Indigenous culture has much to teach Christians

Dr Jude Long, principal of Nungalinya College in Darwin, says her work gives her an immense sense of hope.

By Emma Halgren

February 17 2016 

Non-Indigenous Christians could learn a lot from Indigenous culture and churches, says Dr Jude Long, principal of Nungalinya College, Darwin. Dr Long was a speaker at the Church Missionary Society’s Summer Under the Son conference, where her talk examined the gaps in understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Christians.

“Indigenous culture is actually much closer to the worldview of the people of the time the Bible was written,” she told TMA. “And we continually misinterpret the Bible because we read our culture back into it. We’re very individualistic, for example. Indigenous culture is very corporate, so they read the Bible in a different way, and we can actually learn from that.

“I think one of the dangers for the church in Australia is to look at the Indigenous communities and think ‘Oh well, nothing’s happening’. Whereas in actual fact there’s a great deal happening, it just doesn’t look the same as what we might expect.

“So if you go along to an Indigenous church on a Sunday morning there might be three people there. But that doesn’t mean there’s no church. The life of the church often takes place outside of that.”

Nungalinya, a partnership between the Uniting, Anglican and Catholic churches, provides theological training and literacy programs for Indigenous Christian leaders.

When Dr Long started there as principal five years ago, 90 per cent of the 300 or so students were women, a lot of them older women.

“So we really wanted to diversify in terms of the people who were coming, and we’re very concerned about Aboriginal men – they’re probably more at risk than anybody.”

Now, the gender balance is around 60 per cent women to 40 per cent men. Dr Long attributes this partly to two new courses introduced in 2014: Certificate II in Music and Certificate II in Media and Discipleship.

“Our primary target with those courses is young people, and particularly men,” she said.

In the music course, students learn how to perform and record Christian music. In the media course they learn how to make a short documentary of their own faith journey.

“They’re learning all sorts of skills in film and computers, but at the same time it has a really strong focus on discipleship,” said Dr Long. “We really want people to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus.”

Each film gets screened at the students’ graduation ceremony. “Some of them are just beautiful,” said Dr Long.

She said everyday encounters through her work at Nungalinya inspired her.

“It’s easy to be overwhelmed – the actual situation in Indigenous communities is terrible, and very confronting,” she said. “But when you sit with people and you hear their faithfulness and their willingness to follow Jesus despite everything that’s happening in their lives, that gives you just an immense sense of hope.

“We have chapel every morning at college, and regularly we will have people stand up to do something like pray out loud or read the Bible and they’ll say something like, ‘I’ve never done this before’. You’re seeing people growing little bit by little bit in confidence. I really see it as a long-term pathway for people.”

Most Nungalinya students come from remote communities, mostly across the Top End, which they will usually return to when they graduate.

“It would be great if people could pray for the Indigenous church, and that God would be raising up strong leaders,” said Dr Long. “There are some strong leaders there, but what we need is more people who are really thinking through their faith and their culture, rather than just accepting a western view of the Gospel.”

Her own daughter, son-in-law and young granddaughter will soon be moving to Darwin and living on campus at Nungalinya. That will give Jude Long a taste of the more integrated, holistic experience of life that she has observed in Indigenous communities.

“It’ll be interesting to see what’s going to happen in terms of, say, I’m at work and my little granddaughter walks in!”

 “One of the big things that I struggle with in my own culture is that we tend to view everything in nice neat little compartments. Indigenous people have a very holistic worldview, so you can’t separate work from family and from faith – it’s all interconnected.”

See Nungalinya's YouTube channel, which includes videos by students in the Certificate II in Media and Discipleship course, here