I don’t know if you’ve ever had a message that you were pretty sure was from God. That’s a pretty big claim, isn’t it?! But, five years ago I was sitting under a fig tree in the inner city of Sydney on convict-hewn sandstone blocks, desperately praying about whether I should enroll in a Ph.D. degree.
I suddenly became very aware of the tree behind me. I wondered how old it was, and what it had seen. As I sat there, I realized it was probably over two hundred years old and that if it was to speak, it could tell the multi-layered story of my nation. In its time, it may have seen Aboriginal groups hunting for their dinner, convict gangs, or young men marching down Parramatta Road to the wars while their mothers cried. It could have seen factory workers traveling to and from work, and eventually “yuppies” moving into this area with beards and huge prams.
There are plenty of fig trees in the Bible. Somehow between my desperate prayers and these distracting thoughts, I imagined the Bible opened up across Australia, and I wondered, how could we “map” Australia into the Biblical text? And I felt the Spirit of God prompt me to continue that thought.
Well, I decided, the easiest way to start was to link the power centre of Rome with Sydney. I then matched Caesar with our Prime Minister, and linked Herod and other New Testament centurions and nobles with Sydney’s corporate CEOs, bankers and university professors. Then I had a question that could not be quietened… where was Jesus in my bustling city?
Jesus had not turned up in Rome, I reminded myself. He was born in a humble manger in Bethlehem, and Mary was originally from Nazareth. The Scripture John 1:46 rang in my ears ” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
I felt that this was a part of the answer. Where was our Australian “Nazareth,” I wondered?!
And suddenly, I knew. It was the Kimberlies. If a new King were declared in a regional hospital or from a family out of the outback town of Halls Creek, (population 1, 211) maybe Sydney’s reaction would reflect the biblical story. I wondered, if God decided to adopt the form of an Aboriginal man and walk into town, would the church leaders notice? Or would they, like the Pharisees, reject him?
Perhaps the absence of God that I felt at times in the power centre wasn’t a coincidence. Maybe Jesus was indeed turning up in little, unnoticed ways in Aboriginal communities.
I had the distinct sense that there was something for me to learn. I must cross over Australia’s strong racial divide. But at that point, it wasn’t particularly clear what I should say to initiate this conversation. So, I started fumbling towards the ancient songlines.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 73% of Aboriginal people self-identify as Christians. That news came a bit of a shock to me. Some elders later explained that this was due to the stolen generations affiliation with the missions, and this helped, but it wasn’t the whole story. Many families have accepted Christianity as true despite rather than because of terrible treatment they received from the church.
So, I sought more answers. And one story from the Kimberlies utterly amazed me.
Warmun is a community two hours north of Halls Creek in Western Australia. It has waist high termite mounds, long grass, and otherworldly rock formations.
In the 1990s, Cornelia Versulys was a sister of St Joseph posted to this community. Her interest was in helping people develop culturally appropriate ways of retelling Bible stories.
But when she arrived, the elders informed her that while they were grateful to her and others for bringing the Bible, the missionaries had not brought Jesus. This idea troubled Cornelia, so she sat down with an older Aboriginal lady, Queenie McKenzie, who was in her nineties, and asked what they had meant. This is the story she was told.
During colonization, the Gija peoples were rounded up and taken to Texas Downs Station, on which they lived. Men worked cattle as drovers and were farm labourers, but they were free to dance the culture and law of Dreaming spirituality.
When Queenie McKenzie was a little girl, she remembered one day going to cut bamboo and swim. She came home just as her mother was cooking dinner. Her father had fallen asleep, and, with a hand tapping on his chest, he was singing.
Queenie wanted to wake up her father, but her mother wouldn’t let her. She said, “Shush-shush now. We’ll listen to this old man; he’s got a new corroboree.”
His wife learned in to learn the song from him as he slept. And when he woke up he asked, “Where’s my tea?” But she asked first, “What’s that you’ve been singing?”And she sang it back to him.
Suddenly he remembered his dream – in it, he had seen two men, a woman a baby and a little animal. But he didn’t know what kind of animal it was. So people started to dance that story in Texas Downs.
It wasn’t until Queenie’s mother developed leprosy and was taken to the St. John of God hospital in the Kimberly region that she saw a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus. Then, she knew that what they were dancing was the gospel. The animal was the lamb of God, and the men represented the two natures of Jesus – both man, and God.
The thing that I’ve learned in the last five years story is that God reveals Jesus. It’s up to us to listen, as the deepest ancient song of all calls us to honour our Creator.
This May, I’m so excited to be sharing at the Christian Media & Arts Australia Conference CONNECT17 about my experiences learning to yarn with Aboriginal Christians, and what of our future legacy Australia can draw from its ancient heritage
…. And I’ll be standing next to Larissa Minnieconn, a Kabi Kabi, Gureng Gureng and Torres Strait Islander leader and friend that I’ve been working with at Common Grace. I just know that God will truly speak to us who are gathered on the Gold Coast, and I can’t help being a little excited about it.
Versluys, Cornelia. 2002. “Creative interaction between Aboriginal Spirituality and Biblical Spirituality.” Master of Arts Dissertation, Pastoral Studies, Catholic Theological Union.