Social issues high on conference agenda

Congress members Aunty Dianne Torrens (Chairperson of NSW/ACT Congress) and her husband Tim performing at a fellowship evening at the UAICC National Conference in Poatina, Tasmania. The performance was part of a week-long gathering that included participants in this year’s About FACE program. Turn to pages 12 to learn more about the conference.

Congress members Aunty Dianne Torrens (Chairperson of NSW/ACT Congress) and her husband Tim performing at a fellowship evening at the UAICC National Conference in Poatina, Tasmania. The performance was part of a week-long gathering that included participants in this year’s About FACE program. Turn to pages 12 to learn more about the conference.

The high rate of Indigenous incarceration Australia-wide, the availability of adequate education and employment opportunities, threats to remove services from remote West Australia communities and the Covenanting relationship with the wider Church were among the topics discussed last month at the week-long Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress’ 2015 National Conference.

More than 150 people from every corner of the nation descended on Poatina, a small former hydro village in Tasmania’s north, for the gathering.

Daily business sessions were accompanied by bible teachings and workshops under the theme ‘Holy Mountains, Healing People’.

Among attendees were participants in the 2015 About FACE program.

About FACE stands for Faith And Cultural Exchange and has been an activity of the Uniting Church in Australia since 1984. It aims to build meaningful relationships with Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) communities.

Rev Dennis Corowa – chair of the Calvary Presbytery in North Queensland – was appointed UAICC national chairperson at the gathering. He said the conference had come at an important time for the organisation following a recent change of direction.

“It is a meeting for the whole of Congress and an opportunity to offer encouragement,” Mr Corowa said.

He said the organisation drew much of its strength from its regional groups coming together as a whole and helped to set a nationwide direction for the organisation.

“It is important because we are few in number but share similar problems and concerns,” he said.

“This meeting is an opportunity to support one another in the spirit of sharing the pain, focusing on the issues we all face.”

Mr Corowa said the conversations at the conference would guide the issues Congress would seek to canvas at the National Assembly in Perth later this year.

He said it was concerning that 50 per cent of those imprisoned in Western Australia were Indigenous, even though Indigenous people made up only about 19 per cent of population.

He suspected that the level of incarceration wold be similar in North Queensland and the Northern Territory.

“It is a big issue. Why are there so many Aboriginal people in prison?”

Mr Corowa said it was very concerning that many Aboriginal people over the last two generations had missed out on the benefits offered by the education system. He said the Aboriginal community needed to take some responsibility for the issue.

“We have had the issue of not preparing our people to be ready for education and training,” he said.

Mr Corowa said it was important that, as Indigenous people connect with the education system, they see reward for their efforts in the form of sustainable employment.

He said pilot programs, such as those in Townsville, had been effective in linking educational attainment with positive employment outcomes.

Mr Corowa said the Covenanting relationship remained important to Congress.

The strength the preamble added to the Church’s constitution in supporting the relationship between the ‘black’ and ‘white’ Church could not be underplayed.

But, while the UAICC understood its importance, Mr Corowa doubts there is much engagement with it from most non-Indigenous congregations.

Mr Corowa said there was a desire from Congress to see a greater relationship with the document, a view he believes had the support of the Church’s leadership.

He said the Covenant was the conscience between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal arms of the Church.

Mr Corowa said it was also important that attendees had the opportunity to receive some guidance from Indigenous Australians on theological and social issues.

Congress chair sees more independence as an achievable goal

Rev Dennis Corowa is keen to see Congress operate with more independence, but not at the expense of the interdependent relationship between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous elements of the Uniting Church.

Mr Corowa said the covenanting relationship was at the very heart of the Uniting Church. He described it as the glue which bound the black and white arms of the church.

Within that relationship he sees the possibility for Congress to have more independence over its own buildings, property, programs and worship in a relationship which still has all the features of transparency, accountability and responsibility.

Mr Corowa begins the role of UAICC national chairperson after more than three decades of involvement with Congress and more than a year as the acting chairperson.

Born in the Northern New South Wales sugar cane town of Murwillumbah, Mr Corowa moved to Mackay as a pre-schooler with his mother and stepfather.
After his schooling Mr Corowa completed a painting and decorating apprenticeship and gravitated to the region’s fast-growing mining industry, working in industrial coating before returning to his original trade.

In 1989 he began his ministry among Indigenous people in Townsville.

A father and grandfather, who has co-authored two published books on Indigenous theology, Mr Corowa is the Queensland chairperson of the UAICC.

Mr Corowa is also a member of the Covenanting Working Group of Shalom Christian College, based in Townsville, and serves as the college chaplain and elder to the board.

He also undertakes chaplaincy work in the Townsville Correction Centre and with Blue Care’s aged and rehabilitation operations.

He is responsible for Congress’ West End congregation and is the chairperson of the Wontulp-Bi-Buya College, an Aboriginal theological training centre in Cairns.

Mr Corowa sees an integral role for Congress in terms of evangelism, or reawakening the ‘sleeping’ love for God which he believes lies within his people.

He said many elements of the Christian faith sat well with the world as Indigenous people saw it, such as a ‘creator spirit’ and the belief that life was everlasting and the journey was not completed by death.

Margaret and Haileigh face a different future

Hobart woman Margaret Collis admits she was unsure what to expect when she first ventured to an Aboriginal community in northern New South Wales.

“I have heard of places where some Aboriginal people are understandably still very angry with white people,” Margaret said.

“But, that was not my experience. There was no blame directed at us.”

Margaret, who worships at Bellerive Uniting Church on Hobart’s eastern shore, was one of 17 participants in About FACE 2015. Organised by the Commission

for Mission on behalf of the National Assembly, the program ran for 16 days in January. She was one of three aged over 50 with the remaining 14 under the age of 30.

About FACE stands for Faith And Cultural Exchange and has been an activity of the Uniting Church in Australia since 1984. It aims to build meaningful relationships with Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) communities.

It celebrates the Covenant relationship between the Uniting Church in Australia and the UAICC, and encourages participants and those supporting them to be actively involved in Covenanting and working together for reconciliation in the Church and in the wider communities.

About FACE has a strong focus on working collaboratively with all partners to ensure that the program is beneficial for everyone involved, from host communities to participants.

Host communities are identified by the UAICC to strengthen and build upon the already existing relationships with the Uniting Church.

This year the 10 female and seven male participants  – from Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland – were split between the outback South Australian town of Port Augusta; Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory; Lismore, in northern New South Wales; and Grovedale, in Victoria.

Following a week in their chosen community, participants spent a further week engaging with more than 150 UAICC representatives at the UAICC National Conference in the Northern Tasmanian village of Poatina, as well as participating in briefing and debriefing sessions.

In New South Wales, Margaret spent her time in and around Lismore, Casino and Ballina, participating in diverse activities such as attending a gospel meeting and visiting waterfalls.

She had the opportunity to learn from Aunty Dianne Torrens, who has been a UAICC member since the organisation was founded, chairperson of Congress NSW for almost a decade and one of the first five Aboriginal women to be an elder in the Uniting Church.

Margaret said she had not had time to adequately reflect on her experiences and expected many of her real lessons would come down the track.

Brisbane university student Haileigh Childs said she, like so many other non-Indigenous Australians, had little opportunity in the past to sit at the feet of Aboriginal people and learn more about their way of life.

But interacting via visits to such places as Wilpena Pound near Port Augusta – in the heart of country central to the Adnyamathanha people – and taking on many aspects of the cultural differences has opened her eyes.

“I had done some practical work in my studies but I had never experienced the real culture,” Haileigh said.

“I have heard Aboriginal people talking about their land but now I have heard their stories and seen their deep connection to that land.

“It has given me a broader understanding.”

Adnyamathanha elder Denise Champion, the chair of the UAICC in South Australia, said About FACE was an important beginning point for people seeking to develop a relationship with the First Peoples.

“Participants are adopted into our families and we welcome them to come back whenever they choose,” she said.

“The in-community experience is just the tip of the iceberg but it makes it a lived experience which is life changing for many.”

By Nigel Tapp

The Covenanting relationship explained:

The Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) has acknowledged the values of its Indigenous members since its inception in 1977.

In 1988, Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress invited the UCA to work in solidarity with them, using the biblical image of the covenant relationship.

The biblical word ‘covenant’ involves not only the notion of ‘reconciliation’ but a deeper sense of partnership and solidarity in the sight of God. Covenanting means seeing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous as a critical measure of the degree to which the church is faithful to God’s purposes in this land.

In that same year Congress, particularly through the energy of the late Rev Charles Harris, organised the March for Freedom, Justice and Hope during the ‘celebration’ of the bicentennial of European settlement.

Since then, non-Indigenous members have been involved in covenanting groups, the process of rereading history and actions for a more just society, particularly in the areas of land rights and human rights, among other things.

On 10 July 1994, the Covenant statement was made during a significant ceremony at the Seventh Assembly of the Uniting Church.

This statement involved acknowledgment of Indigenous heritage, an apology for the past, a commitment to make reparations and a commitment to journeying together for justice and reconciliation in the future.

Share Button



Comments are closed.