On 18 March, on the lawns in front of Parliament House in Canberra, approximately 300 members of the Uniting Church in Australia gathered for an act of public worship.
The vigil was part of ‘A Destiny Together: A Week of Prayer and Fasting for Justice for First Peoples’. It was the Church’s public expression of grief at the racism and injustice suffered by so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and an expression of hope for reconciliation and justice.
Rev Rronang Garrawurra, chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), greeted the crowd in his native Yolngu language.
“We have come out today… to show who we are,” he said.
“Now is the time that we have all come… to stand in the presence of our Lord God and show… to everybody that we will stand and walk together.”
Mr Garrawurra said Congress was speaking up to help the rest of the Church speak up for justice too, and show that First and Second Peoples could stand together and help one another: “Not to be frightened about any power, any authority that walks on this land – that we will be able to stand strong.”
Church members from all over Australia came to Canberra to participate in what is likely to be remembered as one of the most significant events in the life of the Uniting Church.
Mr Garrawurra and assembly president, Rev Prof Andrew Dutney, led the service.
From remote communities in places like Arnhem Land and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands and from the centres of our big cities, people gathered to pray, pass the peace and share in Holy Communion.
Ahead of the service, at the invitation of the UAICC, many people marked their foreheads with clay – an Aboriginal symbol of grief amidst a community gathered together on holy ground.
During the service people marked each other with ash.
In these ancient symbols born of the land and in the presence of God, people experienced a new sense of hope – in all our diversity, First and Second Peoples can come to a deeper understanding of each other and stand together working for justice for First Peoples.
After the service, people gathered at Wesley Uniting Church in Canberra to talk together. Through the sharing of stories, new relationships were born.
In conversation, a sense of the power of mutual respect and understanding to transform lives filled the space.
Reflecting on the reading of Corinthians 1:13, Prof Dutney reminded all of God’s command to do just one thing: to love one another.
“The cruel injustice and crushing disadvantage that our members from the First Peoples deal with every day hurts us all,” he said.
“So we’ve committed ourselves to the task of working towards justice and reconciliation in the church – through our Covenant, through the truth-telling of our amended Constitution, and through all the day-to-day, practical loving of one another that they imply.
“In doing that we become a sign to Australia of what God has done in Christ for the whole nation and the whole world.”
Rev Elenie Poulos is the national director of UnitingJustice Australia.