Behind the quiet façade of a brick building in Hobart is a place buzzing with activity, and a group dedicated to inviting First and Second Peoples to experience Aboriginal culture in a meaningful way.
Leprena is the home of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in Tasmania.
It is a place where the synod’s vision statement – Following Christ, walking together as First and Second Peoples, seeking community, compassion and justice for all creation – is in action.
Congress Tasmania minister Rev Tim Matton-Johnson believes the synod’s current Vision and Mission Principles are important in guiding the relationship between First and Second Peoples in Tasmania.
Under the tireless leadership of centre manager Alison Overeem, Leprena has been transformed and re-imagined in recent years.Started primarily as a worship gathering space for the local Aboriginal community, Leprena now seeks to provide projects and programs in a culturally safe space.
Alison is a Palawa woman who traces her Aboriginal history back to the line of Fanny Cochrane Smith, considered to be the last fluent speaker of a native Tasmanian language. Alison joined Leprena as a project officer about four years ago and has been instrumental in broadening the centre’s engagement, networking and connections.
She said Leprena was not just for the local Aboriginal community; its vision is to provide holistic community development and cultural inclusion.
The centre offers a variety of activities such as children’s programs, family support programs, training and development and mentoring. Leprena also acts as a conduit for the wider community seeking to connect with Indigenous people.
Cultural learning and sharing training
Leprena frequently engages with non-Aboriginal groups to provide ‘Welcome to Country’ experiences, which Alison believes are vital in helping to bridge the gap between First and Second Peoples.
It uses cultural educators, dancers and singers to assist this program.
“For me, the Welcome to Country concept has become a bit lost,” Alison said.
“Traditionally a welcome was to say ‘come in and be a part of this place’.
“A welcome needs to be about inviting people into the story of that place – who the Aboriginal people were, what the place meant to them and what their cultural practices were.
“It is about welcoming all into the story of place in its past, present and future.”
On an average week, Leprena engages with about 50 young people. Most are First Peoples, family members and friends.
Its activities include a playgroup for children up to four-years-old, a music therapy program aimed at developing communications skills and school holiday programs for primary school children.
Young people from local schools and organisations also attend the centre for cultural learning opportunities.
Alison said a philosophy of intergenerational engagement forms part of the cultural basis underpinning Leprena’s work. All of the programs aim to develop a sense of belonging to a community and family in the young people.
“It is about us giving young people cultural strength and identity. Being able to be proud of their heritage and culture, but still telling historical stories of vulnerability from colonisation and telling that story from a position of cultural confidence,” Alison said.
“Nothing gets me more excited than seeing a proud Aboriginal five-year-old.”
A Safe Families program funded by the state government under the banner of Listening with our takila (heart) provides a safe environment for women to share their stories of struggle and trauma around family violence.
In June last year, Leprena hosted a Safe Families Expo.
Government agencies and Tasmania Police were invited to listen to Aboriginal people explain why community members might be reluctant to access services or report family violence.
“It is still a very small community, so there is a barrier to reporting because of difficulties associated with the information remaining private and the sense of shame within the community,” Alison said.
“Cultural practices are a big reason why people don’t leave (an abusive relationship) and our message around the importance of safe families is that it must come from within the community.
“Our new men’s program will push the message that there is a need for change and help men to understand that they need to change.”
Alison said Leprena will launch a range of learning resources in the first half of 2018 to assist the state government and NGOs better engage with Aboriginal women and families around the subject.
“We are seeking to empower women around family violence but also to advocate for better cultural awareness.”
Still in its infancy, Leprena’s men’s program has grown out of the Safe Families initiative.
It is currently collaborating with men from the community to decide what the group will look like.
Alison said it is important that men drive the discussion to determine what they want to achieve from such a group.
Conversations have already begun with The Salvation Army and Relationships Australia to develop specific services for men, with wellness a particular focus.
For almost four years, Leprena has offered lunch on Wednesdays in an open house environment.
There are no RSVPs and it is simply a case of people turning up and partaking in the meal.
Administration officer Tameeka Jamieson said volunteers arrive early in the morning to prepare the food and trust that they have enough, given that attendances fluctuate between 15 and 50 people.
“Just getting people to feel welcome to come into the building can be the hardest part,” Tameeka said.
The lunches break down barriers between the Aboriginal community and organisations providing support services, as both parties meet in a relaxed environment.
“We act as a bit of a middleman because people are more likely to access services if they know the people behind them.”
Tameeka said a growing number of organisations want to engage with the community, and Leprena welcomed regular guest speakers on a range of topics.
“People can come in and have a cuppa, something to eat and have a yarn. It is a very precious part of creating a sense of belonging within the community and helping people to understand that they are not alone,” she said.
“What better way is there to connect with each other than over a plate of tucker?”
The lunches also provide a way of meeting members of the Aboriginal community who are engaging with Leprena for the first time.
“One woman has been able to develop friendships and learn a lot more about her history. She had tears in her eyes as she experienced that sense of connection to community,” Tameeka said.
Tameeka stressed the lunches were open to all.
“Hopefully that is the message we are getting out there – that Second Nations people are most welcome or, as one of the main founders of Congress Rev Charles Harris said, ‘Second Nation’s people are welcome in a black church’.”
Alison describes Leprena as a collaborative effort.
“We will have more impact when more institutions (church, government agencies and NGOs) join together,” she said.
“It (working with a broad range of providers) allows us to provide a safe space for the provision of services at no cost to us for Aboriginal families who otherwise may find accessing such services intimidating.
“It is also crucial, through cultural learning, that Leprena becomes a space for the Uniting Church people to live out the Preamble.”
This intent has been helped by a resurgence in the relationship between Congress in Tasmania and the Presbytery of Tasmania.
“We are grateful for the support of the Uniting Church in funding Congress and Leprena. It is important that the Uniting Church has a place to gather and live out the story of First and Second Peoples,” Alison said.
Alison admits that the level of engagement between the Church’s First and Second Peoples in Tasmania has fluctuated, but Leprena looks forward to the future positively.
She credits retired synod liaison minister Rev Carol Bennett and former presbytery chair David Reeve with helping to drive the new relationship.
“We are really trying hard to make it open and we have some solid supporters but I think there is still room for presbytery to engage (more deeply) in a cultural program where we work more closely together and in a more meaningful way,” Alison said.
Alison said her message to the Church’s Second Peoples is “We are here, utilise this space, be part of it and engage with it.”
“Guidance and strategic planning from presbytery will filter down to congregations as we work more closely together around intentional cultural immersion.”
Alison said she believed the development of new cultural resources through the Vic/Tas synod would be extremely beneficial.
UAICC Tasmanian-based minister Rev Tim Matton-Johnson agrees there has been a pronounced change over the last few years in the relationship between Congress Tasmania and presbytery. As well as the work of Leprena, Congress Tasmania is working with Uniting AgeWell and community services provider Uniting to embed the Aboriginal cultural story in their programs.
Tim said education was one way this could occur. It is important that cultural education is historically honest, but done in a way that welcomes people to engage without a feeling of guilt.
In January last year, students and staff from the Pilgrim Theological College undertook a cultural learning experience with Leprena. Tim said the five-day visit was a joint initiative of Congress and presbytery and offered a clear example of working together.
“We got to engage with students and staff but also with members of Uniting Churches who travelled with them,” Tim said.
“It was the type of engagement you would not have seen in the past and people who experienced it would have seen that Congress is open for conversations (with the wider UCA).
“We are open now, more so than we were in the past, and that is coming from both sides.”
Una returns ‘home’ to Leprena
When Una Lalagavesi walked into Leprena just over a year ago, one of the first things she saw was a photo of her late-father, Rev Saula Lalagavesi, hanging on the wall.
The photograph recognises Mr Lalagavesi’s work with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Congress in Tasmania in the early 1990s, up until his sudden passing in 1993.
Since that time Una had largely lost touch with Congress, despite attending a few services five years previously. But seeing the photo and talking with Leprena centre manager Alison Overeem, who knew Una’s father, brought back a strong sense of belonging.
“We were able to share stories and it really did feel like I was coming ‘home’,” Una said.
When Mr Lalagavesi was appointed as the Christian Congress minister in Tasmania the Lalagavesi family moved to Hobart from Papua New Guinea, where Una had lived her entire life.
“Tasmania was very different in culture, environment and family relationships,” she said.
“Attending church on the first Sunday was surprising because in PNG, religion was dominated by the youth and the congregation was made up of over 50 to100 people. But in Hobart the Congress congregation was much smaller.’’
Una remembers being accepted and warmly embraced by community elders such as Auntie Ida West, Auntie Girlie Purdon and Auntie Eva Richardson. All three women have been important contributors to the Leprena story.
Una now manages Discovery Early Learning Centre – Dominic (Tolosa St, Glenorchy) and Illara Pre-School (Gavitt St, Glenorchy) which have partnered with Leprena to ensure the cultures of First and Second Peoples are shared with the children through joint programs. This includes working with Alison at Leprena over the past year to display Aboriginal-inspired mural painting at Illara Pre-School.