Every year, Aunty Jean Phillips, one of Australia’s most senior Aboriginal Christian Leaders, supported by Common Grace, invites Australian churches to hold services of acknowledgement, lament and prayer in the lead up to January 26.

Burnie Anglican Church heard about the national #ChangeTheHeart movement at a workshop during the Bishop’s Training Event last September. We decided to invite Common Grace to come to Burnie as part of our local Parish’s efforts towards seeking reconciliation.

On Wednesday 15th of January, we hosted the first of 24 #ChangeTheHeart prayer services around Australia. The 2020 theme is ‘The Truth Will Set Us Free’. This was relevant to us as we have been challenged to acknowledge the truth of the past as we continue the early stages of our reconciliation journey.

Our church has become more convicted by the idea that our discipleship to Jesus includes loving those who are marginalised in the community. The arrival of British settlers in Tasmania systematically marginalised Aboriginal people – and this has accumulated across generations – with attitudes and actions that are far from anything we would describe as Christlike. Compounding the growing weight of this realisation was the reality our church had benefitted from the dispossession and genocide of the Aboriginal tribes in our North-West region, carried out by the Van Diemens Land Company (VDL) over 180 years ago.

“As disciples of Jesus we must always welcome the Spirit’s work of changing our heart. This service was challenging to my own heart as I am confronted with previously unknown realities of the past. I am moved by the Spirit to compassion and love towards those I have not understood, ” said Revd Phil Coghlan, Rector, Burnie Anglican Church.

We have been working on a local Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Bishop Richard, during his presidential address at Synod last year, encouraged local parishes as a matter of priority, to begin, “some formal acknowledgment of the traditional custodians, to build relationships and develop understanding of the history and culture of the first Tasmanians, and to seek to facilitate reconciliation.”

Our first step has been listening to our local Aboriginal community and re-educating ourselves about the truth of the past. Sadly, the VDL’s attempted extermination of Aboriginal people was almost so complete that very few stories were handed down. Our region has a very dark history and an Aboriginal culture, that many of us know very little about. We felt the #ChangeTheHeart prayer service was needed for our community to acknowledge and lament what had happened.

In the lead up, we sensed God was moving in our community. Our local newspaper ran a front-page story about our prayer service in the context of the Anglican Church’s complicity in the colonisation and genocide of Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania (which got our heart-rates up!). While this story provided lots of good publicity, we also got to experience being in the firing line of a barrage of racial and vitriolic comments on social media directed at Aboriginal people. But, the next day, this vile behaviour was called out in an editorial, reinforcing the need for our whole region to acknowledge and lament our dark history so we can move forward with reconciliation. Wow.

The prayer service was powerful, informative and heart-changing. Aboriginal Christian Leaders Brooke Prentis and Bianca Manning from Common Grace, and worship pastor Helen Wright, travelled to Burnie to lead the service. They were supported by our local ministry team. One highlight was the welcoming words from Uncle Norman, a local Aboriginal Christian Elder who travelled from Circular Head to join us. He encouraged us to look forward with ’20-20’ vision to the hope of God restoring the First peoples and bringing healing to our land.

We received great feedback from those who attended.

“What impressed me so much was Aunty Jean’s vision that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Christians work together to bring about true healing and reconciliation through greater knowledge and understanding of each other’s past and present. And, that congregation members were given a topic with references to start their quest.” Joan Harvey (Parish Secretary/Warden)

“…enlightening informative and encouraging to many people” – Local parishioner

“Thank you on behalf of our city for standing in the gap for reconciliation” – Burnie City Councillor

“Wonderful service. I’m so glad I went.” – Visitor

Over 70 people attended. Approximately half were known to us, including our neighbours from Wynyard, Ulverstone and Devonport Anglican Churches. We made new connections with Christians from other denominations and organisations in our area. Even some non-believers walked into our church for the first time. All in all, the service was a beautiful opportunity to stand together in the North-West and pray for the healing of our nation.

Aunty Jean Phillips declares that “It’s only the cross – the Christian Gospel – that will bring healing to our nation”.  How great is our God who specialises in reconciliation!

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18, NIV).

Part of our call to bring people to understand God’s reconciliation to himself, through Jesus, is to do what we can to reconcile the earthly divide that is so evident in our community. Now is the time for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Christians to rise and journey together to bring God’s true healing and reconciliation to our region, our state and our nation.

We stepped out of our comfort zone. We made new friends. We learned new things. We developed empathy for the marginalised and dispossessed. Our journey continues, and we pray that we continue to follow the path God paves for us in bringing healing to our community in a way that honours Him.

Bonnie Bonneville (on behalf of Burnie Anglican Church)

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