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    landscape of New South Wales

    Black on the Inside

    An Aboriginal Australian Christian reclaims his heritage and roots his faith in his peoples’ wisdom and experience.

    By Billy Williams

    January 13, 2022
    • Charlotte Barbazon

      I read the whole interview intensely, but the last paragraphs on forgiveness resonates most with me as I am going through a hurt that someone has made on me. I tried to forgive but I keep going back to the hurt. These paragraphs have given me insight to first forgive, second to have compassion and, third, to forgive fully. Than you.

    • Austin Silva Mota

      Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Pastor Williams.

    Plough interviews Billy Williams, a pastor in Brisbane, Australia, about his journey to recovering his Aboriginal identity – and how it fits with his Christian faith.

    Plough: Pastor Williams, you weren’t always in touch with your Aboriginal roots. How did that change for you?

    Billy Williams: Yaama, giirr ngaya Gamilaraay Mari – Hello, I am a Gamilaraay man. I’ve got seventy-six first cousins and grew up in a small town in northwestern New South Wales. Like a lot of families, we had unwritten laws: The first was that we have an Aboriginal heritage. The second, far more important, law was: Don’t tell anyone about it.

    I was fifteen when I needed to know who I was, to figure out who I was going to be. It was then that I started to peel back the layers of our family story.

    My mum’s side is where I really claim my heritage, particularly through my grandmother, Nan. I’ve got Nan’s handwritten letters. She wrote to the government in 1945 or thereabouts: “I’m an Aboriginal woman and I’ve moved into the town. I was happy in the bush, but I’ve moved into the town because I want to give my children a chance for education. But they can’t go to the public school.” In Collarenebri, NSW, Aboriginal kids couldn’t attend public school. They had to go to the “annex,” a really flash name for a tin shed, hot in summer, cold in winter; it never even had a schoolteacher. Nan asked why in letter upon letter for ten years. It wouldn’t change.

    Her core thought was, “That’s just unfair. Why does this kid get taught and mine doesn’t?” The whole town was divided by racial identity: the school, the pool, the pub, the club, the movie theater. Everything depended on whether you were Aboriginal or not. The public consensus was that they didn’t want Aboriginal kids at school with their kids, because there might be romantic relationships resulting in Aboriginal grandchildren. They named their fear.

    newspaper clipping showing a group of smiling children

    The group of children who were excluded from Collarenebri public school in 1938 as “too Black,” including several of the author’s relatives Photograph from the New South Wales Government State Archives and Records

    Eventually, Nan’s letters made a difference and they desegregated the school. But attitudes didn’t change. At the time, the Aborigines Welfare Board checked up on Aboriginal families. Family number twelve in their report was my family. The report said “husband is working,” a positive. “Children appear in good health, no obvious disease.” And then a really fascinating line: “In any other town in NSW, this family will pass as non-Aboriginal.” Based on that bit of the report, the government worker came back and visited Nan with a suggestion: They would pay for us to move to a different town and set us up. That would fix the problem. But Nan couldn’t say her family was Aboriginal in the other town.

    When I was growing up in the eighties, the issue was supposedly all dead and buried, but at the open-air movie theater the Whites sat in deck chairs while the Black seating was at the back on the cement wall.

    Here’s the problem: I don’t look Aboriginal. It’s very hard to find your place when you’re too Black on the inside to be White and too White on the outside to be Black. To have a mixed cultural heritage in a segregated town was very difficult.

    Can you tell us where that complex personal identity came from?

    My Aboriginal heritage comes from both sides of my family. I’m asked all the time: “Billy, you don’t look very Aboriginal, what part Aboriginal are you?” It’s been a formidable part of my own personal journey, and my own spirituality. I found out later that Nan, as a grown woman, was still so affected she used to go to bed with a peg on her nose, trying to make it not as broad. I was too young to know – I lost Nan when I was sixteen or seventeen – but I feel like those attitudes shifted her away from her Aboriginality. Even my mum had baggage she didn’t know what to do with. They wanted their kids to go to school, whatever it might take.

    It’s very hard to find your place when you’re too Black on the inside to be White and too White on the outside to be Black.

    I always felt like I didn’t belong anywhere; I always felt something deep inside that the outer didn’t show. In 1992, at eighteen, I was still struggling with identity. A mate of mine, who could tell I was worrying that I didn’t look Aboriginal enough, used a term I’d never heard before: “It doesn’t matter how much milk you put in, it’s still coffee.” That metaphor changed the game for me: Yeah, I’m a milky cup of coffee, but I’m still a cup of coffee. I went and did a language course in my Gamilaraay language.

    As an Aboriginal Christian, you’ve connected your faith to the spirituality of your people by telling traditional stories that relate to the biblical account of Christ’s death and resurrection.

    Aboriginal people who come to faith in Jesus are often told, whether overtly or subtly, to leave all the Aboriginal stuff. Thankfully, my experience has been the other way. When I came to faith, it drove me even further into the spirituality of my people, to look for connection points and not throw the whole thing out.

    We knew you didn’t own the land, the land owned you – you can’t own your mother. So stories were the only possession our people had: They helped you live the right way; how you lived depended on understanding, protecting, and passing them on. That’s all they needed to carry with them.

    A Gamilaraay story that has been passed on for generations is that Baiame, the “one who made out of nothing” – our name for the Creator – formed the first two people out of the earth. Baiame is our sky father. In our language we say Gunii for our mother, and Gunimaa for mother earth. In our story, Baiame’s son was also present. The first two Gamilaraay people did the wrong thing: they killed a wallaby and ate it. Now in some stories people shouldn’t eat fruit and in others people shouldn’t eat meat, but our first two people did the wrong thing. They broke the law. Not police law but righteousness, the right way to live. This grieved Baiame’s son, who knew it wasn’t right. He grieved so much that he ended up lying on a gum tree and died. It became a red gum that oozed red, because of the blood sacrificed. Because the son of Baiame was so powerful, this red gum tree was called out and up into the stars. There the Southern Cross constellation lodges, in the Southern Hemisphere.

    man planting a tree with a group of children watching

    The author planting trees in Dhiyaan’s property in the Western Downs area of Queensland, Australia.

    White missionaries have often taught Aboriginal people that they must leave their heritage when they accept Christ. How do you respond to that history?

    I think about what Jesus said in Matthew 23:15: “You go over land and sea and you make them twice the sons of hell that you are.” White people were so shortsighted that they didn’t realize that not only were they trying to put these ill-fitting Western thoughts on the Aboriginal people, they were ripping out the very soul of who we were. The very things that would have made sense, the things that would heal – the ceremonies and the stories – were stripped away.

    The bits in the Bible that appeal to me most are about the exile and the remnant; they feel like my experience. We don’t have as many words as English has, so our Gamilaraay words sometimes have several meanings. One such word is gabanma-li. It’s got three layers: it means “to heal” and “to restore” but in the deepest sense it means “to make whole.” That is what I am interested in for my own people: healing, restoration, and wholeness, incorporating identity and spirituality, the physical, the mental, and the cultural to bring the freedom and wholeness that ultimately is in Christ.

    The Aboriginal people northwest of here have an ancient system of safekeeping their number-one possession – their story. God forbid that all the elders are sitting under a gum tree when it drops a branch. Where are you going to access your story then? So they would give their sacred story to their neighboring tribe as a gift: Hang on a sec, my neighbor’s got that. How will you treat your neighbor then? If that fella is holding my most sacred possession, I can’t just say, “Ah, he’s just a neighbor fella, who cares?”

    That Wise Old Fella said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Well, you are me if you hold some of my story, and I am you if I hold some of yours. Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing right now? Here you are, respectfully listening to my story. As long as we have that right spirit, I don’t think we can avoid starting to become one.

    What are the effects of the fact that your people were dispossessed of their land and sense of place?

    I was visiting a friend in Alice Springs when he picked up his grandfather who had been locked up for domestic violence and drinking. He was in a real bad way. And you know what? The farther we got away from Alice Springs, the more we were on his country, the more lucid he became. I could weep thinking about the transformation that took place in that old fella. He started to show us and teach us. The spirit in him rose up. The suppression and dysfunction fell away the farther he got from Alice Springs physically.

    What can White Christians in Australia do to aid restoration and healing?

    In our language, winangala means to listen. It’s an imperative: Winangala! You can imagine a teacher calling to order, “Winangala, yawu, winangala!” A second word, winangay, means five things: to think, to understand, to remember, and to know, but ultimately it means to love. Winangala is the door to winangay: Listening is the first form of loving. People need to be willing to listen to complexity, respectfully, without judging. Being uncomfortable for five minutes while you listen to someone is probably the least you can do.

    Some of the thinking that’s come out with Black Lives Matter is how to be antiracist, not just “not racist” but an advocate. When you hear people say something that’s not right, lovingly challenge them about truth and fairness.

    Why do you believe that forgiveness is so important?

    Some Aboriginal people just can’t move beyond the hurt. That saddens me, because it’s going to hurt them and everybody around them. How can I best love those who find it too painful, and try to show them a path to a different place? Sometimes they don’t want to and sometimes they really just can’t. They just don’t know what it means to forgive. They’ve never been forgiven; they’ve never forgiven themselves.

    The victimhood thing is strong. People are worried that others will forget: Once you don’t talk, everyone else can move on. So some people don’t want to relinquish this identity, because they don’t know the healing.

    The journey to forgiveness has been difficult for me; I can only imagine what it looks like for others. As human beings we are pretty hell-bent on control, but I do ultimately believe that healing will come through forgiving and letting go. If compassion is sharing wounds, we will see the hurts in another and know the hurts in ourselves, and still come back to the space for love.

    This interview from January 6, 2021 has been edited for clarity and length.

    Contributed By

    Billy Jangala Williams is a pastor in Brisbane, Australia, who with his wife, Vicki, and their children and grandchildren is a member of an Aboriginal community called Dhiyaan – “family” in the Gamilaraay language. While based in the city, the community members are also custodians of a forty-acre property in the Western Downs area of Queensland, Australia.

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