Healing country, healing church

07 Jul 2021

Photo: Darren Wighton with some of his artwork.

by Naomi Giles

Darren Wighton is a proud Wiradjuri man, whose culture and a deep love of Jesus underpins all that he does.

Part of the River Community Church leadership board in Albury, Darren believes that this year’s NAIDOC Week theme of ‘Heal Country’ is an opportunity for the Church to listen and create space to acknowledge the past.

“NAIDOC Week (July 4-11) seems to rush straight into good times and celebrations, but I’ve been speaking to community here and saying, ‘Before we get to the fun, let us remember’,” Darren says. “Our church service has often been a sombre time to reflect on those who have gone before us, those who have passed, those who we have buried and their legacy.

“Sometimes I think the Church wasn’t involved in NAIDOC Week as they saw it as political,” he reflects, “I think more churches are now having a focus on it, and often the themes are easily related to Scripture.”

Darren says he longs to see churches in Australia continue to embrace truth-telling and reconciliation with First Nations peoples.

“I speak to so many people who weren’t taught the true history of our nation,” he says. “The Church hasn’t always been trusted in community – some rightly so. Some missions and ministries were really positive and created great experiences and opportunities, and others were the opposite … and some Aboriginal people don’t trust the Church today because of it.”

Rather than backing away, Darren believes the Church should come closer to indigenous people and communities, acknowledge the truth of the past, and seek deeper understanding.

“Where else can you find healing if not the Church? Where can you find reconciliation if not the Church?” Darren asks. “Through conversation, prayer and trusting … all of those things the Church should find it easy to relate to because they are all biblical principles.”

Building trust

Darren urges the Church to keep developing connections with indigenous communities so that trust is built, and healing can happen.

“Sometimes it’s providing a voice or an opportunity, and other times it’s being silent and allowing the indigenous community to lead,” he says. “It’s not about finding easy answers, but it is about giving hands and feet to what Jesus taught us about justice, unity and reaching out and helping people and being the Church.”

Darren shares that in the past, some Aboriginal leaders in the Christian faith community were not given a voice or an opportunity, which drove them to secular work instead.

“That kind of negativity drove some away from the Church and robbed the churches of leaders and pastors,” Darren says. “You find many Aboriginal people with church backgrounds who are now leading in government and other roles because they haven’t been able to do that in the church setting.”


Revitalising the mission

Darren hopes and prays that change is on the way and believes the inclusion of more Aboriginal leaders can play a part in revitalising the Church’s calling and mission.

“We don’t want the Church to be stuck like a big business,” he says. “We want all the Jesus elements within the Church that are radical, that are challenging, that are on the frontline with the community being a help and support.”

As a child, Darren immersed himself in country and culture through family and recalls plenty of fun times down at the river surrounded by community. He came to faith in Jesus through the Sunday school and youth programs of an indigenous church at Lavington (near Albury), pastored by Cecil Grant. Darren later went on to pastor the same church that had nurtured him when he moved back to the area from Melbourne with his wife Michelle and his two sons 15 years ago.

His vocation changed shape around five years ago after the closure of the indigenous church when he took up a role in the education sector to share the history and culture of his people with seven Catholic schools throughout the region.

“We do everything from music, art, story, dance – all things indigenous, and we also support the staff in teaching indigenous curriculum,” he says. “The religious education teachers often get me to come in and talk about my indigenous spirituality, my faith and my experience.”


Parallel culture

Darren has come to understand that his culture can be expressed in and through his faith in Jesus, and he’s passionate about helping others embrace this.

“Growing up as a kid, I thought Christian faith and Aboriginal spirituality were on separate sides of the spectrum, and you chose one or the other, but I’ve learnt that’s not true,” he says. “We have to understand our cultural identity because it’s in that context of knowing who we are as a people that we come to know Jesus.

“There are so many connections between the biblical Jesus and indigenous cultures around the world. He was a brown-skinned man from the Middle East; he belonged to a tribal lifestyle, went fishing with the boys, slept under the stars; there’s so much that easily relates and runs parallel to indigenous cultures.”

Darren says this awakening is helping him and many other indigenous people to honour their culture and embrace their faith more deeply.

“We start to see Jesus not as a foreigner but as a real person from a real place that actually is closer than what we realised to where we come from,” he says.

“For a long time, people thought Aboriginal spirituality was all evil so felt they had to throw it all out. What we are learning now is that we need to sift through everything and only throw away what is not of God; there’s a lot of Aboriginal story, culture, art, song and dance that is good, and therefore we can keep it, and we should use it for God.”

Check out the NAIDOC website HERE.