Weaving and Awakening:
UAICC National Conference, 13-18 April 2023, Darwin
April 19, 2023
By Rebecca Beisler
The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) held its National Conference on Larrakia land in Darwin from 13-18 April, the first time it has come together nationally in five years.
The theme “Weaving and Awakening: A Renewal of Faith Community and the UAICC” reflected the focus of the gathering on honouring elders of the past and looking to the future. It was a time of fellowship, prayer and praise and reconnecting with the core vision of UAICC for the self determination of First Nations People in the Church.
“Justice! And out of that justice, self-determination, so that we can rise up and have a voice that speaks with great power and great authority.”
Around 60 representatives came together at Nungalinya College, including representatives who travelled from the traditional lands of the Palawa (Tasmania), Ngarrindjeri (SA), Andyamathanha (SA), Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY), Yolngu (NT), Gimuy Walaburra Yidinji (QLD), Gubbi Gubbi (QLD), Nyungar (WA), Lardil (QLD), Bundjalung (NSW), Wiradjuri (NSW) peoples and other country to attend the Conference.
In the opening worship held at Darwin Memorial Uniting Church, National Interim Chair of UAICC Rev Mark Kickett delivered a powerful sermon on God’s faithfulness alongside First Nations people since the time of Creation and still today as they strive for equality, recognition and self-determination in their own lands, and within the Church.
Mark recalled the driving vision of UAICC founder Rev Charles Harris who urged First Nations People of the Church that it was time to “move from being a mission field to being a mission force”.
“The Uniting Church in Australia has entered into a Covenant relationship with the UAICC. Behold I am doing a new thing. But maybe somewhere along the line we forgot. But the God who remembers hasn’t. And I have a sense he’s reminding us of that here and now.”
“It’s a story that no other denomination has committed itself too, which at its core, is the Covenant relationship, but it’s one that is based on justice, belonging justly, and doing what it is right as a Church that recognises you have made your churches and your wealth on land that was taken and stolen. Justice! And out of that justice, self-determination, so that we can rise up and have a voice that speaks with great power and great authority.”
Throughout the week, time was taken to explore these ideas. In a session led by Rev Ken Sumner from UAICC in SA, people were invited to explore what changes and structures would support the self-determination and empowerment of UAICC within the Uniting Church. What would it mean to move beyond the Covenant to an agreement based on justice and reparation? What changes or structures are needed to provide the economic base for future generations of Congress?
There were sessions that explored what it means to be a First Nations Christian. Rev Deacon Maratja Dhamarrandji from Galiwinku on Elcho Island shared in his Djambarrpuyngu language about the 'strong agreement' he found in Yolngu ways of knowing and his faith in Jesus. Maratja gave us an insight into the Yolgnu understanding of justice as the restoration of right relationships and recompense when relations are broken.
Aunty Rev Dr Denise Champion (sharing via video from Port Augusta in South Australia) spoke about the affirmation of the Revised Preamble of the Uniting Church that God was already here and known by her people and the freedom this brings to her life. “It has allowed me to be Adnyamathanha and a First Nations Christian.” Rev Tim Matton Johnson appeared via Zoom from Tasmania. He spoke about the truth-telling yet hope-filled theology of Aboriginal chief Woureddy and reflected on the ray of light and unexpected joy he finds in God’s creation.
On Saturday, Prof Anne Patel-Grey prepared a lecture (read by Chris Budden) on the legacy left by Don Brady and Charles Harris, visionary First Nations leaders who answered God’s call to be Christ’s ambassadors for justice and reconciliation. She spoke about the importance of First Nations people decolonising and liberating their own theology.
“Our theology is born from this land, founded on our relationship with the Creator since time began and it’s with this deep ancient wisdom, that sustains and provides our resilience to survive,” Anne wrote.
On Monday night Nathan Tyson, Director of First Peoples Strategy and Engagement in the Synod of NSW/ACT led a session at Darwin Memorial Uniting Church on the Uluru Statement and Voice to Parliament followed by a time of questions where he was joined by Professor Anne Patel-Grey. Nathan shared, “The Voice is a tangible action that can make a real difference in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples and communities. As a Christian I believe hope is important, hope that justice will be done.” See the recording below.
Travelling from Fiji to attend the Conference, Rev James Bhagwan, the General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, gave a presentation which highlighted the history of connection and ongoing partnership with Congress. The Uniting Church became a member of the PCC in 2013 through representation of the UAICC, and from last year PCC invited Congress to be a part of its negotiations and advocacy to the Australian Government through the Pacific Australian Church Network. James shared about issues of self-determination for people in the Pacific which they view through a political, social, economic, cultural and ecological lens.
In Sunday worship, there was a time of honouring Elders, past and present. Candles were lit for four national Congress leaders who have been laid to rest since the last national gathering - Uncle Pastor Bill Hollingsworth, Rev Jeffrey Garrawurra, Rev Sealin Garlett and Rev Dorothy Harris-Gordon. People were invited to light candles for all the losses in the UAICC family. In honouring the longstanding contributions of elders, eight people were made life members of Congress. Four of those present were - Rev Bapa Ken Garrawurra, Aunty Yanyi Baker, Rev Dennis Corowa and Aunty Marilyn Garlett. There was a closing of ties for former National UAICC President Rev Garry Dronfield.
During the week, Rev Associate Professor Sean Winter, Head of the Pilgrim Theological College in Melbourne, led a Bible Study unpacking the writings of Paul in the Australian context of invasion, stolen land and the structures that continue to oppress First Peoples. Each session began with joyful praise and worship. Singing filled the Nungalinya College chapel throughout the week.
Rev Mark Kickett who has been National Interim Chair for the past three years gave a full report of his work and the relationships and ministry of Congress across the country over this period. An update from the Uniting Church was provided by Assembly President Rev Sharon Hollis. Also present was Assembly General Secretary Colleen Geyer, National Directors of UnitingCare Australia, Claerwen Little, and Frontier Services, Rob Floyd, the Moderators of NSW/ACT, Northern Synod and QLD, Moderator-Elect of SA and General Secretary of VIC/TAS.
On the final day, decisions were made about the future shape of the national UAICC body. Rev Mark Kickett’s position as Interim National Chair was extended to allow time for a process to be put in place to elect a National Chairperson later this year. The Conference decided that going forward the National Executive of Congress would be made up of representatives from each region and its make up must include Elders, Youth and Women.
The conference closed with worship led by Assembly President-elect Rev Charissa Suli and members of the gathering. In the sharing of communion, all were reminded again of the unity and love shared in the body of Christ.
You can view the public sessions that were recorded at Darwin Memorial Uniting Church on our Facebook page and see a collection of photos taken below.
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