Grief, hope and unity
Larissa Minniecon is on the frontline of a new pilot project by AEF and ADM that is bringing hope and healing to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and communities. We are sharing this story as part of NAIDOC week. This year, the theme of NAIDOC Week is 'Because of her, we can!' and we wanted to celebrate the work of Larissa and the other women involved in 'Our Story'.
Larissa Minniecon is a Christian Aboriginal woman, born in Sydney. Her father, Ray, is from the Kabi Kabi and Gureng Gureng nation, and is also a descendant of the South Sea Islander people. Her mother, Sharon, is from the Meriam Mer language group from Ugar Island, in the Torres Strait.
Early in her life, Larissa moved with her family to Western Australia, when her father was called to ministry there. Many of Larissa’s family live in far north Queensland. “We know a lot of Christian Aboriginal folks from all over Australia!” she says.
Larissa and her family, especially her parents, are prominent figures in the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship. They spend much of their time working alongside other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians to spread the gospel, support their people and push for a better future for Australia’s first inhabitants.
Being an Indigenous Australian is a joy for Larissa, but it’s also a great challenge. The weight of a traumatic and sad history is upon Larissa’s shoulders. Even today, she and her fellow Aboriginal sisters and brothers still face racism regularly.
The complexity of these issues doesn’t disappear in churches. “We believe the message of the gospel, but we couldn’t understand the messenger,” Larissa explains. “When white people came here, there were people saying from the pulpit ‘don’t kill your brother’, but outside, they were massacring my people.”
She continues, “Seventy-three percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people call themselves Christians. This is because Aboriginal Missions were run by Christian denominations. The government moved my people off our lands and we were to be assimilated into white society, at the cost of our Aboriginal society."
“So though we are Christians, we don’t really have many Aboriginal churches here. I grew up in the Assemblies of God, and my grandparents, for over 30 years, started churches in Far North Queensland. Growing up in the church, I witnessed white ministers and pastors who’d discriminate and unfairly treat my grandparents, aunties and uncles, telling them they were not qualified enough to preach the gospel or run a church. But my grandparents, aunties and uncles were champions of the Christian faith, and they built their own church, their own denomination, called the Gospel Outreach Centre. It's in Ayr, QLD. It's the one Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Church that I know of in Australia.”
"So even today, we’re still asking: what does it mean to have an Aboriginal church; to have Aboriginal ministers? They’re so very rare.”
But even as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to wrestle with what it means to be involved in, form or lead churches, Larissa is on the frontline of an exciting new, biblically-based project. This project provides a biblical foundation for understanding and responding to the loss, grief and trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
Titled Our Story: Finding Hope Beyond Grief, the pilot project has been co-designed by the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship (AEF) Women’s Fellowship (Eastern Region) and ADM. As Project Manager, Larissa has helped to run Our Story workshops in communities and enabled other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to implement this training in their local area.
The training content presents the historical and clinical context for the Aboriginal experience of loss, and provides a biblical foundation for understanding and responding to the loss, grief and trauma experienced by Aboriginal women – both historically and currently. The training uses story sharing, lamenting and culturally-appropriate creative expression as healing tools, embedded in the belief that hope and healing can be found in a relationship with the living God.
“It’s called ‘Sorry Business’, what we do when someone has passed on” Larissa explains. “There are a lot of cultural protocols that go along with it, depending on where the people are from. In some tribes and nations we don’t say the [deceased’s] name, in others there are certain families that will prepare the funeral on behalf of the grieving families, or a certain cultural songs or dance must be performed. So we just call it Sorry Business, which covers all those different things.”
Larissa says Sorry Business can be incredibly sad and difficult – and with the high mortality rates in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, it happens regularly, which perpetuates cycles of grief.
Other organisations have sought to bring assistance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people going through the trauma of regular deaths in the community. “All these health services and NGOs will come in to try and give us a medical model for dealing with our loss," Larissa explains, “but that doesn’t give hope, it gives labels and information.”
She notes the difference of the Our Story program, which is both “fully Indigenous and fully Christian”. Larissa says, “It breaks the cycle of loss, grief and trauma by giving the hope of a better life in knowing God. It reveals hope to women in the midst of challenge, and Aboriginal women overcome challenge by talking in community.”
The program has so far been trialled in Queensland, where Larissa shares, “The impact was so amazing. One of the ladies being trained, Aunty Tracy, said it beautifully:
As the program continues to be trialled and refined, Larissa hopes that it will continue to impact many – and even provide a cross-cultural bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. “My hope is that we get to do this together, because we are a community of Christians. You can’t do grief alone because you won’t survive. Hopefully one day, we will all be brothers and sisters under the same roof, as an Australian Church. We’ll all be together, and we’ll be able to say, ‘this is what church looks like’.”