May faith protect us from practice: A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our Psalm this evening (90) is also called a psalm of Moses, making it chronologically the oldest psalm. It is said to have been written by Moses at a time of partial deliverance – after having been guided out of Egypt, delivered from slavery, but not yet brought to the Promised Land, the people of God were still wandering through the wilderness. Knowing this gives an especially poignant beauty to the opening lines:

Lord, you have been our refuge:

From one generation to another. [v1]

Ponder those words in the knowledge that Moses wrote them before they had reached the promised sanctuary, after generations of enslavement and yet still in the midst of a hostile wilderness. Deliverance had not yet been fully delivered yet here was Moses praising that the protection of the Lord in the dark times of their past and their then difficult present – ‘from one generation to another’ he had written. We have all had periods in our lives when we have felt trapped in dark valleys – in those periods, have we acknowledged ‘Lord, you have been our refuge’ as Moses did? Yet we don’t live in a state of continual or even extended repression – would we find it harder to sing such a verse had that been so for us?

Last Monday was the 82nd anniversary of a dreadful event – Kristallnacht – the night of the broken glass, so called for the shards of broken windows of Jewish property throughout Nazi Germany on the night of 9-10 November 1938. That physical vandalism was accompanied not by arrests of the perpetrators but by the incarceration of 30,000 German Jews. Apart from the destruction of Jewish properties, so too were 267 synagogues. Early reports indicated that at least 91 Jews were murdered while a further 638 committed suicide in the wake of that night – it must have seemed more a night of broken dreams, than just of broken glass.

Lord, you have been our refuge:

From one generation to another. [90:1]

These words which are frequently incorporated in Jewish services, especially those of Hoshanah Rabbah, the last of the Days of Judgment in the Jewish calendar, might have been as hard to endure for those who suffered that night as the physical destruction and visceral hate which surrounded them.

News reports of Kristallnacht went around the world, but tragically the event that presaged the Shoa, the Holocaust, was largely met with silence. One exception to that silence occurred on the morning of December 6 that year. Starting from outside a cottage in Southampton Street, Footscray, a dozen men and women, dressed in suits and hats, assembled and marched from there to 419 Collins St in Melbourne for an appointment with Dr R W Dreschler, Consul-General of the Third Reich where they would attempt to deliver a letter protesting ‘the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi Government of Germany and asking that this persecution be brought to an end’

Yad Vashem, the world’s leading research centre on the Holocaust, says this protest against Kristallnacht was the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. Who were these protesters and why were they moved to protest while most remained silent?

The twelve who marched that day were all Aboriginal; they were led by 78 year-old William Cooper, a Bangerang man of the Yorta Yorta nation. Those were the ‘who’, but what of the ‘why’? William Cooper’s grandson, Boydie, later described how his grandfather had chanced upon a newspaper report of the attack and noted that:

Nobody (had done) anything about it, and therefore he would have to do something.[1]

But there was an added impetus to Cooper’s motivation. Matt Andrews of Common Grace has written this about the group’s leader:

William Cooper identified strongly with the Jews. When he was born in 1860, whitefellas had all but taken their land of milk and honey – the fertile country along the Murray River north of Echuca. The new white masters could be as cruel as Egyptian slave-drivers – they denied Aboriginal pastoral workers their wage, and stories were told of landed men going on ‘blackhunts’ after church picnics of a Sunday.[2]

Blackhunts after church picnics – what a dreadful introduction to Christianity for the young William Cooper. Yet amid all this violence Matt Andrews reports that:

William Cooper found one place where he knew he was safe. It was on an old sacred site, called Maloga. His sister had taken him there when he was 14, and he’d met a towering white man with a long black beard, called Daniel Matthews. Here he learnt to read and write – and the great stories from the black book from an ancient people who had become slaves, and whom God, the Creator of the world, would rescue.[3]

A different church had come to meet the young Cooper from the church which sadly prevailed in the community where his people were now forced to live. It would take ten years for this different church to win the battle for Cooper’s heart; but at 24 Cooper went to Daniel Matthews and said ‘I must give my heart to God’. What followed would be a life where William Cooper, emboldened by his new faith, would speak out on behalf of the ‘least of these’; starting at age 27 when he was one of eleven people who penned the Maloga Petition for land rights that stated Aborigines:

Should be granted sections of land not less than 100 acres per family … always bearing in mind that Aborigines were the former occupiers of the land.

Decades of subsequent activism saw him help establish the Australian Aborigines League in 1935, petition King George V, and lead the first aboriginal deputations to Commonwealth ministers and the prime minister.  

At about the time he was gathering signatures for the petition to the King, which incidentally the Commonwealth Government stopped being delivered by stamping ‘no further action’ on the file, in a small settlement 1800 kms away a two year old girl was being taken from her mother to be delivered along with two of her sisters to missionaries in Quorn where they would join two older siblings who had been taken years earlier. Their mother, asked years later if she was happy that the missionaries had taken her children, replied ‘Wiya’ – ‘No’ in Antikirinya-Yankunytjatjara. Another sister, born after the three girls were taken said many years later:

Ngunytjunya pulkara ulangu munutjuni kuraringu [My mother cried a lot and was sick in her stomach][4]  

This was the lived experience of Lowitja O’Donoghue, well known to many of us not just because of her well-deserved national acclaim but also because she has been well known to us here at St Peter’s Cathedral, where she frequently worshipped for a number of years. Stuart Rintoul in his recently published book, Lowitja: The Authorised Biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue, has touched upon Lowitja’s faith journey. Like William Cooper, she encountered two different community expressions of church in the encounter between black and white Australia. Rintoul writes of her early relationship with the church:

In her teenage years, she becomes a Baptist, although all her life she will struggle with the role the church played in her life. In old age … she will scribble on a piece of paper that she was converted and baptised ‘to please the missionaries, the white fellas who dominated my life.’[5]  

Indeed, the Christian experience offered to the teenage Lowitja was very conflicted both whilst she was in Colebrook Home at Belair and later when she was indentured out by the church to unpaid domestic service with a Christian family.

In spite of those experiences and many decades later, Lowitja found spiritual succour from the Twenty-third psalm which was recited at the funeral of her beloved sister Vi in 1999:

The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want;

He makes me down to lie

In pastures green; he leadeth me

The quiet waters by. [v1-2]

Those words, echoing the spirit of the first verse of our psalm this evening, started a journey which, Rintoul writes, ‘(would bring) her back to the church.’[6] But that journey still had land mines of bitter experience to be avoided; speaking at the Baptist World Congress months later, Lowitja said:

The Christian message I will leave to other speakers, because my experience of the Christian church and those involved is a mixed experience of good times and bad times, of removal as a child from my mother – my cultural heritage and language, harsh punishment.[7]

Lowitja returned to reading Scripture, in particular Luke’s Gospel and Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians leading her to pen the following note to a friend:

Please continue to pray that I may know God’s will for me in this difficult situation and that I will step out in Faith to do his will.[8]

Today is the end of this year’s NAIDOC Week. Normally held in July, the strangeness of 2020 has forced its postponement this year to this month which by coincidence commemorates Kristallnacht – not an irrelevancy, for the very person who had led that protest 82 years ago was the person who instituted what is now known as NAIDOC. After years of having his approaches to civil authority ignored, William Cooper changed his approach, turning back to the church. Reaching out not to the practice of much of the colonial church of his childhood but to the deep faith of individual Christians like Daniel Matthews, in 1939 Cooper wrote to the National Missionary Council of Australia in the following terms:

We request that sermons be preached on this day dealing with the Aboriginal people and their need of the gospel and response to it and we ask that special prayer be invoked for all missionary and other effort for the uplift of (Aboriginal people).[9]

By ‘uplift’ Cooper was referring to those things we now think of as ‘closing the gap’.

Initially just one Sunday a year, the annual event became NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islanders’ Observance Committee) Week. Sadly, while the event has grown in community significance, it has shrunk in terms of church engagement. Quoting Matt Andrews again:

It is bizarre that … schools and governments now mark their calendars for an annual week of awareness, while Christian churches, which actually created Australia’s Day of commemoration, have all but forgotten this great man William Cooper, and the challenge he gave us all.[10]

My purpose tonight has not been merely to restore an 80 year tradition to our church calendar but to ask each of us whether we believe, like William Cooper, in the ‘great redeeming God of Exodus’, the God who never leaves us alone in the wilderness but has ever been our refuge sometimes in spite of church practice. May NAIDOC, with its theme this year ‘Always was, always will be’ be like an epistle to us, calling us, as Lowitja wrote, to ‘step out in Faith to do his will’.



[3] Op.cit

[4] Stuart Rintoul, Lowitja: The authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue, Allen & Unwin, 2020, p70

[5] Rintoul, p75

[6] Op.cit., p303

[7] Op. cit, p307

[8] Op. cit, p308


[10] Matt Andrews – see previous website reference