Archbishop Mark Coleridge sat down with Evangelisation Brisbane’s Reconciliation Action Plan officer Cynthia Rowan to discuss racism, Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations, and the role the Church has to play.
Archbishop Coleridge: In recent times all of us were shocked to the core by the images we saw from Minneapolis of the dying and death of George Floyd. These sorts of things have happened before but we’d never seen it quite like this and we’d never heard words like “I can’t breathe”, they couldn’t be simpler but they’ve echoed right around the world and in the heart of anyone who saw those images and in the heart of many more who haven’t seen the images… So how have they affected you?
Cynthia: It really brought home the fact that the system perpetuates violence against Indigenous people. But more importantly, when people are convicted of whatever crime and they’re sentenced, they’re not sentenced to death, they (are) sentenced to undertake incarceration for a period, but what’s happened – people are dying.
Archbishop Coleridge: Yes, the African American people of course were imported into the (United States) as slaves, but the story of the Indigenous peoples of Australia is that you weren’t imported – we were the imports. But you were here and you’ve been made slaves as it were in your own land.
Cynthia: That’s correct. You’ll go to any library and you’ll see photos of men and women in chains. And in Queensland in particular with the whole discussion around the stolen wages. People worked on properties and everywhere else. They did the same amount of work as everyone else, but they got a lower income and the rest was taken by the government. …
Archbishop Coleridge: See, I think in my lifetime many people have wanted to do the right thing by Indigenous peoples to heal the wound that’s a running sore of the heart of the nation, but nothing seems to work. I mean money is part of the answer but it’s not the whole answer; land is certainly a part of the answer but it’s not the whole answer; so together, a moment like this, can give us new impetus in searching for what is a genuine solution because you know the symptoms of social alienation among Indigenous peoples are very real aren’t they?
Cynthia: That’s part of it but there’s still a very high number of indigenous people that are really high success stories within their families and within their communities. It’s about support from the family but I think with anyone you have to ask. So just ask – if you’ve got a question about something – ask – otherwise you’ll never have the answer to it. Secondly, in relation to the amount of money over the years, that government has provided to Aboriginal programs, it’s because someone in the bureaucracy thinks it’s a great idea, whereas Aboriginal people keep saying, ‘This is what will work, this is what will work.’ But no one listens.
Archbishop Coleridge: Speak to me about the kind of listening (that is needed).
Cynthia: The Uluru Statement is a case in point but instead it’s taken to a political response… instead of that human response to it. It’s all these Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all over the country, they (were) talking for a long time before they went there and have that discussion. Instead there is this little statement that says, ‘Oh they just want a voice’. It’s not just a voice, it’s about hearing, it’s about the practical implementations of things, it’s not a program for a sake of having a program, it’s responding to the needs of people wherever they are and it’s not one size fits all, which is the same for the whole of society. It’s about being responsive to the needs of the community, just like we do in our various parishes. The priest and the parish council responds to the parishioners in their parish, and so it’s for me, the expectations in terms how government should engage, but also in particular how we as Church should be engaging with Aboriginal people.
Archbishop Coleridge: What is the right thing, say for the Church, with regard to Indigenous peoples? Where is Jesus in all of this?
Cynthia: It’s about that recognition and respect that we come to the table as equals and that has been the core of the problem.
Archbishop Coleridge: Do you see there’s a real consonance as it were between Indigenous spiritualities and the Gospel? Do you see them as not only compatible but somehow needing each other?
Cynthia: I think it is and it’s about living the Gospel. Because when you look at Aboriginal spirituality and belonging to country, it’s about… you have got a responsibility for all aspects of it. It’s not just the spirituality of like a Mass or a ceremony, it’s about how you live and breathe it. How you look after the land; how you take what you need, you don’t abuse and use all the resources, you have to think about who’s coming from behind you for the next generation, so that you’re utilising what you need now; you’re preparing and planning for the future for generations to come after you. So, it’s about being intentional in your thinking and in your spirituality. So, it’s not something you practice when you go to a ceremony, it’s something that’s part of your life. It’s like now in care for creation, and you know, our common home through Laudato Si’. So, it’s about living every moment intentionally in your life in your relationship with people and in your relationship with the land.
Archbishop Coleridge: What’s your sense of the Reconciliation Action Plan and its importance?
Cynthia: So for the reconciliation action plan it comes in as a document that’s like a road map of where we’re going to from here. Because some of the parishes have a relationship (with Indigenous Australians) already and some of them don’t, and so it’s a matter of guiding people through that process and recognition, relationships, respect, and opportunities, they’re the key elements of the Reconciliation Action Plan. And its practical things that people can do.
Archbishop Coleridge: And do you think the whole Black Lives Matter movement can give greater impetus to the Reconciliation Action Plan?
Cynthia: I think it’s highlighted it but I think that it’s a chance for people to look at your own backyard because you need to get your own house in order before you go out to work in the neighbourhood, so to speak.
This was an edited version of the full-length interview. You can watch the full interview at https://youtu.be/T9w6W0fW5Dc