12th Assembly 2009

Congress to rebuild from spiritual roots

During the triennial National Conference of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, meeting in Perth June 30 to July 9, members explored the book of Nehemiah — a story about a man who was responsible for the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and who led the people out of broken-ness into hope. Now the new chair and deputy chair of Congress, the Rev. Ken Sumner and Roberta Stanley, have the role of leading Congress as they begin their own process of transformation.

It’s a big responsibility, and both Ken and Roberta are very aware of the challenges ahead.

“It’s very, very humbling actually,” said Ken. “When a group of people put their trust in you to represent them on a national level, I guess for me that’s very humbling.”

One of the challenges is in leading and being a voice for a group of people as diverse as Congress, which is made up of members from across Australia: some people living in remote desert communities, others who are Islander peoples, as well as those living in urban settings and everything between.

However, the week of the national conference was an important time when all those people could come together.

The conference was expanded by a day to allow a retreat, where no “business” was discussed but where people came together in worship. Following that, each day started with prayer and ended with worship, with a number of sessions set aside for Bible studies.

“What we’ve learned this week is about Nehemiah,” explained Ken. “His first actions was to get right with God, was prayer and fasting and communion with God; that was priority.

“Because we come from a diverse group of people within our selves, we need that conversation, that time of learning from each other. There’s getting to know each other and then there’s learning from each other, so we’re mindful of where other Aboriginal people are coming from and what their struggles are,” said Ken.

“I think that’s a gift we can offer the rest of the church; I think it’s something special. At the end of the conference we go away as friends. You don’t get that at synod meetings or assemblies — not often. But they are God moments. I think it’s got something to do with our spirituality.”

Another difference between Congress and what happens at synod or Assembly meetings is in the process of selecting leaders.

The election of Ken and Roberta as chair and vice-chair happened during the Conference and was effective immediately. Now it’s their job to take what they heard during the Conference forward for the next three years.

Roberta said the process of prayer and discussion leading up to the leadership decision gave her confidence to take on the role.

“You have good people working with you,” she said. “There’s going to be problems, of course, and there’s going to be joys, but you have a purpose and a goal. God’s put you in these positions. He’s the one who’s going to have to take you through.”

Ken is a minister based in Port Augusta in South Australia, so has a good understanding of the issues affecting both urban and remote Aboriginal people. He has also been deputy-chair of Congress for the past three years, giving him a good insight into the challenges ahead.

Roberta, a ministry candidate in Central Queensland, also brings a wide range of experience, including a nursing background and ten years working with the CDEP.

Nonetheless, it’s a daunting task: they are both aware of the troubling statistics relating to Aboriginal communities in Australia.

“We don’t want to put bandaids on the symptoms,” said Ken.

“There’s lots of symptoms that we have in the community: the alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse. A lot of these are symptoms of something deeper.

“We’re wanting to get to the core of what’s really the problem, so we can fix it. We’re looking at rebuilding right from the core, from the root of our spiritual lives. The whole thing is dependant upon our relationship with God, fixing that, getting that right. Then I believe everything else falls into place.”

“You know what’s really encouraging for me?” asked Roberta. “We’ve tried all these programs — we’ve tried this, we’ve tried that. It’s like God is saying, ‘You come back.’ It’s like God is saying, ‘I’ll give you hope. You put me first and we’ll go on. We’ll turn those statistics from hopelessness to hope.’”

“It’s a huge task, a huge challenge ahead for us,” said Ken. “But it’s not an impossible one when we work together.”