A few days ago, I joined with some colleagues to meet with a group of overseas visitors from the church in West Papua. They were spending some weeks in Perth, as guests of the Uniting Church, interacting with local UCA people and participating in church and community events, as a part of their Masters studies in community development.
Three of us from the UCA WA Education Team had opportunity to talk with the visitors over the course of an afternoon. We had been asked to speak about what education and training we offer people in the church. As a part of that, we set out to offer a short explanation of the Uniting Church, what our core values and commitments are, and what training we offer to people.
So we spoke about the evangelical and ecumenical commitments of the Uniting Church; our multicultural and multifaith relationships; and the importance of our Covenant with the First Peoples. We highlighted our commitment to gender equity and the importance of lay leadership. We highlighted the increasingly secular context of Australian society and described our commitment to seeking justice, our environmental commitments, and the importance of regional relationships within Asia and the Pacific. In a sense, that’s how we see ourselves, on the inside.
The conversation developed energy, however, in the discussion, not about the educational offerings we have developed in response to those core commitments, but about the way we live as Church in Australian society. The questions we fielded and the comments that we heard, began to challenge me, as I thought and talked about being a faithful disciple in my own culture and context. What do we look like, to others, from outside that culture and context?
Our West Papuan friends found it hard to get their heads around the idea that—although Australia is nominally a “Christian” nation—yet, there are people in our society, who do not claim any faith for themselves, and who do not attend any worship services on Sundays.
From within their culture and context, spirituality is understood to be integral to human existence, all members of society claim adherence to a particular faith, and everyone knows the religion of those people around them. West Papua is part of Indonesia, and in that nation, everyone has a faith community to which they belong—whether Muslim, or Christian, or one of the eastern religions.
It was a challenge to me, to know that our western secularised assumptions about life, and our ways of being content with a growing number of avowedly “no religion” people in our midst, are not shared by everyone. The practices of our western society can themselves be called to account, as being inadequate, insufficient, incomplete.
There was a great amount of interest in the UCA story of Congress and Covenant—the way that we express our relationship, as Second Peoples, with the First Peoples of this land. The comment that we honour and respect our indigenous peoples was important. From the very little that I know about our nearest neighbour, Indonesia, I could easily become paternalistic and superior about the poor deal that indigenous groups receive in that country.
Yet the stark reality of black—white relationships in Australia, is that we have treated our indigenous peoples very poorly; and we continue to do so, even today. Rates of incarceration, poverty, malnutrition, and life expectancy vary so starkly between the smaller indigenous population and the majority white population. To our continuing shame.
The light was shone very strongly on my country, my people, our national experience. Gently, but clearly.
Some of the questions revealed a strong level of interest in the relationships that exist in Australia between the churches and the government. On the one hand, there was some puzzling over the notion that the government would provide funding for the church to employ people who offered services to the community. I had the sense that, in their culture, the responsibility to care for aged and infirm people, rested squarely within the family and the church networks. Government funding for such purposes appeared to be an unknown thing, for the West Papuans.
On the other hand, there was strong interest in the way that I described the various activities of the churches as they sought justice for people in society. I talked about visiting local members of parliament, collecting signatures on petitions, writing letters to MPs, as well as the work on the ground that is undertaken with the poor and needy.
I also spoke about how sometimes, Christians in Australia take part in non-violent public protests. As West Papua is a part of the nation of Indonesia, it is clear that the treatment of political dissidence is undertaken in ways quite different from the way we deal with this in Australia. We had a clear sense that public protests would be dangerous for the West Papuans to undertake. But does that mean that we have a higher level of justice in society, here, when compared with West Papua? That was a challenge to think through.
A last point where I found myself “on the back foot” came when a question was asked about climate change. The questioner wanted to call the Western Church to account, for what we are doing, and what we are not doing, in relation to the changing climate. How do we live such that we minimise the impact of western lifestyle on the environment? And how has the more resource-rich Western Church assisted the churches in places where climate change has a daily impact, to grapple with this issue?
Again, I felt under challenge from the gentle but perceptive questions asked.
Engagement with people across cultures is a challenging but also stimulating experience. I was left with the feeling, after this extended conversation with our West Papuan visitors, that we in the UCA need to undertake more sustained reflection on what we look like to other people. Their gentle but perceptive questions, from the outside, looking in at us, invited me to consider, once again, how I best serve as a disciple, in the context where as find myself. That’s a challenge.