Rev Dr Rob Brennan reflects on his experiences teaching Indigenous faith leaders in Cairns and what he learnt about himself from his encounters with the culture and history of Australia’s First Peoples.
The moderator has said a few times that the best way to make God laugh is to tell God our plans. As a theologian and scientist interested in their historical interaction I never planned to be in the far north teaching Indigenous church leaders.
But here I am, sure that God has been laughing. Divine laughter is contagious, if the joy of being here is any indication.
There has been much to learn about cultures, vocational education and training and working with 120 students in a very small college. How small? Our offices, library and one training room occupy the old Lutheran church in Cairns. During teaching blocks we use four class areas at a local conference centre.
It is exciting seeing people grow in their faith. Daily worship during teaching blocks is profoundly meaningful and enthusiastic.
Every week students share stories of major trauma. In one two-week block there were seven suicides in one student’s small community including a death in custody. Sadly the number of deaths in custody has more than doubled since the Royal Commission in 1987.
But every week students also shared healing and miraculous encounters with God. Their frequency and power dwarf those I experienced during charismatic renewal in the 1980s.
As a historian I have been confronted by my ignorance. I had never learnt that the focus of Indigenous spirituality is worship of the creator. A question that often gets raised in class goes like this, “We knew that the creator is loving and gracious, Jesus makes that clearer, but why didn’t Europeans act like they knew this?”
Reconciliation is a gracious gift being offered by people who have ample reason to withhold it. Timothy Bottoms’ recent book Conspiracy of Silence is one of many newer histories that should give every Queenslander cause to stop and carefully reconsider our “too shameful to even be spoken of past” and what kind of future we really want for our community.
People who have many strong reasons to be angry and bitter give me grace and love, and continue to be incredibly patient with my ignorance. I am constantly amazed and humbled by their graciousness and joy. Their gift to me is a better understanding of the reality of God’s power to heal.
The major challenge for the future is raising up a new generation of Christian leaders. There is wonderfully no shortage of Indigenous people who are eager to learn.
Rev Dr Rob Brennan
Rev Dr Rob Brennan is the theology course coordinator at Wontulp-Bi-Buya College Cairns, which trains Indigenous leaders for Anglican, Catholic Lutheran, Uniting and many other churches.