without choice, and in that event they lost their families, language, culture and country. Others were Uniting Church members who had faithfully served or worked there as part of their Christian service.
These groups met with fondness, much grace and plenty of goodwill.
The local Yuet people are keen for the site to become a place of healing – a story of redemption if ever there was – but there is a lot of work yet to be done including securing funding, talking through the decisions to be made and establishing a sustainable management plan. Some of the work is ‘inner work’ – like acknowledging that “goodwill” didn’t always mean good outcomes. In the words of the apology from the 1996 Assembly Standing Committee which I read aloud:
“The church thought it was acting in a loving way by providing [Aboriginal children] with homes, but was blind to the racist assumptions that underlay the policy and practice.”
After hearing these words at Mogumber, local Yuet elder Bev Port-Louis, had tears in her eyes as she hugged the life out of me. She said she wanted to get that letter framed and put up on the wall of the church.
There is power in speaking truth and it means so much to those who have been denied it.
Today I will be down at Wellington Square for the annual Sorry Day, shovelling sand with some friends, to assist the artists making the sand mural. This is far from my usual workday practice in the Uniting Church WA Justice and Mission Unit, but has become an annual ritual I wouldn’t miss for the world. It’s pretty special sand. What happens on top of the sand is pretty special too, especially this year.
May 26, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the handing down of the Bringing Them Home Report, the landmark inquiry into the forced removals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. The report’s authors, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioners Mick Dodson and the Uniting Church’s own Sir Ronald Wilson, found that:
“the forcible removal of Indigenous children was a gross violation of their human rights. It … was an act of genocide contrary to the Convention on Genocide ratified by Australia in 1949.”
These are confronting words to most Australians, but for many Aboriginal people they are a validation of their long-denied experiences and trauma. Unfortunately the impacts of this trauma are still being felt. It is to our national shame that we have not fully confronted the truth and hurt revealed through this report. Neither have we adequately begun to enact the healing required.
The Healing Foundation has this week released its review looking into how far Australia has come in implementing the recommendations of the 1997 report. Unfortunately the answer is, not very far at all. There has been some movement and the national apology to the Stolen Generations was a key moment, but that was only one of 54 recommendations.
There is a lot more work still to be done.
This includes within the church.
The Uniting Church has been active in trying to speak the truth about the Stolen Generations policies, about the ongoing intergenerational trauma resulting from their implementation and support for the healing that is still required. Not only through our support for initiatives like that at Mogumber, but also through our commitment to the Covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and our long-term support for the Bringing Them Home Committee.
It is through our connections to the Bringing Them Home Committee, who host the Perth Sorry Day event each year, that I find myself shovelling sand. Together with Acacia and Bev Collard, we make a giant sand mural on which young Aboriginal dancers perform stories from their culture, while thousands of students from schools across Perth watch mesmerised. It is a day for truth-telling. For calls for justice. And also, through moments like these, a day of healing.
There is, however, as the Healing Foundation Report reminds us, still a long way to go.
On this Sorry Day I hope we can ask ourselves as individuals, as congregations, schools and agencies – as a church, what work do we need to do to bring about the justice and healing still needed for First Australians?
Geoff Bice, Social Justice Consultant for the Uniting Church WA