Tracking stories around town with year 9 students from Dubbo Christian School recently, one smart young girl interjected, “But, there’s no point just putting murals on walls or placing statues in the main street unless someone tells you the story!”
More than half a century ago Richard Neihbur, a shrewd observer of culture, noted the same thing - that our key stories need to be written fresh into the heart of new generations. ‘Culture is a social tradition which must be conserved by painful struggle not so much against non-human natural forces as against revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason.’
When travelling, I’ve developed an eagerness to unearth buried faith stories in the towns I pass through. It can be a rough, ready and random process at times, but that’s the fun of it. Recently, taking a break in Young, the cherry capital of NSW, I was startled to read that a leader of the Australian Chinese community had declared about a chapter of local history, “This is our Schindler’s List!”
Now that’s a big call for a small-town story.
A quick flash back will give this context. In 1982 Australian novelist Thomas Keneally published Schindler’s Ark, a powerful piece of historical fiction about Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party who became an unlikely hero by saving the lives of 1200 Jews during the Holocaust. 1n 1993, Stephen Spielberg turned it into the highly successful movie Schindler’s List.
So, what could that Chinese man possibly be talking about?
I’m really energised by people who are stepping out to discover our Australian faith stories ‘on location’. I was intrigued when my friend Mawson Skidmore told me how he had plunged students from his English as a Second Language course into a firsthand experience of the Aboriginal’s civil rights struggle at the Cummeragunja ‘scholars hut’ that sits almost forgotten on the Murray River near Echuca. Listen to his reaction.
“My impression after getting to know a few of these stories was – ‘Why didn't I know anything about this?' - they are pretty amazing and are not peripheral in the history of the nation (although peripheral in the told history). The teacher of the second class I took with mine up to Cummeragunja had the same response. I wrote and thanked the Land Council Head (Hadyn Love) for organising for someone to come and show us around the school house and the cemetery and let him know some of my musings…that the schoolhouse should be a National Monument - it's a story that should be told and told well.
We watched your clip on Daniel Matthews today [see other resources at the end of this blog] - and it is like what you were saying - there's a fair bit of darkness to much of that story (which shouldn't be shied away from) - but at Maloga and Cummeragunja and the people that went out from there, there are flames of light and hope.”
I was on the hop between the Central West and the South Coast of NSW listening to eminent historian Tom Holland paint a graphic picture of the ancient Persian Empire and the power and glory of its kings. It was nothing short of epic!
Oddly enough, I was expectant as I wound down the Western escarpment of the magnificent Kangaroo Valley, that I’d find a story. I read that George Evans, the first European explorer looking down from the heights, had exclaimed it was ‘a view that no painter could beautify.’
Sure enough, tucked away in an unlikely corner, there it was. Housed in a bush museum, nestled beside the fine sandstone suspension bridge, I found a tiny essay on the major shift in Australia’s colonial history, when ‘settlerism’ replaced the era of convict reform.
A little while ago I sat and listened to my mate grieve over the treatment of Australian boys returning from service in Vietnam in the early Seventies. In the late Sixties, his marble had dropped and he was drafted. Mine hadn’t. He trained for war at Kapooka to the raucous shouts of veteran sergeants. I went to university at Kensington, and heard the raucous shouts of student protestors on campus.
My friend was on the verge of transferring to Vietnam when Australia withdrew its troops. But as we talked fifty years later, he expressed deep offence on behalf of the vets who had animal blood thrown over them and were taunted as ‘baby killers’ as they marched home.
The activists could well have been students from my uni. The cancel culture was in full voice even then. What would they say now if they were confronted with the subsequent human cost in terms of PTSD and suicide among those vets?
If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven past dozens of solid-looking buildings in the suburbs or in remote country towns, proudly declaring themselves ‘Mechanics Institutes’, without having a clue what they were about. I was intrigued to discover they were an innovation that exploded out of Scotland in the early 19th century and spread like wildfire across the English-speaking world.
When John Birkbeck advertised a free lecture on technical subjects in Edinburgh on October 16th 1821, an astonishing crowd of 450 men turned up. It’s certain he had no idea what he’d launched and that by the end of the century, all across the globe, eager workmen would flock to one of 9000 Mechanics Institutes to improve their skills as artisans.
The roots for the phenomenon lay in a quiet Christian group known as the Quakers. They were driven by the idea that it was important to nurture God’s gifts in everyone and that learning should be available to all – rich and poor, girls as well as boys.
When you drive streets in Maclean lined with tartan telegraph poles and hear the skirl of the bagpipes echoing in the main street, you know the town is definitely a stronghold of Australia’s Scots history. And mine for that matter. Over two million of us claim Scots ancestry – my grandchildren have the blood of the Baird, Carey, Murray and McDonald clans in their veins.
So, I spent a day or two there recently, looking under the ancestral kilt to see why big numbers of Scots moved here in the mid-1800’s. I was heartened to discover that the claim we Australians make for having one of the best lifestyles in the world, could well have been built on a bedrock of purposeful duty to God mined out of bare hills and heather half a world away in Scotland.
For forty years I’ve worked alongside half a dozen or more Aboriginal elders and appreciated their courage and compassion. Most of them have been men and women of strong Christian faith who didn’t just talk about reconciliation, but practised it. This YouTube clip was produced for this NAIDOC week which has the theme 'For our Elders'. It is my tribute to elders of the past who were also men and women who followed Jesus along paths marked by suffering, stood for justice and gave a voice to their people. They shone because of their faith. In this picture I'm standing with my friend Phil Sullivan near the rock paintings at Mt Gundabooka National Park where he was serving as a National Parks Ranger. Phil is a respected elder of the Ngemba people and unafraid of articulating his Christian convictions.
‘For Our Elders’ is the catch cry of NAIDOC WEEK 2023. This story is told to honour brave and compassionate men and women who pioneered the cause of Aboriginal civil rights in Australia.
In May 1937, a remarkable event took place in Melbourne. The grand finale of the concert marking the city’s foundation was an aboriginal choir singing ‘Burra Phara’, an African- American spiritual translated into the Yorta Yorta language. The Cummerugunga choir had learned it from black American students from Fiske University in Tennessee, who visited their Maloga mission near Echuca in 1886. The passionate music, expressing the yearning of the oppressed Hebrew people for freedom from Egyptian slavery, reached across 3000 years to touch the hearts of Australian aboriginals.
Almost certainly in the audience was a young William Cooper, the man destined to become one of the great Aboriginal elders who, like Moses, led his people on the long road to freedom. Wherever he went rousing support for his people’s civil rights, he was accompanied by a quartet who sang biblical songs like this.
William Cooper, with his distinctive moustache, is pictured here with family members who supported him.
With Australia planning to accept 190,000 immigrants over the next two years, I thought that it would be good to hear the story of a newcomer who became more than just a ‘naturalised citizen’ on paper.
In 1962, Christodoulos Gryllis arrived in Australia as a teenage immigrant from the island of Patmos off mainland Greece. His name Χριστόδουλος means ‘servant of Christ.’ He’s very proud of the fact that his birthplace is linked to John, the apostle of Jesus who was exiled there during Roman times. He’s even had cuff links made featuring the eagle which is supposed to have guarded the evangelist.
He’s equally proud of his adopted home and has taken every opportunity to create symbols that tell its story. Chris dived headlong into the life of Orange in Central West NSW. Twenty years as a local councillor gave him opportunity to put some of his many ideas to work. In his 60 years in country Australia he’s proved it was possible to be proactive in assimilating without giving away his heritage.
So, it’s no real surprise when you enter his real estate office to be confronted by busts of Alexander the Great and Banjo Paterson!
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.