National Magazine of the Lutheran Church of Australia

Life in a northern church

May 2018

Hope Vale on Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland was established as a Lutheran mission in 1949. St John’s Lutheran Church Hope Vale is part of a parish with worship communities at Wujal Wujal to the south and Coen to the north, and is served by Pastor David Spanagel. We put the same five questions to five people from Hope Vale, who have generously shared their views on what it’s like to be an Aboriginal person in one of the most remote congregations of the LCA.

Carmen Pearson, 36
Language group: Guugu Yimidhirr

1. What’s your background in the church?
My parents and grandparents took me to church and I was baptised and confirmed. I went away for school to Peace Lutheran College in Cairns, which changed me a lot – mainly in my Christianity, respecting people and building faith.
2. What is it like to be an Aboriginal person in the LCA?
When I go to church, all my troubles are gone. You are there to praise God. You don’t see the differences with other people, and you try not to judge.
3. Are things improving or getting worse as far as having Indigenous voices heard?
It has improved but could be better with young generations. We could go out into the community and have discussions, and get the message out that way.
4. What is the most important thing that non-Indigenous Lutherans can learn from Indigenous Lutherans?
Sharing stories and culture.
5. What should the church do to better hear Indigenous voices in our midst?
Listening to stories and acknowledging Indigenous ways, culture and lifestyle.

Jahvarne Pearson, 22
Language group: Guugu Yimidhirr

1. I’ve been baptised and confirmed at Hope Vale. I used to go to Bible study but I don’t go to church a lot now. I only go when there’s baptisms or someone passes.
2. It’s a caring environment. But not a lot of people go to church now, or not as much as they used to. I think the older ones who have passed had a big thing to do with people going to church more often.
3. I think it’s pretty equal. I haven’t felt discriminated against in church.
4. You’ve got to look after your own family.
5. They actually sing some songs in our language, so it’s pretty fair here. They probably need something to brighten it up a little, maybe a band, or some jazz.

Bruce Gibson, 49
Language group: Guugu Yimidhirr

1. I was dragged to church by my grandparents and parents, and I went to boarding school at St Peter’s Lutheran College in Brisbane. Then I worked out west and there were no churches. I was physically disconnected from church,
not spiritually disconnected. But when I came back home, I came back to church to give my sons the upbringing I’ve had.
2. Since I’ve been back to church, my life has gone ahead in leaps and bounds. But I see the difficulties of reigniting the congregation to be part of the church and trying to get people back to church. The younger generation are not attracted to the old hymns, so maybe we need to change the packaging. Also trying to keep the church financially afloat is a challenge.
3. I feel we’re perhaps not being included; they want us to be part of the offering but not so much part of the blessings.
4. It doesn’t matter what colour you are or what background you have – we are still all Lutherans and we’re equal.
5. Find a strategic way to support Aboriginal congregations, because we have to share our pastor without financial backing. Let’s look at how church is delivered in Brisbane. What makes it attractive to younger generations? That’s probably the sort of support we need.

Esmae Bowen, 62
Language group: KuKu Thaypan

1. I was born in Hope Vale and brought up in the church. I went to school at Alma Park in New South Wales when I was seven through the Lutheran church – we were fostered out.
2. I experienced racism as a child and young person. Sometimes people would say, ‘You’re too dark, you should scrub up’. And then as a little child you grow up feeling no good as a person.
3. We’re equal now. Some people in the church who came through here didn’t treat Aboriginal people equally. It’s better now.
4. At the end of the day, the pastors are only the shepherds; the word is the important thing. Even if you’re Catholic, we were made by the one maker.
5. Now we’re not having black pastors coming through from our community. The invitation is there but I think some of the people still feel like they’re in the back, how we were treated in the first place.

Victor Gibson, 64
Language group: Father’s language group is Bulam and mother’s is Bindii Warra.

1. I’ve been going there all my life, my mum and dad and grandparents went there; I was baptised and confirmed there.
2. My teaching from my parents and my grandparents was that the Lutheran church was a cornerstone for our community. These days you probably don’t see many people in church but they always learnt the Lutheran faith.
3. The belief of the people in the church has got stronger in my lifetime. The worst thing that happened before, was people who sinned being asked by the church to do public forgivenesses in front of everybody. People are treated more equally now.
4. Maybe they can learn a bit of [Aboriginal] language; the elderly people would teach them languages – that would be good.
5. The church elders and the pastors could do home visits and talk to families. That might start getting people engaged. Having young Aboriginal men becoming pastors should be more encouraged by the whole church.