The long road to reconciling Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples is dotted with many milestones. Over a decade, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation raised awareness of Aboriginal history and promoted action on the disadvantages endured by Aborigines. We have had the Mabo and Wik High Court decisions on land rights. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was followed by the Human Rights Commission report Bringing Them Home, describing the processes involved in the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families.
One consequence of this raised awareness was plain for all to see last year in the Walk Across the Bridge events held in cities and towns. Here were hundreds of thousands of Australians walking in solidarity with the Reconciliation cause- a human tide that could not be resisted.
As I write this it is just a week since Pope John Paul II affirmed the 1998 Bishops' Synod on Oceania, with words that speak precisely to the place where we find ourselves today: "The wrongs done to indigenous people need to be honestly acknowledged…Their identity and culture are gravely threatened….The church supports the cause of all indigenous people who seek a just and equitable recognition of their identity and rights. It supports a just solution to the complex question of the alienation of their land. Aware of shameful injustices done to indigenous peoples, the Synod fathers apologise unreservedly for the part played in these by members of the church . The Church expresses deep regret and asks forgiveness where her children have been or still are party to these wrongs."
Here then is the Church's acknowledgement of past injustices, the unreserved apology and the commitment to furthering the cause of social justice for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. But elsewhere are there signs of progress towards an Australia that acknowledges the Aboriginal peoples' place in the land and provides appropriate ways to overcome the disadvantages they face in our society? Where have the churches, in particular, religious orders been in all of this? Is there any evidence that there has been progress, that we have taken action on this challenge of justice at the heart of our nation, or that we have any clarity about moving forward with it?
Continuing the Journey, a report prepared by the National Council of Churches of Australia, provides some information on steps being taken by Australian churches. During 2001, NCCA surveyed all churches on the responses to reconciliation and to the challenges of the Bringing Them Home report. Peter Sabatino, the Executive Officer from the Indigenous Commission of the NCCA, says the report offers a tool for churches. By reflecting on the actions already being done, and looking at the recommendations, readers have a checklist for their own action, and some markers to work towards in this continuing journey. The report can be found on the NCCA website http://www.ncca.org.au/aic.
ACLRI, in conjunction with the National Catholic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council, collected the information on action in the Catholic church . All congregations were invited to complete the survey, along with Bishops, CEOs, Catholic National Commissions of Education, Welfare and Justice. It was an ambitious project, and in the Catholic sector attracted a 30 per cent response rate.
Congregations, dioceses and CEOs who responded reported high levels of involvement in reconciliation projects that helped to raise awareness amongst their members of the true history. Acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the land at public events is becoming more widespread, as is public recognition through the erection of plaques on buildings. This awareness raising is often shared in the wider community, where religious have been part of community groups, and where they have led projects in the ministries they operate.
As well as dealing with their own agenda in this way, some congregations have put resources into projects which promote opportunities for Aboriginal people. They have set up foundations and trust funds and enabled Aboriginal people to record stories, have writings published and their artworks sold. It is widely acknowledged today that sharing the stories is part of the process of healing for both the Aboriginal people and the wider community.
In the education sphere there are many proactive projects for Aboriginal people, including provision of scholarships, policies of fee relief, and the employment of Aboriginal staff. Furthermore, resources on current Aboriginal issues are available for staff formation, and for curriculum development.
Where religious are working directly with Aboriginal people there is evidence of increasing efforts to consult with them about goals and directions. Such empowerment is a key aspiration of Aboriginal people. Members of some congregations are vocal in advocating their cause in public and political domains.
Orders that have historically been involved in Missions have responded to the challenges of the Bringing them Home by making records available, resourcing and joining in reunions and pilgrimages of those removed as they return to country. At the "Moving Forward" conference in Sydney in August members of these orders joined in discussion with members of the stolen generation, legal and government representatives on issues of healing, reunion and reparations. In their own Congregational groups they are working on appropriate ways to walk forward with the people who have been part of their past ministry.
One question on the NCCA survey that drew a blank from most respondents was "What is your group's vision for the future on this issue?" Though a few congregations have made reconciliation and the addressing of disadvantage for indigenous people part of their chapter agenda, and some have groups assigned to keep the issue alive, coherent planning is something most of us have yet to tackle. Opportunities to consult Aboriginal people on their aspirations, and to build up an approach of partnership are challenges that lie before us.
Captions: 1.Peter Sabatino, NCCA, and Daphne McKeough, ACLRI, studying the Continuing the Journey report