Welcoming Songs of Reconciliation and Truth-Telling in Australia

I just realised that a part #2 article I wrote was posted online! Have put it below and would love to hear your thoughts – Tanya


If the commonly quoted phrase “Sunday morning is America’s most segregated hour” is true, then I’m ashamed to admit I’ve secretly comforted myself with the thought that Australian Christianity is doing okay. I grew up at a decidedly multi-ethnic, arguably Neo-Pentecostal church – where all races and ages visually and actively engage in the same space during the service. Pentecostal scholar Daniel Albrecht explains this as the Spirit bringing a new reality, based on Acts 2 in which the Spirit moves at will upon “all flesh”. Australian Pentecostals owe so much to American churches for this narrative.

In my last article, I acknowledged some of the criticisms Hillsong Church lyrics and music receive. Just to play advocate, however, one aspect most people don’t recognize is the accessibility of the songs for immigrants. Even if your English isn’t great, you can sing along with a chorus that uses only Hallelujah, Jesus, and God [confession dear readers, this is a little sarcastic, in case you didn’t realise. There are usually a few more than three words in a Hillsong chorus – Tanya].

Pentecostal worship is also physical and embodied. If you’ve ever jumped with a mass of worshipping Pentecostal Christians you’ll understand. People pressed up against each other, hands lifted in ecstatic adoration of Jesus may sound weird to outsiders, but the worship just seems to “work” as it speaks across the cultural and linguistic lines that usually divide. At least that’s what we could deduce from the widespread global appropriation of these worship forms. Within my PhD research, I’ve found the same Australian Pentecostal worship songs are sung by Indigenous Christians as in the jungles of Papua New Guinea and also here in Los Angeles. There’s something so cool about a performed unity, isn’t there? Yet, I’ve also realized from my research that Aboriginal Christians sometimes articulate Pentecostal churches as an experience in “dominant culture”. They speak of the alienation they feel when entering a non-Indigenous church. As one elder told me, “it all smells the same”. And by this, he means that the organizational structure of a service represents the same colonial power that institutionalized children and claimed “new” lands citing “manifest destiny.” So while I’d love to say we don’t have “the race issue” in the Australian church, and we could talk for hours on differences in cultural approaches to multiculturalism, I have to be honest and admit we may simply have a different variant on the same problem.

For four years (sigh – not at Hillsong, no thanks spammers), I was a worship pastor for a Pentecostal congregation in Sydney. Seeking to engage our indigenous people, I found I suddenly had to grapple with the significance of Reconciliation for our nation when my pastor agreed to host an event to honor our local Indigenous nations. I wanted to form a friendship, and so we did this in the best way we knew how – true attractionist style. I was instructed to invite them to our church service. But first, we had to make a connection.

The connection we made was in an Aboriginal Heritage office two blocks away from the church – it doubled as a history museum. It was in this small, cramped space that I realized the untold stories of my penal-colony-turned-classy-city home. The curator motioned for us to ignore the displays, signalling to a conference room on the left. She seemed apologetic, but I wasn’t sure why. Offering us coffee, we sat and talked – for hours until we couldn’t sit any longer. Mia recounted the story of many local elders (Aunties or Uncles) of the North Shore area, who were taken from their parents by the missions, a part of “the stolen generation.” If we didn’t weep in front of her that day hearing the suffering of our local people, we did so later privately. As we were leaving, I intentionally walked to the display cabinets she had mentioned earlier and had us shy away from. She stood in the background, embarrassed and again apologetic. But the embarrassment should have been mine, as a white Australian. Old photographs showed little Aboriginal children playing in convict iron stocks, ten or twenty tied to a chain. Government issued tin nameplates stacked up against the wall, some engraved with art – tiny flowers etched on women’s plates named Mary and Joan, and naval imagery for the men, Billy and Douglass, these names carved in old copperplate writing. If an Aboriginal was spotted without a name-plate, they could be shot on sight. There were pictures of dead bodies in piles, reminiscent of the holocaust. I guess you could say I got it.

In the States, cultures seem to form in parallel lines, so much so that the words ‘white gospel’ and ‘black gospel’ have significance. However, in my continent, we could be perhaps considered guilty of emptying our worship songs of cultural markers, removing problematic beats and lines, until we are simply left with global rock anthems that cannot offend. Please don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly worship along with these songs – and even fear I am guilty of this type of songwriting in the hope that publishers may listen to my work! But if the genre of rock is the language that unifies us, then I can see that this decision illuminates some voices at the expense of others.

How we piece together our identities is contingent, constructed and contested, as Michael A. Rynkiewich explains. By contingent, Rynkiewich considers culture dependent upon artifacts such as  “stories, myths, histories, texts, concepts, metaphors, memories, proverbs, legends, scientific accounts, canoes, offices, relationships, planes, trains and cars” that enter our conversations. Identity is also constructed, as we use these things to shape our reality and form relationships. By contested, he notes that various individuals form sub-relationships within the larger societal contexts. They choose to adhere to some things and reject others – therefore culture is in a constant state of flux. Music is used in the formation and reformation of identity. The music we use forms our community – it forms our common story. There are parts of the story we tell and parts we edit. This is especially true of stories we tell in public. Are we the victim, or the vanquisher? The one who aligns with those in power, or are we a part of those who revolt?

When we look around the congregation, we see who we have programmed to be there. The congregation is a representation of the types of people we made room for – the ones we unintentionally attracted and the ones that felt comfortable to dwell in the space we formed. More importantly, those who are not there are important. We can’t see them, so often we don’t pay attention even though they are the ones excluded through our music choice, our attention to time and structure, or due to the things we explicitly or implicitly say. In bringing the local into our worship space we have to admit our various contested cultural identities are messy. The Early Church experience was messy. The reality is we don’t know how to give each other space without losing our own – but we cannot continue to ipod each other out or we will only become more selfish. Pastors (and I consider myself one) need to stop buying into the idea that other (big, more educated, more musical) churches do it better than we can with the Spirit in our midst. There is no ideal worship experience. We are a part of a global conversation, but there is only a real worship experience, played out in real time. We have to make our standard the Biblical text and utilize the latest trend rather than trying to program things the other way around. The “global” can only ever be a pale imitation of the life and vibrancy of a real community doing real Christianity. We have to stop hoping that the power-brokers will do something and start engaging the voices that have been at our margins as representative of the voice of Christ Himself.

I know this is a big topic. I know that once we begin talking, it can make the breaches between humanity evident, it can bring all the buried pain to the surface, and it can even cause new chasms to occur. We want unity, but there is a breach, a barrier. Surely, that chasm between us is sin. I don’t have anything else to offer my nation right now but to truth-tell. I know I am implicitly and explicitly implicated in such a practice. And yet, somehow, this makes it a little easier, to be able to come to God not only as a saint, but a sinner in great need of His saving grace.

In 2008, after so many years of our Government avoiding this issue, Prime Minister finally Kevin Rudd apologized to our Indigenous people regarding the treatment they received in colonialization, and have received since. At his closing speech in office, he reflected upon this very special day. In between tears he said,

What I remember most about it, for those of you who weren’t here, was as the stolen generations came in from over there (he motioned at the Government gate)… they were frightened. Our job was to make them welcome.

I can’t help thinking that as I reflect at the end of my life, I want to have this kind of a moment, realizing that I was privileged to help the fearful feel welcome and at home, and to bind their broken hearts in the power of the Spirit. I don’t want to reflect at the end of my life and realize that the very Gospel I proclaimed never converted me.

One thought on “Welcoming Songs of Reconciliation and Truth-Telling in Australia

  1. It’s touching. The love we preach should not just cover the people we are comfortable with, you don’t need much effort to do that. God so loved the world that he gave His Son unto death; it was sarcrificial ; a love that truly reaches out is sarcrificial: that love has power: power which anyone whatever race, culture or background would feel: A love given with no fear, unconditional. Willing to hang on to the people you desire to reach till the walls truly break down. Being willing to hang in there, not just cursory attention. An individual so touched can draw many. People know when some one is truly totally committed.

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