By Donald Moss
Dr Anne Pattel-Gray has lived a life of many academic firsts.
For example, in 1995, Anne became the first Indigenous person to graduate with a PhD from the University of Sydney and, two years later, she became the first Indigenous person to be awarded a Doctor of Divinity from India. As such, Anne is a recognised and respected scholar, theologian, activist and writer.
Anne may be a woman of firsts, but first and foremost she is a member of our First Peoples.
Anne is also a committed member of the Uniting Church and, earlier this year, gave this year’s first Northey Lecture at Parkville’s Centre For Theology & Mission. The topic was Red Ochre Theology, a subject Anne was able to speak to with insight, experience and authority.
Anne is a First Peoples theologian who has spent the past two decades decolonising biblical narratives and constructing a theology that draws on First Peoples’ ancestral narratives. All of this to help inform First Peoples’ identity, faith and spirituality.
The Uniting Church openly embraces First Peoples and, in 2010, became the first church in Australia to constitutionally acknowledge Aboriginal and Islander people as the First Peoples of Australia.
The Church also acknowledges it hasn’t always been so progressive and, indeed, once participated in segregating First Peoples physically, emotionally and spiritually. This history is part of Anne’s history.
Anne’s history with the Church does not make for easy reading. It is confronting, challenging, but instructive. It speaks to why the Church still has a lot of work to do to help heal wounds it inflicted just a generation ago.
It is said in order to know where you’re going, you need to know where you have been and this is a philosophy Anne subscribes to. As much as the Church has hurt her – deeply hurt her – she refuses to give up on it. Anne believes the Church can be “transformed” and wants to be part of that process.
“I love my church, the Uniting Church, warts and all,” she says with a warm smile.
“I know it’s not perfect and has a lot of things wrong with it and can be mean, hateful, nasty and judgmental, but at the same time I still hold to the faith that it can be transformed and I hold to that imagery of God’s hands at work here among us each and every day.
“My own people say to me, how can you remain in the church after everything it has done to you and I say, ‘I don’t go to church to worship people, I go to worship to be with my creator’, and that is what makes the difference.
“It’s about my faith and my relationship with God and that love of God has never wavered.”
If you want to bring about change, there are two schools of thought as to how best to achieve this and, in a nutshell, they are: passive or aggressive.
Anne prefers Option B.
“I am a thorn in the side of the church, government or whoever,” she laughs.
“I have to fight back because my faith, theology and relationship with God compels me to do so.
“I have to hold people accountable because that is what we are supposed to do as Christians. However, we should not become judge and jury, because God didn’t give us the right to do that.”
Anne’s relationship with the Church began in Townsville when she was about 10. And it wasn’t a nice relationship. Racism was systemic in all parts of society and religious institutions weren’t immune. The hypocrisy of this wasn’t lost on Anne, even at such an early age.
“As the only Aboriginal people in the Methodist Church in Townsville, my brothers and I encountered so much racism,” she says.
“My brother Neil and I have often reflected on that time and he says, ‘you know, we were the welfare recipients in that church, we were what made white people feel better about who they were. We were never treated as their equal, always treated differently’.”
Asked for an example, Anne tells a story that involved her older brother Dennis.
“He fell in love with one of the white girls in the youth group there and it was made clear in no uncertain terms that any relationship was just not possible,” she says.
“These were people we thought we had close relationships with because we grew up together over a number of years.
“That was very hurtful and Dennis ended up falling away from the Church as a result of that because the hurt was so bad.
“He was led to believe we were all equal in the eyes of God, until he wanted to date someone’s daughter and then, all of a sudden, he was black and unworthy.
“I can remember when I was 13, the preacher talking one day about the good Samaritan and I thought, ‘you hypocrite, because you don’t do anything for my people’ and, when we were leaving, I said to him, ‘I have a question for you Reverend, how is it that you can stand there and preach about the good Samaritan, yet if one of my people were in the gutter you would step over them to get out of the way?’.
“Well, I got a wallop over the head from my mother for asking that and, on the way home, I also got a lecture from her and she said, ‘you know, we don’t let them know what we think, we wait until we get home and then we have those conversations’ and I said, ‘but mum, they are hypocrites and I wanted to challenge him on that, it’s wrong’, and mum said, ‘you have to learn there is a time for battles, you are 13’.
“But you know, I think she took pride in me speaking up.”
Not everyone in the Church at that time discriminated against Anne and her family, however. In fact one minister had a profound impact on them when they were at their most vulnerable.
When Anne was about 10, her family moved 500km from Winton to Townsville and, about three days after arriving, her father suddenly left. This left Anne’s mother alone with seven children and no network of friends to call upon for assistance.
“When our father left us we were living in incredible poverty and we had to move out of a rental home and go into Aboriginal housing, which was horrific,” Anne says.
“We were shocked to be living in poverty and in fear of being taken away from our mum, so if anyone knocked at the door we would run and hide.”
And, sure enough, one day, there was a knock at the door. The children scattered to any dark corner they could find as Anne’s mother nervously answered the door. Standing on the doorstep was Rev Jack Thomas, who had been heavily involved with the family as part of the Methodist Church in Winton.
Jack had heard Anne’s father had left them and, now ministering in Bowen, about 200km south of Townsville, he had arrived asking if he could help them in any way.
“He and his wife, Ivy, were true Christians,” Anne says. “They didn’t see colour and they were so humble, loving, embracing and affirming.
“He turned up this particular day and said, ‘Ivy and I are always here for you and the Lord is always here for you and you won’t go without’.
“Every fortnight after that we had boxes of food left on our doorstep and one day, many years later, I said to him, ‘you were the one delivering that food, weren’t you?’, and he wouldn’t say yes, he just said ‘Anne, the Lord always provides’.
“There was no one else in the world who cared for us like that. He was the main presence in my life and he was everything that the Church wasn’t at that time. He had such grace, love, compassion and justice.
“That man sustained my faith because it was challenged constantly, but he showed me (the power of love).”
Anne recalls visiting Jack and Ivy many years later when her activism had begun to garner her some headlines on the national stage.
“Whenever I returned to Townsville I would always visit Jack and Ivy and one day I turned up at their house and saw a framed photo of me on the wall,” Anne says.
“I was so moved to see it and Jack said, ‘girl, you don’t know how proud of you I am, where God has taken you (is fantastic) and despite what you have achieved you are still humble’ and I said, ‘Jack if it wasn’t for you I could have hated white people, but you kept coming up in my life as a difference about what true Christianity is about.
“I would have left the Church without his influence and I don’t know where my faith might have been.”
Anne has made peace with the Church and she is grateful for that. But, outside of the Church, Anne continues to confront discrimination and open, ugly, unvarnished racism. Worse, she has come to realise these weeping wounds will never heal.
“I have to come to accept that I will never be accepted,” Anne says bluntly.
The sentence hangs in the air for a moment. Anne, clearly distressed, pauses to gather her thoughts.
“Everyone wants to be loved, cherished, embraced and accepted, so it’s really hurtful when you have to accept that that won’t happen in your life,” she continues.
“So, here I am at 63 coming to the realisation that I will never receive that acceptance.
“To be white in this world is to be acknowledged, acclaimed and accepted, where your achievements mean something, but (anything I have achieved) just means I’m an uppity n***** and have to be put back in my little box.”
As distressing and depressing and demoralising as these experiences have been, and continue to be, they serve only to galvanise Anne’s conviction and drive to further explore her history and heritage.
And there was one particular experience at Sunday School not long after Anne arrived in Townsville, that continues to shape her life.
“The teacher talked about the curse of Ham, meaning that all black people were cursed to forever be slaves to white people and she was looking at me when she said this and, of course, all of the other kids also turned around and looked at me,” Anne says.
“If I could have asked God to open up the ground and swallow me I would have, and that just scarred me so much.
“I came out crying because I couldn’t understand why people didn’t like us and I thought ‘what did I do to make people hate me so much?’ But there is no rhyme or reason or logic to racism.
“So when mum arrived to pick me up I started crying and when we got home I told her what the teacher had said and I asked mum, ‘why did God make us black, why am I cursed as being bad or evil?’ and she said ‘Anne, you’re not bad or evil, there are some people in the world who think they are better than us, but that doesn’t make them right, because God created us equal’.
“I remember saying to her, ‘yeah I know that mum, but God created us equal and in the image that I am, so why am I to be cursed?’
“So at that stage I really struggled with my Aboriginality because I couldn’t go and turn myself white, I was in this skin and there was nothing I could do to change and I thought, ‘this is wrong’.”
And it was in this moment Anne turned to the Bible and started to look at it differently. Positively. Suddenly, the Bible seemed to speak to her, not scorn her.
“I started looking at the Bible through my cultural lens, and mum would tell us about our ancestors, and meaning and worth,” Anne recalls.
“That’s what mum said to us, ‘we are a very spiritual people and we observe God’s teaching through our law’.
“She said ‘we are old, with ancient knowledge and these (non-Indigenous) people have only been here 200 years’.
“She said ‘your culture is everything’ and the more people told me I was less than them, the more determined I was to prove them wrong, and there was a real fire in my belly to do that.”
Much of what Anne’s mother said to her has formed a strong foundational basis for her theology, something she touched on during her Northey Lecture and which she explores in depth in a book she is writing.
“At the heart of that is the construction of a truly Aboriginal theology, born from this land, built in the context of our cultural understanding, identity and relationship with the creator that goes back 60,000 years,” she says.
“Building on that is a theological understanding of how Christology has been formed through our experiences with the church, both negative and positive.
“I’m encouraging my people to create a theology of their own that can be shared with Christians around how God the creator fits into our life and how he is seen in the midst of our suffering, while also being the source of our liberation.
“You know, we all worship the same creator, it is just expressed in different cultural ways and understandings, but we’re all praying to the one God and that is what should unite us.”
Anne’s Sunday school teacher wasn’t the only one to have a marked impact on her life. About a dozen years later, when Anne was in her final year of school, her favourite teacher asked the class to individually stand up and say what they wanted to do when they left school.
Anne takes up the story: “In my last year of high school, I was in the top five students academically, and I absolutely adored my teacher,” Anne says.
“I can remember on the last day of school she asked the class to explain individually what they saw themselves doing in the future. So she went around the class and, once again, I’m the only Aboriginal kid there and I said to her, ‘I want to go to university’ and she laughed at me.
“I was so dumbfounded and I looked at her with such hurt because she was mocking me and I didn’t know why. She came over and said ‘Anne, you know Aboriginal people don’t go to university, you should work out something you might be able to do with your hands, you work better with your hands’.
“That comment really scarred me and I thought, ‘I will show you’.”
And show her she did, as Anne went on to do great things in tertiary education and, afterwards, was able to send a pointed message in person to that teacher who had doubted her so much.
“Well, it took me a few years, but in 1995 I became the first Indigenous person to earn a PhD from the University of Sydney,” she says.
“After I had received my PhD I tracked that teacher down in Townsville and I went and knocked on her door and said, ‘I’m Anne Pattel, do you remember me, I was in your class?’.
“And my old teacher said, ‘what brings you to my door Anne?’ and I said ‘do you remember the last day of school when you told me that us black people were better off working with our hands because we don’t go to university?’, and her face just went red and I said, ‘yeah, well guess what, here is my PhD and I just want to show you that I have proved you wrong’.”
Anne is a person who continues to challenge accepted thinking if she perceives injustice or discrimination. She believes strongly that society can only improve if it embraces all of its citizens and treats them equally.
On this score, she says there is one glaring challenge Australia must confront and come to an all-inclusive resolution: Australia Day.
And Anne believes this is an issue that The Uniting Church could – and should – take an active role in. She acknowledges that the Church recognises and promotes a Day Of Mourning on the Sunday before each Australia Day, but she says this isn’t enough.
“This debate has raged for a long time now,” she says. “January 26 is problematic because what is being celebrated is the genocide, dispossession, oppression and disenfranchisement of First Nations people.
“We need to challenge government about changing the ideology and content around why we celebrate, because what is being celebrated now is everything that First Nations people oppose.
“This is an opportunity for our church to stand up and be a vocal reference point on this topic and to provide the leadership that this country so desperately needs to drive change.
“There are black leaders like myself and others who are a part of the Uniting Church and the Church should be backing us every step of the way to bring about that change.
“That means bringing their resources, influence, power and authority to this conversation.
“If they did that I think they would be surprised about how many young people they would suddenly get sitting in their pews, because it’s the younger generation that wants to see this change.
“The Church just needs to tap into where the community is at on this issue.
“The power that the Church has to transform this nation is incredible and I don’t know whether they realise that power and influence they have and how to utilise it to create a country that is truly inclusive.
“And God has given the Church the Biblical mandate to go and create this world, so what are we doing with that authority He has given us, why are we not leading and driving this transformation?
“I love my church and I live in hope that it can rise up and be the leader I know it can be. It has to start believing in its brand again, because it’s a powerful one.”