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Walking on Country: sharing the belonging

Rev Richard Cassady (right) on Cassady Beach, central Queensland, with members of The Gap Uniting Church congregation. Photo by Janelle Bennett

"WALKING on country" is a concept which speaks to every Australian about the powerful ties that bind us to land and lore. For Indigenous people, it means literally walking on their traditional homelands, and connecting with the memories, legends and laws.

Sharing that sense of belonging can transform both the teller and the listener.

Members of The Gap Uniting Church in Brisbane have had the opportunity to see familiar and less-familiar places through new eyes, as part of the Walking on Country initiative that has sent nearly 90 people to Indigenous communities over the past two years.

The Gap Families and Community Ministry Coordinator Rev Richard Cassady, a Nywaigi man, last year led the first group of 40 congregation members to his traditional lands in the Ingham region. The group were hosted at Mungalla Station, a cattle station and tourism destination owned and managed by the traditional owners.

"For many, including myself, the journey north stretched our faith, challenged our thoughts, raised questions, and provided insights," says Mr Cassady.

Off the tourist trail

This year the congregation sent groups each to two destinations, the first setting out in early June for K'gari country around Hervey Bay/Fraser Island, the traditional lands of Tammy Cassady, Richard's wife, and home of the Butchulla people.

The visitors stayed at Pialba, and were introduced to the Indigenous history of the area by local elder and retired public servant Glen Miller.

They travelled through the Great Sandy National Park, visiting remote spots on Fraser Island and hearing the stories and traditions associated with each place.

Led by Conway, a local Indigenous ranger for Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, the trip was an opportunity to have an experience far richer than the usual tourist tour, says church member Terry Edwinsmith.

"The strength of this small exercise lay in the fact that the Fraser Coast traditional owners saw a group of Brisbanites willing to experience their culture, to see the world from their point of view, to come and visit because we were interested," says Mr Edwinsmith, who came away with a renewed understanding of Indigenous perspectives.

He discovered, for example, that the serene Indian Head lookout has sacred associations for the traditional owners in part because it was the site of a massacre of Aboriginal women and children.

For the visitors, encountering first-hand the passion and respect of the local Indigenous people for the land was a moving experience, said Mr Edwinsmith.

Hard listening

The second parish group headed north in early July to Mungalla Station.

Steve and Janelle Bennett and their sons Joshua and Isaac were among those who experienced the challenge to slow down, and to simply listen.

And it was good, said Mr Bennett.

"Good for us to quell our desire to rush in and 'fix' or 'improve' or 'build' or 'give stuff'. Good for us to suspend our ridiculously busy lives long enough to hear and absorb stories that have been developed over many lifetimes.

Good, also, for the storytellers, who repeatedly told us how much they appreciated our willingness to just 'sit with them'.

"The visitors heard many stories from young adults through to elders that ranged from The Block in Redfern, Sydney, to Palm Island; bbut the highlight was a tour of "the garden".

"'Garden' is a euphemism here," says Mr Bennett. "Richard told me with a smile that it was typical of his people's laconic sense of humour that they would describe a mosquito-infested gully as if it was some sort of tropical paradise. This bit of 'prime real estate', he told us, was where his people were allowed to stay if they behaved.

"You might think such a conversation would leave its predominantly white audience feeling mighty uncomfortable … but there was no hint of reproach in Rich's voice.

"Repeatedly, after telling us of some routine injustice perpetrated on his people, he would shrug his shoulders and say, 'But that's just part of my story'."

"Walking on Country is an attempt to put flesh onto the issues by listening, sitting, hearing and just 'being'," says Mr Cassady, reflecting on what has become an ongoing connection between this urban Brisbane parish and Indigenous people living on traditional land.

"It is not a work party. It is not a program of promises. It is not an attempt to walk in the shoes of another.

"It is, however, an attempt to hear what the spirit of God may say to us in and through this sharing."

Photo : Rev Richard Cassady (right) on Cassady Beach, central Queensland, with members of The Gap Uniting Church congregation. Photo by Janelle Bennett