Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Assistant Priest

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

Archbishops and bishops don’t often write letters to the newspaper and, when they do, they primarily focus on church matters. Yet on 1st October 1857, the first Anglican Bishop in the diocese of Adelaide, wrote to one of Adelaide’s daily newspapers, the Register, on a matter that seemingly wasn’t to do with the church. Bishop Short had read an article in an earlier edition of the Register that mentioned an exploratory trip being undertaken by two pastoralists, Hack and Swinden, to the uncharted areas of the far north in South Australia. Because the area was uncharted, there were  obviously no maps, so Hack and Swinden were helped by the goodwill of two Adnyamathanha  people by the names of Warrio and Pinegulta who knew the land very well.

This is what Bishop Short wrote:

Poor Warrio! Poor Pinegulta! Little do you think that ere five years have elapsed you will be deemed inconvenient intruders on the runs which you have laid open; that your emus and wallaby will disappear; that when the cattle run from you, or you are tempted by ravening hunger to rush a few sheep, you will be shot down, it may be like wild dogs …

In the intervening decades, Bishop Short’s words would prove to be terribly prophetic as Warrio and Pinegulta’s people and many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders would find themselves deemed “inconvenient intruders” on the land. So much so that the friendly willingness of people such as Warrio and Pinegulta who had been so ready to help the newcomers to the land, would be replaced by a great sadness.

In 1937 that sadness was expressed when the Aborigines’ Progressive Association of NSW called for there to be in 1938, on the sesquicentenary of colonial settlement,  a Day of Mourning to be held at a similar time to Australia Day that year.

On December 27 1937, William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man and a leading member of the Australian Aboriginal League of Victoria, whilst supporting the call, wrote a public letter specifically addressed to Australian churches. His public letter is couched in language that we now nearly eighty years later consider somewhat archaic as different words and terms have come into preferred usage. He wrote:

This League now asks the Christian community to help us in another way. We know that sympathy with the aborigines is widespread and growing and, because the aboriginal knows that the goodwill of the whiteman is essential to success they seek to justify the continuance of this sympathy. We now ask all Christian denominations to observe Sunday, 3rd Sunday in January as ABORIGINES’ DAY. 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 the dark people.

Thus was born NAIDOC Sunday – National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee.  You will note that William Cooper asked for this to be the third Sunday in January, the Sunday closest to Australia Day; and so it was from 1938 until 1957. In that year, the date of NAIDOC Sunday was moved to the first Sunday in July. Today is the first Sunday in July and, so in honour of the call made in 1937 and of the practice of many churches over subsequent years, this morning I want to preach on a theme relevant to both the Church and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country.

I particularly want to talk about captivity. Bishop Short lamented the prospect for Warrio and Pinegulta, that they would become captives in their own land. And so it was to be; and one particular aspect of that captivity has been the appalling rates of incarceration inflicted upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well as the captivity of mental health problems.

Some years ago, Wadjularbinna Nullyarimma, a Gungalidda Elder wrote:

We cannot flee persecution to another country because we are spiritually connected to our own ancestral lands. So jails and mental institutions are full of our people.

And full they are. Let me quote some statistics to you (the information can be found at )

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 3% of this country’s population yet they are  28% of Australia’s prison population. 30% of all women in prison are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; as are 24% of all men. But a much more shocking figure concerns the proportion of juveniles who are in gaol. 48%, nearly one in two, of juveniles in Australian gaols are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 14.8 times more likely to be imprisoned than other Australians. And that figure has been getting worse over the years. In 1992, one in seven of Australia’s prison population was Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; that became one in four by 2012 and by 2014, it was nearly one in three.

We have all read press reports about the dreadful situation of American blacks with regard to imprisonment. Indeed the term “mass incarceration” has been used to describe it. Yet Aboriginal women and juveniles are twenty times more likely to end up in gaol that black women and juveniles in the US.

Looking at overall incarceration rates, the number in prison for every 100,000 people, Australia’s overall rate is 130. This compares favourably with the US (716) and Russia (475), though not quite as good as China’s 121. The rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders however is not 130 – it is 1,914.

Then there is the question of repeat imprisonment. 74% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners had had a prior adult imprisonment ; this compares with a figure of 48% for non-Aboriginal prisoners.

If you are asking yourself the question about whether these dreadful figures imply that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are simply offending much more than the general population, let me give you some figures from a 2011 report to the Criminology Research Advisory Council. This report was based on a study of imprisonment rates and trends in three states – South Australia, NSW and WA.

The report found that in South Australia, for the same offence, Aboriginals appearing before the Magistrates Court were 27% more likely to be sent to gaol than non-Aboriginal people. The figures for NSW were 23% and 50% for WA. And in being more frequently sent to gaol for similar offences, 84% of South Australian Aboriginal convictees were given sentences on average 84% longer than non-Aboriginal people. NSW, the sentence terms were approximately equal; while in WA they were only 15% longer on average.

Just a couple more figures to round out the picture. Aboriginals who were from the Stolen Generation or descendants of these people were twice as likely to be arrested than others. While, on the mental health front, in 2012 it was reported that 80% suffered from some form of mental illness – another figure that has got much worse over the years … it had been 50% in 2003.

Truly, the descendants of Warrio and Pinegulta and their kin across other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations had become captives in their own land. There has been much discussion and research about the reasons. But it would be into this space that William Cooper was wanting to speak when he called for churches to focus on Aboriginal issues; for he understood the importance of a spiritual reflection upon such deep sadness.

A former chief superintendent of SAPOL,  Fred Trueman, now retired, had been the key officer responsible for dealing with the so-called Gang of 49. It was the job of his team to hold these  young people to account for their offences. Yet at the same time, he reflected deeply upon the loss of identity and sense of disempowerment that he observed in these young people. In an essay he wrote for a Masters Thesis in Theology he wrote:

Suffice to say that,  spirituality being an appreciation of a transcendent reality , something beyond the immediate self and material reality, the common good provides an adequate basis from which they might ‘discover’ their spiritual and moral identity.

This resonates with the reason for which William Cooper sought an annual service in churches on Aboriginal issues. Such services were not just to be commemorative but sources of revival, of spiritual nourishment. And this nourishment was not just to be one way – of a white Christian community reaching out to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; but also to be receiving from them as well.

Let me quote from some contemporary Aboriginal ministers; and in doing so, I am conscious that it was in this very cathedral two years ago this month that Bishop Chris McLeod was installed in his role of reconciliation in both directions in his ministry. First, this is what Pauline Scott-Terare, a Bunjalung woman has said:

I believe God put my ancestors in this country, I believe that God has a special purpose for Indigenous Australians, I believe in the principles of spiritual gate-keepers of the land (Psalm 24:7). When Australia seats Indigenous Australia at the forefront of discussions, when Indigenous Australia stands in her position as a generation who seeks Him, then the King of Glory will come in.

And then we have Brooke Prentice, a Waka waka woman, who, earlier this year said:

I truly believe that 2016 is a year where we will see change. The words ‘Always Was, Always Will be, Aboriginal Land on the Bridge on New Year’s Eve suggests that. It’s not just about changing the date; it’s about each and every Australian Christian stepping outside the four walls of the church to journey with us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. If Australian Christians read the same gospel as I do as an Aboriginal person, they read of a gospel of truth, love and justice. That gospel requires action outside the four walls of the church on a Sunday.

As we listen to these words, I am reminded of how we should anticipate a deeper engagement between black and white Christians. Earlier this year, a number of us participated in a Lenten Study on Desmond Tutu’s book “In God’s Hands”. Those who attended will recall his opening page where he spoke about when whites first arrived in Africa. He said that the blacks had the land and the whites had the Bible. When blacks closed their eyes to pray, they opened them to find that the whites had the land and the blacks had the Bible. It was a wry comment; but Desmond Tutu actually meant it more powerfully than that for, later in the book, he wrote of the power of the contribution that blacks could make to Christian spirituality across the continent.

So too can it be for us here in Australia. So in this week that NAIDOC opens with services today, let us take the time to pray about these issues and also to reflect upon what it is that we might do as instruments of God’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19), not only as we visit the prisoner (as in Matthew 25), but also seek to receive and give spiritual nourishment from and to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters.

As we reflect on this theme of a reconciliation together, a bringing of God’s people into communion, let me quote a poem from a book “Spirit Song: A Collection of Aboriginal Poetry”. This book belonged to the late Rev John H Stephenson and was given to me by his wife, Denise, for which I am very appreciative. Here is a poem from that book by Jack Davis that speaks to this possibility of communion before God:

Let these two worlds combine,
Yours and mine.
The door between us is not locked,
Just ajar.
There is no need for the mocking
Or the mocked to stand afar
With wounded pride
Or angry mind,
Or to build a wall to crouch and hide.
To cry and sneer behind.

This is ours together,
This nation –
No need for separation.
It is time to learn.
Let us forget the hurt.
Join hands and reach
With hearts that yearn.

Your world and mine
Is small.
The past is done.
Let us stand together.
Wide and tall
And God will smile upon us each
And all
And everyone.

Then, if this were to come about,  we would not need to pity the descendants of Warrio and Pinegulta any more.