Loss and trauma are experiences that stay with us in the long-term. By the time we are adults, many of us have an experience of suffering, the memory of which resonates through our stories and may even divide our life into ‘before’ the event and ‘after’.
As I have heard the stories of Indigenous people, I have been shocked by the immensity of the loss that they live with every day. What I may experience once in a lifetime, they experience regularly.
I recently spoke with three Aboriginal leaders, all Christians involved in ministry, about how they respond to those experiencing trauma, and asked how TEAR Australia’s supporters and the broader church can play a role in healing the effects of compound trauma.
I always think that the church could have a greater ministry with the grief that has just riddled our Aboriginal people.
Pastor of Aboriginal Berean Community Church in Adelaide
Don is a Noongar man from southern West Australia. When we meet in his church office, the suburban setting seems light years away from the stories he shares. “I have had a lot of experience,” he tells me. “Before I took over the ministry of the church my work was with kids – young kids on the street, petrol sniffers. I’ve worked within the juvenile institutions and with men and women in the prisons and in the area of drug and alcohol rehab. As Aboriginal people, we know that there is, what I call, ‘compound grief’.
I grew up on a reserve in Katanning in the south-west of Western Australia and I saw the incredible violence that was on those reserves and I often thought, why? Why would there be so much violence? It was only later that I learned about internalised oppression, where you either take your anger back on yourself or you take it out on your community. I have seen all of that.”
Pastor Don told me that one year he conducted 36 funerals. “There is a huge amount of grief that is happening in our community. We do a lot of funeral services, believe me. I always think that the church could have a greater ministry with the grief that has just riddled our Aboriginal people.”
State Development and Outreach Coordinator at Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress
Mark is a Noongar man from the from Noongar Whadjuk and also Balardong country. Through his work for the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in South Australia, he sees the trauma that riddles Indigenous communities. When we met in his office at the Adelaide College of Divinity, he also spoke about being called on to conduct many funerals. In his role as a minister, he worries that the build-up of grief is not being dealt with.
While working as a pastor in Wilcannia, in western New South Wales, he said he went for months on end conducting a funeral a week. “I reckon I’ve buried a good portion, maybe a third, of the people that are in that cemetery. Many of them were young people or middle-aged; quite a number were suicides and tragic deaths of children,” he reflects.
He believes that the wider Aboriginal community look to the church when someone dies. “A lot of our people have a sense that the church is a significant spiritual place, even though some have an intense hatred of it because of their past history. We know the journey (through grief). We have been on that journey ourselves and we know that there needs to be support around people and that they need to know that they are loved and cared for.
The Aboriginal church gets overloaded. They are trying to care for people who are grieving a loved one when they have to move on to the next one, and then on to the next one. The first one, is in many ways isolated but still needing support.”
Mark told me that Indigenous churches are both physically and financially stretched. This is especially true when they have to travel long distances to support grieving families.
“There needs to be some work done on how we, as a church, begin to deal with this issue of trauma. We need to have something that we can offer to people and through that be able to train others to be involved so that there are people who can follow through. We need people who have been given tools to work with families and help, particularly from a spiritual healing point of view.”
Towards a more just and equitable society for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Support community development work in First Peoples communities, led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders.
Anglican priest and Justice Advocate
Aunty Alex is a proud Aboriginal woman who comes from a long line of well-known and respected leaders in the Aboriginal community and has spent much of her working life as a Chaplain in Queensland prisons.
She says that those caught up in the prison system are often carrying a huge amount of trauma. “Whether that was through the stolen generation or subsequent abuse, I believe in the power of prayer and healing,” she says. “What I see is that none of the abuse has been addressed and there is no closure. I find that the boys trust me, and they open up and then I pray over them and I say: This is not your fault. And they say: ‘Thank you Aunty, I feel free.’”
Aunty Alex has sat on the Murri Court1 since its inception, advocating for the rights of the offender. She recounts the story of one young man who came before the court. He told how his mother had died when he was a little boy. His two sisters were taken in by his aunty but he was placed in foster care. In every home he was in, he was abused.
“As he related this to the court he couldn’t speak, he just broke down and cried. He had gone through all this and it hadn’t been addressed and there had been no closure. That’s why he turned to the drugs and alcohol and that is why he got into trouble. And finally ended up before the court.
When he told his story, I went over to him and I hugged him. I said to him, ‘I am sorry that this has happened to you.’ The Murri Court coordinator, who was sitting in the gallery, said to me, ‘Aunty Alex when you said sorry to that young man it was probably the first time anyone had ever said sorry to him.’ He has never been back in the Murri Court system.”
1Murri Court is an arm of the Queensland Court system, linking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defendants to cultural and support services to help them make changes in their lives and stop offending.
When Aunty Alex goes into prisons as a chaplain, she takes with her Psalm 91. Please pray this psalm with her, that the promises of God will be brought forth in the lives of First Peoples of Australia who experience trauma.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.