How many candles on our multicultural-UCA cake?

Margaret Reeson , How many candles on our multicultural-UCA cake?

How many candles do we need for the cake as we celebrate Uniting Church in Australia as a multicultural church? Twenty candles? Or one hundred and fifty? Or even more? Perhaps we need several cakes, or a long path lined with candles, to show how we have come to this time and to thank God for it.

We give thanks that the Uniting Church Assembly in 1985 chose to ‘adopt the statement “The Uniting Church is a Multicultural Church” as a declaration of the intention and nature of the Uniting Church in Australia.’[i]  The twenty years since then have been times of important learning and growing for us all. However, the Assembly in 1985 did not make their decision on the basis of a new good idea. They were describing and affirming something significant that already existed as part of our life. Within Uniting Church, and within the three denominations that came together in 1977, there has been a long history of belonging together with people from many cultures, particularly people from Asia and the Pacific. Indeed, the Basis of Union makes special mention of this existing relationship. In the same sentence that speaks of ‘unity of faith and life in Christ that transcends cultural and economic, national and racial boundaries’ it goes on to commit the Church to seek ‘special relationships with Churches in Asia and the Pacific’.

Why is it that there are so many congregations today who link with UCA but first arrived in Australia from another place, bringing their own culture, language and style of worship with them? Each of the three founding denominations, the Methodist, the Presbyterian and the Congregational churches, have their own stories. Part of each story is the link with communities in other parts of the Pacific and Asia which led, in time, to migrant communities feeling that they would find a spiritual home in association with their friends in Australia. This was often through the ministry of long-term missionaries who had built strong relationships with the people of a region and now had returned to Australia.

We have a very long connection with the people of the Pacific Islands. Among the very earliest of the British migrants to colonial Sydney (other than convicts and soldiers), arriving in 1798, were several Congregational families who had been missionaries to Tahiti with London Missionary Society. Although their missionary service had been brief and generally unsuccessful, they retained a continuing interest in both missionary work and trade with Tahiti. Sydney, Hobart and later Melbourne, Brisbane and far north Queensland ports were among the ports in the network of sea routes across the Pacific. Over the years that followed, island crew, missionaries and traders to the islands with island visitors became a familiar part of eastern Australian society. This developed strong links with London Missionary Society in Tahiti, the Marquesas, New Zealand, Samoa, the Cook Islands and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).

The first two Methodist missionaries to Australia also served briefly in New Zealand among the Maori (Samuel Leigh) and in Tonga (Walter Lawry) in the 1820s. In 1818, Lawry wrote from Sydney to the Missionary Committee in London, very excited about the future possibilities of missionaries going from Sydney ‘to the numerous islands that spot the sea on every side of us. The Friendly Islands, Feejees, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, New Zealand, New Georgia [Solomon Islands]; and to the north again, very contiguous to us are the fine islands of New Guinea, New Ireland, Celebes, Timor, Borneo…’ Lawry brought a Tongan man with him to Sydney in 1823, perhaps the first of many Tongan visitors and migrants. In later years a series of Methodist missionaries passed through Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne on their way to service in New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, building bonds between the Wesleyan Methodist churches in the colonies of Australia and the island of the Pacific.

The Presbyterians in Australia began to build up work in the New Hebrides, China and  India during the 19th century, adding a new work in Korea in 1885.

In one way, part of UCA has been a multicultural church for 150 years. In January 1855, the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Australia became independent of the British Methodists, forming the ‘Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Connexion’. The British Methodists had realized that it was too difficult for them to control or guide ministry far away in the southern hemisphere. The new organization was responsible for the church governance and spiritual guidance of the Methodist work, not only in the colonies of Australia but also in New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. In each region there was a District Meeting which dealt with local issues and each region could send representatives to the annual Conference. In the beginning, most of the leadership was in the hands of the British, Australian or New Zealand missionaries, but the congregations of Methodists in the islands were as much part of the whole organization and under the same authority as any congregation in suburban Melbourne or country South Australia. Because of this, generations of Island people saw themselves as members of a wider Christian community that included fellow-Methodists in Australia and New Zealand.

Because they belonged to the same church ‘connexion’, island people from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji participated in pioneer missionary work in the north-western islands of the Pacific, now Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. When this was first mentioned as a possibility, the Methodist Missionary Committee in 1874 was very impressed with the calibre of the men and women from the islands who were offering for very risky pioneer work in unknown lands, and believed that they were ‘second to none in the Christian world’.[ii] At a District Meeting in Fiji in 1875, the members of the meeting included both British/Australian and Tongan ministers, the Revs Joeli Bulu, Eroni Fotofili, Jemesa Havea, Tevita Nauhaamea, Meli Fifi and Joeli Nau. Together they made the important decision to send Fijian and Tongan teachers and ministers as part of the pioneer party to New Britain. In 1876, the Methodists in Fiji sent one of their Tongan ministers, Rev Eroni Fotofili, to make a pastoral visit to the pioneer group in New Britain; sadly, while traveling back home through Sydney he died suddenly on his way to a meeting to speak about the new mission. His descendents now live in Sydney and honour his grave there to this day.

In 1881-83, Rev Dr George Brown brought two men to Sydney from the Duke of York Islands near New Britain. Peni Lelei and Timot were very new converts and worked with Brown on a translation of Mark’s Gospel in their own language. They lived with the Brown household in Surry Hills, Sydney and added some variety to the large suburban congregation worshipping at Bourke St Methodist, visiting other congregations with Brown. Ten years later the generally pale faces of Sydney Methodist congregations were mingled with the faces of a large team of Pacific Island men and women. They were part of a pioneer group preparing to travel to the eastern islands of Papua New Guinea. While they were in Sydney they visited churches, spoke and sang, and went on outings with the Methodist church members to the zoo and picnics via harbour ferry. They made a great impression and were not easily forgotten. When the churches in the colonies prayed for the new ministry in Papuan Islands, they must have included the Tongan, Fijian and Samoan members as well as the palangi (Anglo) members of the team.

The same sense of belonging together as one network of congregations across several countries meant that problems in Tonga in the 1880s were problems for the whole church. When the Free Church separated from the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Tonga, with serious conflict between those who wished to stay and those who wanted to go, the matter became an issue of great debate at the Wesleyan Methodist General Conference in Melbourne in 1888. They decided to send a deputation from Australia to attempt to resolve the problems, not because they meant to interfere in another church’s affairs but because they believed that the Tongans who refused to join the Free Church were still part of the same Wesleyan Church as themselves. A Tongan couple, Rev…. and Mrs Rachel Tonga came to Australia in 1889 to speak in the churches about what they believed was persecution and forced exile. The very long memory of the events of 1887-1890 still affects relationships among Tongans in both Tonga and Australia today.

When Gordon and Ruth Dicker returned to Australia in 1962 after seven years service with the Church in West Timor, they initiated a service in Indonesian at University of Sydney for Indonesian students, beginning in 1963. As the group grew, it moved to Kensington Methodist Church. By 1977, after a period without leadership, the group had become a community of families, not only students, and was re-established at St Stephens, Macquarie Street, calling for leadership by ministers from Indonesia.

Pacific Island people had been migrating to Australia from around the 1960s, settling most often in the cities of the eastern states. Those with association with the Methodist churches in Tonga, Fiji and Samoa were naturally drawn to the Methodist Church in Australia, as part of the connecting Australasian Methodist Conference. In Sydney, under the leadership of Rev Dr Alan Walker, several Pacific Island congregations gathered in fellowship with what was then Central Methodist Mission (now Wesley Mission). Walker had been strongly outspoken against the White Australia Policy which had made earlier migration of Pacific and Asian people impossible, and once that policy was overturned new migrants believed they would be welcome at the Mission. In addition, two former missionaries from Fiji, the Revs Willis Jago and Peter Davis, joined the staff of the Mission in the 1960s and 1970s, adding to the sense of connection. By 1968 a Pacific Island Council was formed to support the various migrant congregations. It was initially a pastoral exercise to offer spiritual support and a place where they could worship in their own languages and styles. A young Island minister Rev Sione Langi (in 2005 President of the Methodist Conference in Fiji) was appointed by the Mission in 1972 to care for the island community. Services were offered in Wesley Chapel for Fijians, Tongans, Samoans and Rotuman people, one language group each Sunday and a combined service on the third Sunday of each month. Their singing became a valued addition to services in the Lyceum. This would multiply in time to many congregations across the city.[iii]

Not all the migrant communities that associated with our founding churches were the result of missionary enterprise in their countries of origin. Both the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches took a serious interest in the communities of Chinese people as they were drawn to Australia by the gold rush. From the 1870s the Presbyterian Church employed several Chinese Christians in Victoria and New South Wales to serve in ‘Missions’ to their own people, providing rented space for the groups as they grew into congregations. Mr Ah Len and Mr J.Young Wai were significant leaders in the early years; Mr Young Wai was ordained in 1893. In 1898 the Chinese Church was ‘given the status of a sanctioned Charge’ within the Presbyterian Church, with its own ordained Chinese minister.[iv] This congregation served many Chinese merchant families who lived in inner city Sydney, for most of their life together worshipping in Fullerton Memorial Church, Crown Street where it still flourishes. At the time of Church Union, an influential minority opposed union and the result was that this Chinese Presbyterian congregation did not join Uniting Church. Rev Dr Malcolm McLeod, who has had associations with this community since 1934, notes that ‘It is an anomaly that a Congregation that draws together Chinese families of every denominational colour is not in the Uniting Church in Australia’. In the period following the gold rush, the Methodist church also, challenged by a former missionary to China, appointed Chinese staff to minister to the Chinese Christian community in Melbourne, assisting them to migrate from China in 1874.[v]

In the post-World War 2 period of migration from Europe, a Presbyterian deaconess, Chris Anderson, visiting the migrant camp at Greta discovered that among the newcomers were fellow-Presbyterians, arriving from the Netherlands and Hungary. Part of the Dutch community found a spiritual home in the Presbyterian Church in Australia, while others created a separate church, the Reformed Church of Australia.

In the same Assembly of UCA in 1985 that made the decision to affirm its identity as a multicultural church, and in the same session of business, the Assembly received greetings and the gift of a plaque, presented by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, the Rev Park Jong Yul. The plaque was to honour and celebrate one hundred years since the first Protestant missionaries arrived in Korea. The links between those early Australian Presbyterians who went to Korea and the present had been kept alive by continuing ministry in that country, and by people such as Kath and Helen Mackenzie who shared their love for the people of Korea with their network at home, urging their Australian friends to support the church in Korea through prayer.

Following the change in Australian government policy that opened the door to Asian immigration in 1973, a number of Koreans began to arrive in this country, particularly people who had been working in civil positions in Vietnam. In July 1974, former missionaries to Korea, Revs John and Norma Brown invited a group of Korean friends to their home in Strathfield, Sydney, to meet the then Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Korea, the Rev Dr Kim Yoon Sik, who was visiting. In the Brown’s lounge room, the vision was expressed of beginning a Korean Christian Fellowship in Sydney. The first formal gathering was held on Sunday 9 September 1974 with about seventy people present. As most were recent migrants, they met for Christian worship as well as fellowship and mutual support over a meal as they encouraged each other in finding their place in an unfamiliar land. It was not a forgone decision that they should become Presbyterian, or Uniting Church in time; at first the group included all Christian migrants, both Catholic and Protestant, and as the group grew they had to decide where they should belong. Initially, because of the ministry of John Brown, many chose to link with the Presbyterian Church in Australia. Not long after establishment, they were faced with a vote over whether to join Uniting Church, remain Presbyterian or chose another path and there was sadness as the group divided into different streams.

Both Presbyterians and Methodists in Australia had missionary links with South India, some going back many years. Australian-based societies supported several missionary hospitals, orphanages and other Christian activities, and long-term missionaries there like Beth Walpole and Clare Heaton kept the story alive for church members at home. A few years ago, church leaders from the Church of South India came to Sydney to bring their appreciation to Uniting Church for the ministry of Australian missionaries in India. Again, this has built a bridge with people from the Church of South India who have come to Australia as migrants and find a home within Uniting Church.

One result of the long association between our founding churches in Australia and churches in Asia and the Pacific is that we continue to have significant relationships with independent churches like Church of South India, Presbyterian Church of Korea, Methodist Church of Fiji, Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga and many others. This special relationship or partnership is expressed through the work of the Uniting International Mission, as we continue to nurture our mutual ministry in many ways. Some recent examples of the way this happens have been the way our UCA response to the tsunami disaster was channeled directly through our friends in their local church networks in the affected countries, the impact on young and older Australian adults who have served in overseas churches, and the challenge brought recently (June 2005) of Bible studies led by Rev Dr Mohan Larbeer from Church of South India to a gathering of Australian leaders. These partner churches are the same churches from which many of our migrant-ethnic congregations have come.

Sometimes there has been need for special sensitivity as migrant communities begin to separate in some ways from their churches of origin, or feel more strongly tied to that church than to UCA. The good relationships with our partner churches need to be maintained and kept healthy and at the same time it is important to remember that migrant communities may well be going through important changes and also need good support. Issues of loyalty to one’s church and one’s original country can become complicated. We all need to be understanding as many congregations who have come to Australia more recently have their own struggles.

We call ourselves a multicultural church, and so we are. But we must ask ourselves: How much have we really changed in attitudes to each other over the past twenty years? Do we see others as beloved by God, precious and deserving of respect?

In the era of the ‘White Australia’ policy, one of the forebears of this church who had long association with people from Asia wrote in 1914: ‘To slam and bolt the door because the skin colour and the accent of speech are different from our own is a new thing in our history. How it looks in the eyes of those on the other side of the door is a matter on which we may hear something later…’

All of us still have a lot to learn about living in a multicultural church. We still struggle with difference. We may feel threatened by the other. We may feel that we can’t trust the other or that another culture is inferior to our own, which ever culture that happens to be. We may want to blame those who are different for things that disappoint or anger us. We may wish everybody could change so that they became ‘just like us’.

Different elements can create beautiful and harmonious music as in an orchestra or music group. Difference without mutual respect and harmony can lead to clashing noise and discord. It became clear that UCA needed to learn how to live as a multicultural church, not merely describe ourselves as such. The original Assembly statement in 1985 urged, among other things, that migrant congregations ought not be made to feel that they were ‘guests or tenants’ when they shared church property, that there should be full participation by all people groups in decision-making and that Uniting Church would be open to ‘changes that the Holy Spirit will bring because of the creative contributions of people of different racial and cultural groups’. We all still had much to learn about all these things. Although few church members would see themselves as being racist, the problem is more about unconscious ethno-centrism and the use of our ethnic power and privilege against other groups.

In March 2000, Assembly Standing Committee asked that ‘courses on race and culture be developed for leaders in Presbyteries, Synods and Assembly’. The team that took up the challenge of introducing these courses early in 2001, the Revs Helen Richmond, Sef Carrol, Myong Duk Yang and Colville Crowe, were excited about what such courses and workshops might bring to our multicultural church. With that excitement was some apprehension. Would leaders and people respond with new understanding about issues of power, privilege and openness to cultural difference, or would they declare they didn’t need this? Would it be too confronting?

It was a great privilege to attend the first Cross-Cultural Relations Workshop in Sydney in 2001. As we gathered, we were blessed by the richness of the diversity among us as the people of God in UCA –Asian, Aboriginal, Pacific Island and Anglo. With about twelve different ethnic origins represented among some twenty UCA clergy and other leaders who were present, the giftedness and wisdom of that group was quite astonishing. Even so, it was confronting. As we worked through the processes of the workshop (based, with kind permission, on material of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), we were forced to face attitudes and assumptions that had been unconscious and unrecognised. It was not always comfortable. Some exercises were particularly powerful – and painful. (No one can easily forget the exercise of the ‘Level Playing Field’. We were made aware of the subtle and potentially dangerous ways people of one group can assume power and privilege over those of other groups, or assume that everyone else should be ‘just like us’. We were all rather shaken by the experience, but drawn closer to those with whom we shared it, inspired to work together for greater awareness and understanding in cross-cultural relationships.

Since that first Workshop, a number of Presbyteries and the Youth Unit in NSW Synod have hosted the workshop and it has been introduced to the Synods of Victoria, Western Australia and Northern Synod, with Queensland and South Australia planning to do it soon. On every occasion, the facilitation team has been made up of people from a combination of ethnic groups, to model way in which we can work together with respect and mutual encouragement, and with delight! Of special value has been the contribution of Aboriginal team members, most often Rev Wali Fejo who challenges us and loves those who are challenged.

Responses from a workshop with NSW Synod staff in 2004 reveal something of the impact of the workshops. A number of people believed that these workshops should be compulsory for church staff. Others wrote: ‘I learned that discrimination wears many subtle faces’; ‘I felt like I was just hitting the tip of the iceberg’; ‘I felt shame and anger’; ‘Most Anglo-Australians have innate/cultural racist attitudes and they are not aware of it’; ‘I need constant reminders of the cost of cultural complacency to real people’; ‘I felt accepted, sometimes sad, but also hopeful’.

We have already traveled a long way together. Whether it has been twenty years or one hundred and fifty, we are committed to going on together, and learning for each other as we go.

Margaret Reeson


UCA Assembly Minutes, 1985; 85.88 – 85.91

James Colwell, The History of the Methodist Church in New South Wales, 1904

James Colwell, Ed, A Century in the Pacific, Beale, 1914

G.Lindsay Lockley, Bruce Upham, Ed. Congregationalism in Australia, Uniting Church Press 2001

M.D. Yang & C. Pearson, Eds , 30 Years Korean Ministry in Australia UTC 2004

C.A.White, The Challenge of the Years: a History of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in the State of NSW, Angus and Robertson, 1951

Don Wright, Mantle of Christ: a History of the Sydney Central Methodist Mission, University of Queensland Press, 1984

[i] UCA Assembly Minute 85.89.1

[ii] 1 Oct 1874 The Christian Advocate and Wesleyan Record report of the Executive Committee of the Australasian Wesleyan Missionary Society

[iii] Don Wright, ‘Mantle of Christ’, UQP, 1984, pp.205-206

[iv] C.A.White, ‘The Challenge of the Years’ p. 183-185

[v] Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society Board Minutes  23 Feb 1874

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