Pacific Australian Emerging Leaders Summit 2023
Emerging leaders meet with the nation's decision-makers to advocate for justice
December 6, 2023
By Raúl Sugunananthan
Last week, the Pacific Australian Emerging Leaders Summit (PAELS) met for a second year running. The Summit gathered 68 young people from the Pacific Islands, the Pacific diaspora living in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander communities, and the wider Australian society.
“Our hope is in each other and in our faith. We are stronger when we stand together, and we have so many opportunities to lean on one another now that we are in community."
Across the span of six days, we built community, deepened faith and advocated to some of the most powerful decision-makers in the region about issues close to our hearts.
14 delegates were from the Uniting Church. Many were representatives of our church partners with connections to UnitingWorld. Other delegates came from a range of Churches and Christian organisations, providing a powerful opportunity to work ecumenically and interculturally.
This was the second time I had the privilege of joining PAELS, and the experience was just as formative as the first one. We began our time together in Sydney. On day 1, the First Nations delegation led us in a time of cultural education and immersion. I was deeply moved by Pastor Ray Minniecon’s presentation on the links between Christianity and Treaty, as well as Aunty Emelda Davis’ session on the history of blackbirding in Australia.
Day 2 was truly a Uniting Church affair. The delegation split into two, one travelling to Blacktown Regional Uniting Church and the other to Campbelltown Uniting Church for Sunday worship. President-elect Rev Charissa Suli preached at the Blacktown service, articulating the strong sense of support we felt from the wider Church. My stomach is still satisfied from the Pasifika feast that followed!
We then travelled to Canberra for two days of training, story sharing and fellowship. Common themes of climate change, self-determination and inclusion for women and people with disabilities arose. We sharpened our stories on these themes and strengthened each other to be bold and faithful in our advocacy. By Wednesday, we were prepared to travel to Federal Parliament and speak truth to power.
The day in Parliament began with an event with Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy and their Shadow counterparts, Simon Birmingham and Michael McCormack. Following that, we broke off into our smaller lobby groups for more intimate meetings.
A key memory I had from one of these meetings was of my teammate Manney Compass sharing his story with Michael McCormack. Manney comes from the Marshall Islands, a nation that continues to be subjugated by foreign governments. Waste from American nuclear testing in the 40s and 50s leaks into the local landscape. His own grandfather still suffers from the fallout of atomic bombs that landed on his skin as a child. More recently, low-lying islands have been lost to sea level rise and Manney fears his own home will be lost soon. We made it clear it was up to politicians like Mr McCormack to take action.
While we applied pressure to our national decision-makers, we were changed too. We all left the Summit feeling connected and re-energised to use our voice for justice. There is much work to be done as we stand in solidarity with those across the Pacific. Self-determination is still not a reality in places like West Papua, Kanaky (New Caledonia) and Māòhi Nui (French Polynesia). We are still not transitioning away from fossil fuels fast enough. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still not being listened to, even though they know their communities best.
Our hope is in each other and in our faith. We are stronger when we stand together, and we have so many opportunities to lean on one another now that we are in community. On the last day, we stood alongside our First Nations siblings in support of the call to Raise the Age of criminal responsibility, an issue that disproportionately impacts First Peoples. My hope is that we continue to work together on practical ideas for change until we meet again next year.
I would like to extend particular thanks to the Micah team for organising the summit, as well as the senior mentors who took time to equip us and support us, including Uniting Church leaders Rev Alimoni Taumoepeau, Rev Vini Ravetali, and Pastor Joyce Tangi.
In faith and hope,
Assembly Policy and Advocacy Officer
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