On Australia Day 2020, former IofC International Council member Ron Lawler reflects on his calling that followed from putting right a relationship in his own life before working for peace and reconciliation with Australia’s First Nations.
Finding my calling
I am a proud Australian of several ancestries, and of many generations in this land - of people who were farmers, housewives, blacksmiths, stockmen, soldiers, sailors, and builders. I have a deep sense of belonging and gratitude for those who gave me what i inherited.
Working in India 46 years ago, I had a searing spiritual experience that led to reconciliation with my oldest brother. I was confronted with an ugly truth about myself and my attitude towards him which went back to a simple, specific incident when we were kids. Even though I had felt wronged by him, I was shown that my resentment and superiority towards him had cut me off from God’s love.
I felt impelled to write and apologise to him. That step lifted something off me, reflecting Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24 that, ‘…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.’
In the following days I found a calling that has been a silver thread through my life since then. I wrote down a thought that appeared to be coming from a place within me, which rang with truth: ‘If you are obedient, I will use you to help rebuild the relationship between Aboriginal and other Australians just as you have between your brother and you.’
This led to my working with First Nations people and communities in different parts of Australia. With my wife Cynthia, we lived in Central Arnhem Land for over four years.
Working in Central Arnhem Land
My job was to work with the family groups who had returned to their homelands from what were government or church missions. assisting with their community planning and services. By comparison with the outlying communities, Ramingining was a ‘metropolis’ of 500 people. it was only 65 km to Malnyanganak, but a good two hours’ drive across mud and bull dust. The drive proved an impossibility in the wet season.
in 1991 we arranged for a tribal friend of ours from India to come to Ramingining. He invited three young men to visit India to share their experiences and learn from Indian Adivasi (indigenous) communities. Bulmaniya, a young man from Malnyanganak, was one of the three. He had lived a traditional ‘bushman’ lifestyle, only teaching himself to read at 17.
One of the people they met on their trip to India was an Adivasi politician who shared his story of how he had learned to give up selfish living, especially his alcohol consumption, to give sound leadership in his community. Bulmaniya was very moved by this story and resolved to be different when he went home. Once back from India, he took up tertiary studies – the first Aboriginal person from this area of Central Arnhem Land to do so.
Bulmaniya has fought to restore traditional fire management practices, and has taught this skill at university and in Indonesia. This is relevant now as Australia has been battling the worst bushfires the world has ever seen. Eventually, he set up the Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation that uses satellite technology to track the pattern of burning across Arnhem Land year by year. The group works with local people to ensure the right burning pattern takes place, significantly reducing CO2 emissions.
Countering systems failure
We need to confront the failure of so many of our systems for education, health, and legal and community services to deliver good outcomes to First Nations people. Failure does not come from planned malice, but many of these systems just don’t work for enough of them.
After moving to live in the Riverina region of New South Wales, I became involved in establishing the Tirkandi Inaburra service, which is attempting to overcome this systemic failure. The name of the service means ‘to learn to dream.’ I am currently a board member.
Many First Nations youth in the Riverina region drop out of school early and wind up in the so-called juvenile justice system. They become institutionalized and mostly ‘graduate’ to jail. As I walked to work in the mornings praying about how this might happen, I would often get thoughts about what activities we should go for, and whom to engage. Many of our non-traditional partners, such as farmers and local governments, became some of our best allies.
We have forged constructive partnerships with the Departments of Education and Communities, and Justice. Boys of 12 to 15 years old come in to the program for a term of 10 weeks. Often, by the time they leave, their literacy and numeracy levels have improved by three to four year-levels. They learn to be culturally strong and this enhances their resilience in returning to situations that remain very difficult for them. One of our graduates, who was referred to us by a youth homelessness service, is now a cameraman at the ABC. He is the first in his family down the generations to hold a full-time job.
Clearing our own shadows
We need to be credible in our reconciliation and healing. it would have been phony of me to attempt to build bridges with First Nations peoples if there had been shadows over my relationships with anyone. That credibility allows us to build trust across any division. This is necessary if we are truly to make a difference.
The choice is ours. What can we do personally or as communities to build a bridge?
- This is an edited version of a message given by Ron Lawler on 26 January 2020 to St Paul’s Anglican Church, Wagga Wagga.