Indigenous Christians 'really changed me'

Newly appointed vice-principal at Melbourne's Eastern College talks to TMA

Dr Jude Long: "... my experience of Aboriginal people was that they would be praying about things all the time. Everything is in God's hands. They actually believe he's going to do something."

By Stephen Cauchi

September 8 2019Poor English, lack of role models and distrust of white Australia were among the barriers between Indigenous Australians and Christianity, said Dr Jude Long, the newly appointed vice-principal at Melbourne’s Eastern College (formerly Tabor College).

But Indigenous Australians who were Christian displayed a love of the Bible and prayer that was exemplary for others – including herself, she said.

Dr Long spoke at the Evangelical Women in Academia conference at Ridley College on 3 August on the topic of ‘Grounded in Australia – Learning from our First Peoples’.

Dr Long told TMA her past eight years as principal of Nungalinya College – an Aboriginal Theological College in Darwin – had given her great insight into Indigenous Christianity.

Indigenous Christians “really take the Bible seriously”, she said. “Aboriginal cultural and world views are often much closer to the biblical world view than Western culture.

“They don’t have any problems with miracles or anything like that, or God speaking to people in dreams or visions. That’s what happens in their experience.”

But because many Indigenous Australians did not speak English, finding complete Bibles in their native language was a serious problem.

Dr Long said that at Nungalinya College, Indigenous students spoke three or four native languages plus English. “English would probably be (last) in terms of fluency,” she said. “Only one in 10 has functional English in terms of literacy. They don’t speak English at home. The only time they speak English is talking with whitefellas.”

There was only one complete Bible in a native language – Kriol – but Kriol was not universally spoken among Indigenous Australians, she said.

“Many others will only have access to maybe part of a New Testament or a mini-Bible,” she said.

“They’re most receptive to parts of the Bible that have been translated into their own languages.

“If they want to think about God they want to do that in their heart language, where they can actually process and think about deep ideas.

“If you’ve only got a very surface-level English, which many of them would, you can’t really process the deep ideas.”

Indigenous people displayed their faith in ways that Western Christians “might be more sceptical about”, she said. “I found that very encouraging and helpful.”

For example, Indigenous Christians were “very prayerful”.

“We tend to turn to prayer at the last resort (but) my experience of Aboriginal people was that they would be praying about things all the time. Everything is in God’s hands. They actually believe he’s going to do something.”

Dr Long said that Indigenous Christianity “really changed me”.

“Aboriginal people just view the world completely differently and have great riches of God showing in their lives,” she said.

That “feeds back into my own life”, she said. “I feel enriched by these other perception of things. Like an understanding of miracles or prayer or dreams. Dreams are quite a significant thing.”

But Dr Long said the overall acceptance of Christianity among Indigenous Australians varied greatly depending on location. Evangelising Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory and Sydney’s Redfern would have to be done completely differently, she said.

In the Northern Territory, Christian missions had played an important role in preserving Indigenous language and culture. “They were very positive about the missions,” she said. “Most would have had some sort of understanding of God.”

But further south on the Australian continent, Indigenous people had experienced “the decimation of their cultures and languages, particularly urban Indigenous people.

“They would have a very different view”.

Consequently, there was no “one-size-fits-all” approach to evangelisation. “All of them have very different life circumstances, cultures and languages. It’s like saying, how do you evangelise Europe? It’s that different.”

Using appropriate language was important: “Words like law and judgement and sin and things like that are not particularly helpful, but I don’t think they’re helpful for any non-Christian.”

Lack of role models and disciples was another problem. “There are few (Indigenous) people who really know the Bible who can disciple people. That is why Nungalinya College exists – to train Aboriginal people to be ministering to their own people,” she said.

And while the Christian missions did a lot of good, they were not “particularly empowering” of Indigenous people, she said.

“It’s not like Aboriginal Christian people can go … there’s a lovely wonderful Aboriginal Christian person as my role model. It’s just not that easy.”

There were “particular issues” for men, said Dr Long, “because there’s fewer male role models than there are for women”.

But there are no shortcuts to Indigenous evangelisation, she said. “The things I observed worked best were people who learnt language, invested long periods of time, were listening and respectful, and found the points of connection.”