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By the Rev’d Jasmine Dow, former ABM Missioner.
In this article, previously published by Christ Church St Laurence in The Deacon’s Treasure, the Rev’d Jasmine Dow reflects on the past and future of the church in the Torres Strait and the mutuality and reciprocity of mission.
“When the LMS missionaries arrived on the beach on Erub (Darnley Island) it is understood that God was on both sides of the beach – with the London Missionary Society missionaries and also with the chief Dabad who received the missionaries in peace. Between both the missionaries and the people of Erub the light was received, and the culture of the people of the Torres Strait enlightened by the light of Christ. Culture was not destroyed by the light but raised by the light.”
-The Right Revd Keith Joseph, Anglican Diocese of North Queensland Synod Charge
In September 2020, Samuel and I travelled with our girls (ages 3 and 5) to Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait. I had the privilege to represent ABM as an observer (listener) at the Torres Strait Islander Regional Clergy meeting. Flying over the tip of Cape York and then landing on Horn Island is an awe-inspiring (sometimes hair-raising) venture. The beauty and vastness of the sea is breath-taking. During our week there, we had the privilege of being welcomed into community, Kai Kai and feasting, and listening to the story of the Coming of The Light and the impact it has on Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Before going to the Torres Strait, I knew that the festival of the Coming of The Light was important but I had always been perplexed by it. I wondered if it was yet another colonial overlay on indigenous community and whether celebrating it made me complicit in another injustice. However, in listening to Torres Strait Islander Christians, it is clear this is a festival owned by the Torres Strait. Indeed, it’s a public holiday! I realised quickly, that in my privilege I was missing a very clear invitation to celebrate that the “Light came, Light continues to come, and the Light will continue to shine” (Revd Canon Victor Joseph).
It does not correlate that God was absent from the Torres Strait prior to the LMS missionaries arriving. The people of the Torres Strait were a faithful people prior to the events of 1871, with a rich spirituality that encompassed the land and the seas. In the ABM Both Sides of The Beach video series, Aunty McRose Elu recounts a story of when she was a child, asking her father, “Why are they talking about the light, weren’t our people already in the light? Why are they saying it was a coming of the light to the Torres Strait?” She goes onto say, “They explained to me it wasn’t in the way of thinking that we were in the darkness, that we came out of darkness into light, it was like them bringing the light to us and we, bringing the light to them, and we also tell them, we have a light in our own surroundings, we have a spirituality, we have things that we believe in.” From the very beginning this understanding of mission had a mutuality and reciprocity about it.
Those who resided on their respective “sides of the beach” displayed an openness to coming in peace and listening to one another. And, even more so, on the side of Erub, who welcomed an unknown boat onto their shores in peace. Victor Joseph, Torres Strait Islander Priest and Theologian, and principal of Wontulp-Bi-Buya college speaks of the importance of Good Pasin, a Torres Strait Islander tradition of showing welcome and hospitality. The spirit of Good Pasin is seen in that reception by the people of Erub, and the whole of the Torres Strait, to those bringing the message of good news in the gospel.
As a church, the Coming of The Light invites us to examine our missiology, to question our assumptions, and to listen to our brothers and sisters in the Torres Strait. In a spirit of hospitality, we are invited to celebrate diversity, rather than embedding ourselves deeper into our trenches, whether they be theology, politics, economic privilege, etc. We are invited out of our comfortable silos into the spaciousness of the Torres Strait, with its wild and vast seas, and wild winds. When we inhabit this space, I imagine the Holy Spirit stirring us onto something new… because “the light continues to come”. Perhaps, it is time for the church to be “missioned to” (a phrase of Rev’d Victor).
As a part of amplifying this voice and celebrating the church in the Torres Strait, and Aboriginal ministry in North Queensland, the Diocese f North QLD passed motions at its recent Synod to support the creation of both the “Meriba Maygi Zageth Anglican Council”, translated as “Our Holy Work”, and the “North Queensland Aboriginal Anglican Council”. These councils are one way of ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries have autonomy over decision making and governance, whilst still being important members of the Diocese of North QLD, and the national Anglican church.
As Bishop Keith Joseph said in his Synod Charge, “The overall principal is that of autonomy, not independence. We are all part of the Body of Christ and therefore no part can be actually independent. Rather, we are all mutually interdependent, but it does not mean that one part of the Body dictates to another how it should operate. However, it also does not mean that one part of the Body abandons another part. There is no intention to cut any part of the Body of Christ adrift. It is something far more nuanced than separation or dominion.”
There is much to celebrate in the Diocese of North QLD at the present time, in addition to the autonomous councils, there has also been the establishment of a household of the Melanesian Brothers on Thursday Island. The Melanesian Brotherhood is an order based in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. The brothers on Thursday Island will undertake ministry with the Anglican Church across the Torres Strait Islands.
When I get despondent at the state of the Anglican Church in Australia, with our deep division and political tensions, I remember all that is happening in the North QLD region. I listen to people like Aunty Rose Elu, or the Revd Victor Joseph, who remind me of God’s unbound vastness. I recall being in worship at Wontulp-Bi-Buya college, where the spirit moves, and “nor can she be captured silenced or restrained”. Here resides a gift of hope, vibrancy, and renewal.
“Just as the stars guided our ancestors through the seas, so too does your light guide us upon life’s path” (Aunty Rose Elu and Fr Dalton Cowley, Coming of The Light liturgy meeting, April 2021.)
Presidential Charge, Anglican Diocese of North QLD Synod, 9th April 2021
Both Sides of The Beach (ABM video study series)
John L. Bell & Graham Maule, “Enemy of Apathy” (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2003)
ABM Partners Magazine, Special Edition, National Reconciliation Week 2017