Reflecting on why we gather for the Day of Mourning
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images of deceased people.
My name is Nathan Tyson. I work with the Uniting Church Synod of NSW and the ACT as Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement. I am Aboriginal and I identify with my Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage.
As members of the Uniting Church gather for Day of Mourning services on the Sunday before the 26th of January, it is important to understand, and to reflect, on why we are gathering.
The Uniting Church Assembly website provides the following background to the Day of Mourning:
“On the Sunday before Australia Day, all Uniting Church in Australia congregations are invited to hold worship services to reflect upon and lament the effect of the invasion and colonisation of this nation upon First Peoples.
The observance of a Day of Mourning was endorsed by the 15th Assembly arising from a request of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC).”
The Interim Chair of the UAICC, Reverend Mark Kickett, says:
“In marking a day of mourning, we hear the call of Jesus to a love one another. We live into our covenant relationship to stand together with, and listen to the wisdom of First Nations people in their struggle for justice.”
The Assembly’s 2022 Day of Mourning Resources also include the following statements:
“Every year the Uniting Church marks a Day of Mourning to reflect on the dispossession of Australia’s First Peoples and the ongoing injustices faced by First Nations people in this land. For those of us who are Second Peoples, we lament that we were and remain complicit.”
“In marking a day of mourning, we hear the call of Jesus to a love one another. We live into our covenant relationship to stand together with, and listen to the wisdom of First Nations people in their struggle for justice. We affirm the sovereignty of First Peoples and honour their culture and their connection to country. We reaffirm our understanding that First Peoples encountered the Creator God long before colonisation. We confess and seek forgiveness for the dispossession and violence against First Peoples, we lament our part, and we recommit to justice and truth-telling.”
These are some powerful statements.
But as with the Gospels, words mean little if they are just offered to people who don’t hear the message.
While as a Church we have some wonderful statements in relation to First Peoples that include some truth telling and make various commendable commitments, I encourage people to reflect on these questions?
How do I act, and what do I do, in my everyday life, that reflects the commitments of the Uniting Church to First Peoples?
How has the Uniting Church, or my Synod, or my Presbytery, or my congregation, taken action to engage in truth-telling, to learn about Australia’s history of colonisation and the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal peoples?
What do we do as a Church to acknowledge the injustices of dispossession, oppression, discrimination and attempted genocide of Aboriginal people?
What have we done, and what can we do, as a Church, to effectively support and advocate for restorative justice for First Peoples?
I understand that many aspects of truth-telling are confronting, and can be distressing for those who may only be learning the various topics and issues for the first time. The reality is that many things that were done to First Peoples, both by Governments and colonists, are disgustingly awful and at times simply evil.
Aboriginal people were regularly murdered. Aboriginal communities, including women and children, were massacred. Waterholes were poisoned. Blankets were deliberately infected with smallpox and given to Aboriginal people. Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families simply for “being Aboriginal”. Aboriginal Children were put into institutions, often run by Churches, and subjected to regular physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Aboriginal women were regularly enslaved and abused, and Aboriginal men forced to work for rations rather than wages. Those who didn’t comply were beaten, starved, or worse. Much worse.
I know these things may be difficult to hear. But they are the truth. I wish it were otherwise, but it is this history that continues to impact the lives of Aboriginal people and communities today. For us we cannot ignore knowledge of the theft of our lands, the murder of our peoples, the impacts of the Stolen Generations on our families, and the many forms of harm and hurt caused to our people. We live with the grief and trauma that is a legacy of a colonial past.
Just as one example – our Aboriginal young people have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. I believe it has at times been the highest rate in the world. Our young people are constantly impacted by racism and discrimination, are regularly abused and denigrated, are losing hope, and are not seeing any form of positive future for themselves in this country. This is simply not acceptable, and while I know there are many committed people trying to address this issue through work at a local level, the Government’s priority and resourcing of this issue must be significantly increased.
While I could spend another hour talking about Australian history from an Aboriginal perspective, and highlighting awful things that have happened, I think most people will have by now gotten a sense of what has occurred. Some people were probably already aware of these things.
I would like to briefly talk about how we respond to this history.
I understand that, for many non-Aboriginal people there may be an instinctive reaction to adopt a defensive position.
I have been involved in promoting truth telling and advocacy for justice for Aboriginal peoples for over 30 years, and I often hear non-Aboriginal people say things like:
“But I didn’t do it, so why should I feel responsible”, and
“It was the Government of the time that did it, why should I feel guilty”
Let me be clear – truth telling is not about wanting people to feel guilty.
It is about acknowledging what has happened, and acknowledging the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal peoples and communities in the past, and acknowledging that colonisation has legacies that continue to negatively impact Australia’s First Peoples and communities today.
There are significant issues of injustice impacting Australia’s First Peoples that remain unresolved, and while we of course cannot change the past, it is the Australian society of today that has the ability to take action to address these issues.
It is you and I, our families, our colleagues and our neighbours, who can take action to make a positive difference, to support our First Peoples, and to see justice done.
I believe the Uniting Church and our members, as Christians, should be leading the call for justice for First Peoples. In fact, the Uniting Church has already committed to doing just that in the 1994 Covenant Statement.
It is important that Uniting Church congregations gather on one Sunday each year to “mourn and lament” the colonisation, dispossession and ongoing injustice facing Aboriginal people and communities. It is important to help people engage in truth-telling and to learn about the past.
But in practical terms, these services, on one day of the year, probably make little difference to the lives of our Aboriginal peoples and communities who still live with the legacies of colonisation and dispossession?
Will our Day of Mourning Services help to remedy the ongoing grief and trauma arising from the Stolen Generations, or ongoing deaths in custody? Will the prayers we offer on this Day of Mourning result in just and equitable Treaties for First Nations peoples who were unlawfully dispossessed under the legal fiction of the Doctrine of Terra Nullius?
While symbolic, and an important event in the life of the Uniting Church that should certainly continue, the Day of Mourning must be seen as a call to action, as a call to energise and inspire us to constantly seek ways in which we can support justice initiatives for First Peoples.
How can we do this?
We can do this in a number of ways.
– By learning about Aboriginal cultures and gaining an understanding of how Aboriginal peoples have cared for creation in this place for millennia through sustainable and symbiotic relationships with country.
– By learning about Australia’s colonial history, and the impacts that colonisation and related Government policies and practices have had on Aboriginal peoples and communities.
– By reading material written by Aboriginal people, and by reading these views and perspectives through a lens of empathy and compassion rather than let instinctive defensiveness make us unreceptive.
– By putting yourself in the shoes of people who were and remain dispossessed of their ancestral lands, who were and are oppressed and discriminated against, who were and are dying at the hands of institutionalised racism – for example the ongoing occurrence of preventable deaths in custody of Aboriginal people.
We can do this
– By working to understand the causes of a deep sense of grief and loss that remain a source of frustration, distress and anger for many Aboriginal people and communities.
– Through taking the time to effectively engage and develop trust relationships relationships with Aboriginal people and communities.
– Through using our knowledge and understanding of the issues and perspectives of Aboriginal peoples to inform advocacy on issues such as stopping Deaths in Custody and calling for the Australian Government to implement fair and equitable treaties with First Nations.
– Through standing in solidarity with First Peoples to support their calls for justice, and supporting the self-determined goals and aspirations of First Nations communities.
– Through using the power of our voice and our vote to influence the Government to take positive and constructive action to address the longstanding issues that continue to impact First Peoples…
For example why is it that the Government can’t address the socio-economic inequities impacting less than 3% of the Australian population? The “Closing the Gap” campaign was launched in April 2007, nearly 15 years ago… why is it that a first world country, with abundant resources, hasn’t been able to close the gap? Where is the Government, with bi-partisan support, that is willing to commit the necessary resources, over the necessary timeframe, to support effective, community developed and implemented programs and services that are contextually tailored, holistic and person-focussed?
The solutions to many issues of injustice impacting First Peoples are known and achievable, if our Governments choose to implement them. Realistically, it is the voting public who have the power to influence Governments to implement the necessary policies and programs that are needed.
Genuine commitment to reconciliation and justice for First Peoples is demonstrated through our ongoing actions. Inaction signals something very different.
Jesus told us that the two greatest commandments are that that we should love our God with all our hearts, and that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.
Jesus also taught us to act with mercy and compassion, to care for the weak, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed, and to stand against injustice.
Every positive action, no matter how small, helps. Every positive action makes a difference.
On the other hand, as succinctly stated by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
I thank all those who are organising, supporting and attending the Day of Mourning services.
These services are an important reminder of our need to reflect on, and learn from, the past.
These services also represent a call for all members of the Uniting Church to take action to address the disadvantage, injustice and inequity arising from the processes and practices of colonisation, that continue to impact our First Peoples.
May our God grant us wisdom and understanding, help us to find strength through compassion, and may the Holy Spirit guide us in all of our actions. Amen.
Nathan Tyson, Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement.