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Going DEEP into Indigenous Issues at Campfire in the Heart

Monday, 1 October 2012  | Gordon Preece

Sometimes in life you need to go deep, out of your depth, beyond your comfort zone. This is what recently happened to me and nine others at Campfire in the Heart, a Retreat Centre in the very heart of Australia, Alice Springs. It was the primary setting for a TEAR Central Australia DEEP (Development, Education and Exposure Program) on indigenous issues. This is no fancy conference centre but a place where simple beauty and nourishing home-cooked meals and bread-and-butter biblical spirituality are laid on by host Sue and Dave Woods.

We began in earnest with a night walk of the large labyrinth so we could experience its light, fire and the Aranda (Arrernte) people’s smoking eucalypts. The rich biblical symbolism saturated our senses as we walked into the labyrinth, encouraged by Dave that its difference from a maze is that it doesn’t try to trick us. We retraced our steps under the stunning, star-studded desert sky, with words from my favourite psalm (Psalm 8) reverberating in my head and heart. I was left with a massive sense of my littleness and God’s largeness. We wound down with silent prayer and contemplative music in the beautifully arrayed Prayer Room. While prayer cannot be reduced to aesthetics, simple beauty is an aid to prayer. We left with a great sense of anticipation and being equipped for a feast of a week, even if we’d sometimes feel exposed.

The days were threaded together with indirect and direct exposure to Aboriginal culture. We’d been well prepared with meetings and written cultural guides, but there’s nothing like experiencing it for yourself. The indirect exposure was through seeing indigenous culture through the eyes of a series of bridge people, long-term residents and Christian workers in Alice. What they had in common, besides a great affection for Aboriginal people, love of the land, and perseverance to last much longer than, say, the average teacher (who lasts only 11 months in the Centre), was a willingness to listen, a soft-spokenness, a sense of humour, and a strong sense of Christian spirituality and community. People like David and Sue Woods, Uniting Church support minister Peter Greenwood, Catholic counsellor Chris Hawkes of Santa Theresa, and Morris and Barbara Stuart were inspiring and welcoming in opening up a way to meet indigenous people on their ground. They will be joined in October by another inspiring duo, Barb Deutschmann, coordinator of our retreat and TEAR’s Dhumba indigenous program, and her surgeon husband Peter, moving on from Yarraville Anglican church.

The direct exposure to Aboriginal culture and people came through several trips out from Alice, particularly to Santa Theresa and Wallace Rockhole. Santa Theresa was a revelation after all the bad news of the Intervention. Here was a functioning indigenous community, with an indigenous policewoman who took her lunch break with the craft group at the Catholic Church. Here, most children go to a good school, until they have to leave for Alice or further away for senior high if they make it and can cope with the separation. Here we saw the most wonderful artwork, connected to the world by live internet feed, though they only have a dangerous 75km dirt road to Alice.

Here we were privileged to be invited by Justin, a traditional owner, on a kangaroo hunt which lasted all afternoon and night. Again, modern technology of car and gun was deftly combined with their carefully crafted traditional ritual for skinning, cutting and cooking the kangaroos. Our program was thrown out, but we learnt that with Aboriginals relationships always come before rigid, Western time categories. Thankful and awed, we headed for home. I gave Justin a strong Latham-like handshake, which he graciously received, till I instantly remembered that it’s meant to be lighter for indigenous people. Oh well, no mistakes made, nothing learned.

The next night’s Campfire for 30 was another treat, with hearty food, friendship and reflection time involving all, graciously hosted by Dave and his indigenous elder friend Margie. Margie comes to dialogue with whitefellas, and with her mischievous humour, to teach us a thing or two about her people too.

The following day we headed to Wallace Waterhole and Hermannsburg (the famous Lutheran mission and art centre). Unfortunately Hermannsburg was closed due to an all-too-common funeral. That gave us longer at Wallace Waterhole with a winsome young indigenous guide from Townsville and Ken the local white shopkeeper and entrepreneur, partnered to an Aboriginal artist. Ken filled us in on the ills of the Intervention while we dot-painted with much less dexterity than his partner. He succinctly summed up what we heard from many: the Intervention had empowered and protected some of the very dysfunctional communities but its one-size-fits-all and non-consultative approach had disempowered and dysfunctionalised many previously functional communities like Ken’s. His well-functioning shop was taken over by government and contracted out to Outback Stores to fit the bureaucratic and quarantined welfare model. They gave up after two years. Many left the town, their local mechanic’s workshop was shut down, and now people get booked by police and jailed in record numbers for vehicle offences. That’s progress... Ken and his partner have picked up the pieces and carry on with dogged perseverance. Others are not so fortunate.

My tentative conclusion from listening to these locals is that, to adapt Nick Cave, I don’t believe in an interventionist government, nor an interventionist God with easy, distant, cookie-cutter answers. But standing under those stars in all my smallness, finitude and fallenness, I do believe in an Intimate Interventionist, who bends his divine ear to hear, and incarnates himself in his indigenous people’s long struggle to survive, and one day thrive.

Gordon Preece
is minister of Yarraville Anglican and Director of Ethos.
For information re DEEP, visit www.tear.org.au


October 1, 2012, 11:49PM
Thanks, Gordon, for your thoughtful reflections. For too long we whitefellas have been slow to listen and quick to advise.

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