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An Australian Faith Journey

Friday, 4 February 2022  | Elizabeth Grace




I believe in Australia’s great potential to become a multicultural nation. We are a white country with a black history, and with numerous multicultural individuals and communities sharing space. However, we’re still influenced by remnants of a White Australia Policy. If you want an accurate opinion about the way things are, ask a new migrant, refugee or asylum seeker about their day, and they will tell you that the general acceptance they feel is often clouded by negative assumptions that point to a cultural superiority.

Impressions of a migrant

When my family first came to Australia, I was 12 years old. We lived in Geelong. That was in the early 1990s and we easily came to know all the families of African heritage in the area; there weren’t that many. On the cusp of being a teenager, the last thing I wanted was all the attention I was receiving because of my brown complexion. I struggled with two conflicting views: I found Australians backward (‘do you hunt lions in Africa?’) and yet I desperately wanted to fit in (anything not to stand out). Living in Australia is a humbling experience for many migrants and refugees who sacrifice the rich culture of their backgrounds and histories to be identified with the crude stereotypes the dominant culture applies to their country, which is not usually the good things.

I arrived in Australia from Kenya. I was born in France but my parents are from Uganda and Rwanda. I was more sophisticated than most of the people I met in the early 1990s. Australians are better travelled now and have widened their horizons but even today few expect to come across a European-born Australian of African ancestry. Having lived in Australia for many years, I was stunned when, during the wave of Sudanese migrants, a long-time friend seemed to gain clarity on something that had been plaguing her about my ancestry: ‘Oh, so you’re Sudanese?’

Sometimes, there is a patronising or paternalistic attitude towards migrants or refugees, especially towards those for whom English is a second language. The colour of people’s complexion does strange things in the minds of many white Australians, as if the browner you get, the less capable you’re perceived to be. Many people were surprised at how well I spoke English. Interestingly, French was my first language and I learned English when I was five years old in Kenya. My father is a linguist, and my mother should have been a grammarian. Even with all that help, I don’t think I speak English particularly well nor do I think white Australians speak their own language that well either. Sometimes I wonder if we could all volunteer to attend English classes with new migrants and help each other out.

I love Australians. I am Australian. Australians are friendly people, generally, but as a nation the attitude towards refugees and migrants has historically not been welcoming, so much so that successive waves of migrants who have arrived in Australia, such as the Greeks, Italians and Vietnamese, have regurgitated the same unwelcoming and sometimes racist views to the next wave of migrants, despite knowing the hardships personally. On the other hand, today I find it is largely the children of migrants who express support for new migrants and actively seek to participate in providing the necessary welcome.

My perception of welcome in the Church in Australia is much warmer - not that racist sentiments don’t exist, but there is an effort to embrace new arrivals and build community. The challenge with Christians in Australia is sometimes being unable to differentiate between poor migrants and refugees and wealthy migrants and refugees: some people arrive in Australia materially poor, be it due to circumstances, misfortune or war; others arrive in Australia with material wealth and possessions. The label ‘migrant’ and especially ‘refugee’ seems to strip people of their inherent worth, regardless of whether or not they are materially wealthy, and Christians who really should know better - with Jesus having once been a refugee and choosing to live without material wealth - appear to treat the two groups differently.

Culture shock and re-discovering my faith

After our initial arrival in Australia in the early 1990s, we left after two years, and then returned three years later. Besides the culture shock associated with both migrations, I have also experienced my faith lurching, dipping and leaping over the years. When we first moved to Geelong, I left a robust Sunday school experience in Kenya for a new community where I was not connected to any church. That was largely due to my parents’ own journeys with God at the time, but it left me disconnected at a critical point of my life, which added to my struggles. Church was absent for two years, until we left Australia and moved to Uganda. In Uganda, my faith again flourished, surrounded and encouraged by friends in the faith. There I attended a Muslim girls’ boarding school, which was known for its academic performance; that it was a Muslim school held no significance. All students at the school were expected to be either Muslim, Catholic or Protestant, and attend their respective Friday prayers or Sunday services. There was no other option; you had to choose one of the three. The experience of living in that community enhanced my understanding of living with people who did not share the same views as me.

When we returned to Australia in 1996 and settled here, again Church fell to the side. I was now an adult, back in Geelong studying at Deakin University, but the lure of fitting in and socialising was greater than engaging with a Christian community. I did briefly connect with a Christian community of international students but soon fell away. God was very present in my life, but Church was not. It wouldn’t be until after university that my faith was re-activated.

I identify as a TCK (Third Culture Kid), raised in a culture other than that of my parents and having lived in a different environment for the most part of my development as a child. I was 14 years old the first time I lived in the country of my parents’ culture. Having lived in three countries on three different continents before then, I developed a cultural fluidity that makes me happiest when I’m in a room full of people of various cultures and languages, and very nervous when I’m in a room full of people who think we have a shared cultural identity and worldview. The latter doesn’t happen to me very often, and rarely in Australia.

My first real sense of belonging and acceptance in Australia was with the land. It’s hard to explain but, after many years of trying and failing to fit in, I felt a real sense that the land I was standing on was saying to me, ‘I accept you. You belong’ - as if, the ground you’re standing on is sacred. And I found peace. But my life in Australia has also been deeply impacted by the friendship and generosity of the Christian community. Eventually, I settled into a Church community where I felt I belonged. When I was invited to become a church member, I did so with some hesitation because I believe that I belong to the Body of Christ and wondered whether aligning myself to one church meant signing up to one particular tribe, because it seemed that there are nuances of tribalism that seem so prevalent in many Australian churches.

I accepted to become a member of that church when they acknowledged that my baptism, which had taken place when I was a child and held great meaning for me, was valid, even though their held beliefs were that baptism was to happen in a specific manner that I had not done and was unwilling to do because I felt it would nullify my own testimony. I have since parted ways with that church over theological issues, but remain connected to the community and continue to pray for the saints, knowing that they also still pray for me. And somewhere through all of that, and through some trials, I came to realise that throughout my life God has called me His own, and I always belonged to Him.

Moving to Australia was not good for my pride but great for my faith. In Uganda and Rwanda, I come from a particular clan of a particular tribe, with a very respectable totem. From a faith perspective, these are meaningless identities, and I look beyond these attachments to my identity in Christ and for meaning in my faith.

An emergence into wholeness

This past two years have been a difficult and challenging and uncertain time for our world, and we are all experiencing the same stresses and anxieties many migrants and refugees have faced as a result of moving or being displaced and resettling in new communities. As we emerge out of this pandemic - and for many on the east coast of Australia, out of a very long lockdown - how might we embrace the welcome this land offers us as we learn to fully find ourselves here? How might the welcome we receive change the way we welcome others to Australia? And how might we as Christians sacrifice our egos for what the Holy Spirit can do – if we were available – to change us, our communities and our nation?

I believe Christians hold the key to an Australia moving forward in wholeness. In humility, we need to be able to reconcile our history, and realise that it is through us that meaningful healing will come to this land. We should be at the forefront of welcoming the stranger, the refugee, the asylum seeker. I believe God is looking for people who can imagine a future that breathes life and hope into all corners of this nation. Throughout history, God has used people with a heart for Him to transform society, and I believe He longs to do the same again.

 

Elizabeth’s purpose in life is to be a link between people, things and places.

 

This article will appear in the upcoming Summer issue of Zadok on 'Multiculturalism: Gift and Challenges'. Subscribe here to receive your copy.


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