Raising our Tribal Voices for Justice

Challenged, inspired, disturbed, seen, silent – these are words I would use to describe my time at the inaugural conference of the School of Indigenous Studies of the University of Divinity in Melbourne from 5 to 8 February this year. I was invited to attend the conference as a listener from the spiritual direction communities connected with the University of Divinity. The program directors from Wellspring and Heart of Life in Melbourne along with myself, from the Dayspring Community, gathered with indigenous and non-indigenous people from around Australia and beyond. The four days were full of a wide variety of presentations from elders, young people, practitioners, academics, men and women. I do not have the space to share all the insights gleaned from the four days but will share a few select reflections that impacted me and how I view my ministry.


A challenging aspect of the conference was the reminder that there is not one homogenous voice of indigenous people in this country. There was a wide range of theological views presented throughout the conference and many moments where people contradicted each other or outwardly disagreed. Listening with respect to all speakers often left me feeling conflicted or confused.

Another aspect of this challenge was the gathering of people from across the country. This, of course, meant that there were different stories, contrasting experiences and unique understandings of ways to move forward. I tried to listen for the common threads while not losing the impact of each individual’s message.


Although I had gone to this conference to listen deeply, I was reminded of the importance of also engaging in critical thinking when hearing different perspectives. In my experience, the most robust theological discussions occur when good relationships have been developed. I can often be afraid to express different views if I am not sure how this will be received. I was inspired by this experience to build closer relationships with people who think differently to me to create safe spaces where we learn from our differing ideas.

One of the privileges of this journey was the opportunity to connect with Professor Anne Pattel-Gray. Aunty Anne met with the three of us before the conference to hear of our hopes in attending. After the conference she met with us again to hear our responses, answer any questions and plan for future possibilities. As we had developed this relationship over some time, I felt comfortable sharing some of my discomfort and wonderings with Aunty Anne. She knew by this time that my intention was to listen and learn from her and the conversation was deeply profound.


It is confronting to be faced with your own inadequacies or shortcomings at the best of times. Hearing again the stories of our First Peoples with all their trauma, pain and suffering was difficult. Faced with the truth of this nation’s past, many feelings arose. I felt shame that my own English heritage had caused so much suffering to the oldest living culture on this earth. I felt anger at some of the complacency and ignorance experienced by indigenous people. I felt distabilised by some of the suggestions for how we move forward.

I do not shy away from disturbance and discomfort. For me, these have been the spaces of growth and learning. At this conference, however, I felt I needed to be discerning about the disturbance. What was making me feel uncomfortable? The only way I could answer this question was to be very self-aware. How was I feeling in my body? Where was the discomfort rising from? Was this a discomfort I needed to hold on to or could I let it go for now?


A significant part of the conference for me was my participation in an Inner Deep Listening Workshop followed by the morning meditation times. These were led by Aunty Sherry Balcombe. I spend a lot of time in nature and silence as part of my own spiritual practice and felt a resonance with the way Aunty Sherry led these times. I was particularly moved by Aunty Sherry’s description of when she flies home to her Country in Cairns. Aunty Sherry was generous enough to talk further with me about her connection to land on her own Country, but also on Naarm (Melbourne) where she has lived most of her life.

I shared my own story with Aunty Sherry of emigrating from England as a child. I told her of my own experiences of connecting with my homeland when I had travelled to Suffolk. Sherry, in her listening, affirmed my experience, welcomed me to this Country and helped me better understand how I connect to this land so far away from where I was born. This conversation had a deep impact on my own sense of place.


Although I spoke with many participants at the conference during meal breaks, I spent a large portion of the time in silence. I was there to listen deeply and could not do this if I was constantly trying to develop my next question or comment. This was challenging as it was adopting a different posture to other conferences I have attended.

On the last day, church leaders were given the opportunity to respond to what they had heard. That day I happened to be sitting next to Rev Sharon Hollis, President of the Uniting Church. We spoke about the difficult task that was ahead of her and I was in that moment thankful for my ability to be silent. When Sharon spoke I was proud to be part of a church that approached difficult issues with humility and strength. At the end of her response, Sharon asked all members of the Uniting Church to stand. I may have been silent but I was called to action. I left the conference with the question, “What is mine to do now?”

Photos by Chris Kapa, shared with thanks by the University of Divinity, School of Indigenous Studies.

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