This is the full text of a sermon by Rev Sandy Boyce on Sunday 20th January 2019
Sunday 20th January 2019 was set aside as a ‘Day of Mourning’ in the Uniting Church in Australia…. a time to reflect on the effect of invasion and colonisation on Australia’s First Peoples and our identity as a nation. The observance of a Day of Mourning was endorsed by the Fifteenth Assembly of the Uniting Church at the request of our sisters and brothers in the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), and allows us to stand together in remembering the truth of our history and honouring the culture of Australia’s First Peoples, their families and the next generations. The Day of Mourning will be held each year on the Sunday before Australia Day.
Our Gospel reading is The Wedding at Cana. I might have chosen another that more directly reflects the Day of Mourning theme. But one thing stood out from the gospel – there was a need, someone noticed, and did something about it. In this case, Mary noticed that the wine had run out at the wedding celebration. It was a particular pressing need with particular people in a particular place. Mary, mother of Jesus, is the one to verbalise the need once she had recognised the problem, and called on Jesus to help. Chung Hyun Kyung and other Asian women theologians suggest that Mary is more important to this story than we usually think, and we shouldn’t hurry past this “Mary factor” in the story. According to Chung, Mary’s actions express a “compassionate sensitiveness to other people’s needs” that is often found in women, perhaps because women have an acute sense of need and vulnerability that can nurture a compassionate approach to life. Jesus was raised by a woman like Mary to practice “compassionate justice”.
I wonder, as you reflect on your life, the ways you have also played this role of compassionate justice and awareness of other people’s needs, and of nurturing compassion in others. What would those stories and experiences be? How you have partnered with God in expressions of divine compassion, and point others to God as the source of divine love? Those stories and experiences of compassionate justice and service continue to provide a solid foundation for our mission and ministry together here at Pilgrim Church.
Let me mention the names of a couple of people associated with our Pilgrim history. (There are many more who could be named as well).
The Rev. Francis Cox was born in London in 1817, trained as a teacher and later as a Congregational minister, and was ordained in 1852. In 1857 aged 40 he was invited to South Australia and became pastor of the Ebenezer Chapel, off Rundle Street. His congregation grew and in 1857 they built a large church in Hindmarsh Square. Following the death of Rev TQ Stow*, the first Congregational minister in South Australia, Cox came to be looked on as the local figurehead of the Congregational Church. He was associated with the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association for many years, and championed the rights of Aboriginal people.
Rev George Taplin worked with the Aboriginal people at what is now called Raukkan (The Ancient Way) near Meningie, on the shores of Lake Alexandrina. He was recruited for the ministry by Rev Thomas Quinton Stow* in 1851, and the Aborigines’ Friends Association appointed him as their first missionary-teacher. For a settlement, he chose a traditional camping ground known to Europeans as Point McLeay, on the traditional lands of the Ngarrindjeri people.
It is interesting to note that this week some of the participants at the UCA National Young Adult Leaders Conference (NYALC) participated in a ‘Walking on Country’ experience at Raukkan, led by Ngarrindjeri Elder Rev Ken Sumner and younger leader Sean Weetra, and with the UCA President Dr Deidre Palmer present. Deidre’s 2019 Survival Day message was filmed on Ngarrindjeri land, at Raukkan.
In setting aside land at Raukkan for his mission with Aboriginal people, George Taplin immediately met immediate with opposition from John Baker, a politician and wealthy property owner, briefly to be SA Premier in 1857. Baker was antagonistic towards George Taplin and the establishment of the Point McLeay Aboriginal Mission there in 1857. As the leaseholder of land adjoining Point McLeay he objected to Taplin’s choice of location there as an Aboriginal Mission there would be “prejudicial to his interests”. The government intended making a grant for Mission from the leasehold lands of his Lake Albert station. To try and prevent it from happening and as a state politician he initiated the first Royal Commission by an SA government into the conditions and welfare of Aboriginal people. He had hoped to have Taplin and the Aboriginal Friends’ Association ousted from his land. Baker also claimed that Taplin only wanted the salary and was not interested in Aboriginal welfare, that he was lazy and that he bribed the Ngarrindjeri to attend church – all patently false. Baker was clearly a mean spirited man. The Commission found no reason to relocate the Taplin Mission, and Taplin worked on with vigour – teaching, building, sharing the gospel, establishing farming, dispensing government rations and acting as a mechanic and district physician.
He was keenly interested in Ngarrindjeri culture, and learned their language, used it in preaching, and translated and published Bible tracts. He published invaluable anthropological studies which were considered to be far superior to other contemporary work of the time on South Australian Aboriginals. A chapel was built at Raukkan, and you probably carry the image of the church in your wallet or purse from time to time – it’s on the old $50 note, along with an image of David Unaipon, a preacher, author and inventor, who was born in 1872 at Raukkan, then known as the Point McLeay Mission. His father James was the mission’s first Aboriginal convert.
Even so, Taplin was a man of his time and culture, and adhered to the contemporary view that Christianity and Europeanization should be adopted and Ngarrindjeri civilization abandoned. His moral code was rigid. His attempts to erase traditional initiation and burial rites faced dogged resistance from tribal elders. His insistence on imposing western ways served to undermine the government and social structure of the Ngarrindjeri people, further weakened traditional discipline and morale, and provoked strong opposition from conservative tribal members. But, they had already been dispossessed and persecuted before his arrival. Taplin’s efforts to teach literacy and numeracy, and trades, enabled them to survive and flourish briefly in European society.
Rev Francis Cox and Rev George Taplin, along with many others, showed great compassion for the Aboriginal people here in South Australia. However, more broadly, compassionate care and respect was not always evident in the colony.
The South Australian Colonisation Act passed by the British Parliament in 1834 declared the lands of the new colony to be ” unoccupied”. The Act’s clear denial of rights for the Aboriginal people to their lands met with considerable opposition from humanitarian circles in Great Britain (including Lord Glenelg, Sir George Grey and other influential men in the Colonial Office in London). The Colonial Office subsequently enshrined the principle of Aboriginal land rights by inserting in the Letters Patent, the document issued in 1836 to formally establish the colony of South Australia, a clause which recognized the prior rights of the Aborigines to the land and guaranteed that “any lands now actually occupied or enjoyed by [the] Natives’ would not be alienated.” After protracted negotiations with the Colonial Office, it was agreed that a Protector be appointed to safeguard the Aborigines’ interests. Among his duties, he was required to ensure that any land opened up for public sale had been voluntarily ceded and fairly purchased from the Aborigines. The Commissioners agreed to set aside 20% of the proceeds from all land sales in the colony to be used for the benefit of the Aborigines and also committed the South Australia Company to protect “the natives in the unmolested exercise of their rights of property should such a right be found to exist”.
In the new colony, these commitments were soon forgotten and all the lands were declared open for public sale – thus making the Aboriginal people landless. In fact it contributed to the Aboriginal people coming to grief with the law, because if Aboriginal people could not provide a satisfactory account of their place of residence and their means of living, they were to be categorised as ‘a rogue and vagabond’, and could be jailed. (Register, 1 December 1855, p2)
One reporter at the time gave an interesting insight into the inherent lack of Christian charity within the dominant European population: “The drinking and begging of these (Aboriginal) people render their presence about Adelaide very undesirable and it is a fruitful source of evil to them. The Commissioner of Police has issued instructions that in future their camps will not be allowed at or near the city”.
So, while the Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri people and many other First Peoples were denied access to their lands, flogged, degraded, abused, socially ignored – and more, Adelaide and the suburbs and the pastoral areas grew slowly upon their old tribal land.
From colonisation in 1836, Aboriginal people’s use of the land, together with customs going back for thousands of years, was to be slowly, but surely, all but exterminated by the intrusion of the British settler and the accompanying laws and diseases of their so-called “civilisation”. The numbers of Aboriginal people would continue to decline.
Geoffrey H. Manning’s A Colonial Experience, and quoted in the Adelaide Times (24 May 1851, p2) responded: “Shame Upon Us! We take their land and drive away their food by what we call civilisation, and then deny them shelter from a storm… What comes of all the hypocrisy of our wishes to better their condition?.. What can a maddened black think of our Christianity to deny him the sod on which he was born… You grow hundreds of bushels of corn on his land but deny him the crumbs that fall from the table… They kill a sheep, but you drive his kangaroo away. You now drive him away from his own, his native land – out upon it; how can God’s all-seeing eye approve of this?”
In its preamble, the Uniting Church’s Constitution acknowledges “a community of First Peoples and of Second Peoples” and that Aboriginal people remain “the traditional owners and custodians” of the land. It goes on to address the history of colonisation, the church’s mistakes in dealing with the Aboriginal people and its responsibility for the suffering it caused, “including paternalism and racism towards the First Peoples”. Church members “were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land”. It is important to address the way Aboriginal people view the role of the church as a contributor to their dispossession and disadvantage, as uncomfortable as that may be for us, the Second Peoples of this land.
Pastor Ray Minniecon wrote a prayer in 2009 which became known as the ‘Redfern Prayer’ and I would like to quote it, as sobering and challenging as it is for Second Peoples in Australia.
God of our Dreaming. Father of all our Aboriginal nations in Australia.
You have lived among us since time immemorial. We have always known You.
You gave this land to our Aboriginal nations. You have not dispossessed us nor destroyed us.
People from other lands, who do not understand our unique culture,
our unique lifestyle and our unique heritage have come and destroyed much of our way of life.
Many of these people from other lands now want to understand and reconcile with us.
But for many of us Aboriginal people, we find this reconciliation business a little difficult.
Too many of our children are still in jails.
Too many of our children are still living in sub-standard housing.
Too many of our mothers are living on the streets or in refuges.
Too many of our children are still uneducated.
Too many of our children have no land and no community to go back to.
Too many of our children have not got good opportunities for good employment.
Too many of our children are living in extremely unhealthy environments.
Too many of our children are living among violence and abuse.
Too many of our children are dying to drugs and other soul-destroying substances.
God our Dreaming and Creator of our people, we sometimes feel overwhelmed by these things.
Many of us feel like we are refugees in our own land.
Today we are coming together again on one of our battlegrounds to cry out to You
for mercy and justice for our children, for our families and for our land.
We pray that more resources will be given to our local community organisations
to help us grow healthy and strong.
We pray that the peoples from other lands will be given a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone
so that they can understand us and support us properly.
We pray that your Spirit will help and encourage us to grow good strong Aboriginal leaders.
Father we want to grow strong and healthy again in our own land.
We want to take our rightful place in our land and make our contribution to the re-building of our families, our communities and our nation.
Please hear our cries for justice. We ask these mercies in the name of Your Son. Amen.
And so the story continues of dispossession and disadvantage continues. Like Mary, we have a role in the story – to notice, to seek forgiveness, to listen and support, to participate in acts of compassion and justice. If we are convinced of God’s goodness and generosity, we can nudge God with our observation when there is need, as Mary did in our reading today. We can intervene on behalf of and alongside others. We can recognise our responsibility to embody God’s own compassion and mercy for one another; to share in bringing God’s intent for new life to birth. May it be so. Amen.
*Rev TQ Stow was the first Congregational Minister in SA, and Pilgrim Church was originally named Stow Memorial Church in his honour.
G. K. Jenkin, published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976
Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology