Today is probably a bad day to post a WordPress. But it’s been a week of pressing back internal seas of discontent and frustration. As I’m not yet sure when this tide will subside, I’m going to have to work out how to live with it. Usually, I tend to surf feelings, exploring their potential and measuring them – but this time, it’s more difficult, like a rolling wave I can’t get out of, and I’m taking small breaths hoping I’ll find myself on the shore eventually. I’m an East coast Aussie, trained to swim in uncontrollable ocean swells. And, the most common advice given by our iconic lifesavers? Whatever you do, don’t panic. So, in my attempt to not panic, I’m just going to write this out for my seven regular readers. I hope I can leave it all there. Of course, I realize that this may bring up some emotions for other people too, but that’s not my intention.
I guess my overwhelm came from the 2014 Australia Day celebrations, the day we as a nation commemorate the English First Fleet landing at Botany Bay in 1788. As the date fell on a Sunday, it was inevitable that our history be mentioned in church. Or so I thought. I attended a big celebratory national holiday worship service that welcomed new migrants and laughed at our many idiosyncrasies, but failed to mention first Australians, let alone deal with issues of genocide and pain that I read about daily in my PhD work.
So, another opportunity for non-indigenous peoples to celebrate indigenous peoples in church passed by. Yet again.
And I found myself suddenly bobbing alone, out on a sea of sadness.
More emotion came from my decision to attend a different, secular space yesterday that did grapple with the longevity of Australian history, ideas of invasion, and survival of our indigenous peoples. Seeking out a corroborree (as mentioned in my last post) I attended Yabun Festival in Victoria Park (http://gadigal.org.au/events/). There was a dance circle laid out in sand, but the event mainly centered on a stage with its audio equipment. I almost broke down in tears when indigenous teens rapped that they were “not flora and fauna”, despite Terra Nullius laws. I wanted to cheer. The crowd was awesome, and heart-rendering and slightly scary, all at once – an indigenous celebration en masse was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t get to see the Mount Druitt choir perform later due to threatening rain, but I’m sure they were fantastic.
I realized that this wasn’t just a space for Australian indigenous peoples. In fact, “advocates” are attracted to indigenous issues like flies to a pavlova. This was obvious in the variety of agendas represented – as vast as the number of people attending. Everyone turned out – kids, the elders and aunties and uncles on the hill, indigenous performers – but also the communist newspaper, political advocates and journals, Christian groups and marijuana sellers.
Proximity to diversity is perhaps the most faithful type of Christian living, aka the Mars Hill experience written in Acts 17:22-31. But it’s also incredibly difficult. I want to be a person without agenda, and yet I have one. Viewed through the eyes of the communist paper, I’m even threatening. And, I come with a lot of guilt about past actions. I have desire to engage, but more than that, instinct to protect indigenous peoples from my culture. I don’t know what to do when I see creepy old white men walking around unsupervised Aboriginal kids, who are laughing and running around, meeting footy heroes and jumping on castles. I feel awkward that celebrations were held in a park well-known to Sydney university graduates for random acts of sexual aggression. I shot up many quick prayers for protection, knowing that indigenous kids have said prayers before, all seemingly unheard. I don’t have answers for any of that. As I walked past darker faces, I wondered if I’m perceived by them in the same light as the lady handing out the “red flag” paper, and if they mind that I’m there. To Yabun’s credit, the event was entirely safe, with not one brawl, so that’s better than white Australia events hosted elsewhere.
It was stranger still to drive back over the Harbour Bridge, and see the lines of white people viewing the tall ships re-enactment at The Rocks, Sydney’s colonial centre. While I know the value of telling our history to children, I couldn’t believe the two events were happening simultaneously. Two different Australias.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe when I realized the dissonance between all these different spaces and events. Because I want them all. I want to be able to say that my ancestors came in on tall ships. But I don’t want it to silence Indigenous Australians. And now I know I have to do all the work of holding the arenas in tension. Many white Christian leaders simply consider the lack of indigenous voice in church to be a non-issue. And it became obvious in just one day that my life-time may not be enough to see change.
Look, I’m not doing a PhD to convince anyone else that they need to make a step towards reconciliation. I’m doing this because I did. As an Australian there was a part of my soul that was unfinished. My feet rested upon the earth, but I didn’t really know it. The land called to me, and I couldn’t work out any longer how to shut it out.
I’d long dreamed of scenes that lay underneath suburban Sydney’s lego blocks. But it was difficult to know how to engage them. My first experience came when I decided to walk to school. It took an hour each way to walk through the former M2 corridor, which was about the same time it took to catch the train that repetitive one station stop, and walk up the hill, trying not to step on other girls’ toes. I knew the hill off by heart, it was predictable: house-house-house until the school buildings.
But when we walked through the bush, it was different every time. It took us a while to find local features such as Whale Rock, one eye peeking out from a moss covered boulder. Birds alighted onto branches above: cockatoos, crimson rosellas, parakeets, and galahs. Once, a goanna crossed in front of us, tongue hissing. After the rains, we saw Mount Franklin water bottles in quantities you could only imagine, floating in the river. This made us question whether bottled water was really a good idea. It seemed like we gained wisdom each time we walked.
Sometimes my two atheist friends would ask me about the biblical stories I believed in, such as Sampson and Delilah, or King David. It kind of made sense to be talking about Exodus while slowly working our way across an unexpectedly swollen river. It was almost like God was writing a symphony out of Kookaburra calls and rains, that had started long, long before we trod the path.
After I completed my MPhil, I sat under a fig tree in Camperdown, praying to find direction. I felt God direct me to look directly at the tree I sat under, just like Jonah did. I reflected upon its age, and wondered what the stories in the Bible meant in Australia. I felt the quiet suggestion, that if Jesus would turn up on the edges of Empire today, perhaps He would appear as a little indigenous baby. Maybe He would be found in a remote community in The Kimberlies, fighting for space and breath and to live without deafness that comes from untreated ear infections. Or, even more poignant, maybe He would appear as a brown kid I drove past every day, in Redfern.
While I was there sitting under the tree on a sandstone block created by convict picks, I realized the biblical world had become a measuring stick overlaid upon my contemporary one. And in fact, the bible could and did critique it well. Who was I in the Bible story? Was I an advocate for Rome? Or willing to see God Himself turn up as a message from Galilee?
I guess this could be called a delusion for those who don’t like to believe God speaks to humans. But for me it began to make a great deal of sense, and, as in Hebrews 12:25, the fig tree became woven into a symphony of sounds and signs that pointed towards a new way of being. But knowing and following is different – it’s not as easy as it sounds. Seeing possibilities also means realizing the ways in which we fall short.
I don’t know when these waves will stop throwing me around, or when I’ll find myself back on the ocean shore. I do know I trust the Great I-AM, the Creator of earth, the Spirit that hovered over the waters, the One who made Whale Rock, as well as that fig tree in Camperdown, and who breathed life into me. And maybe that’s enough, and all I need to know for now.
P.S. For those of you I emailed with an unfinished post, I’m so sorry. Somehow, WordPress managed to be incredibly insensitive and remove portions of my blogpost…