by Lisa McIntosh

Those who have felt the pain of racism know that the hurt can run deep, and the scars can last a lifetime.

And it’s not just on the sporting field, at the pub or in the classroom that people are subject to hate-filled physical attacks, spiteful slurs or pointed snubs. Racism is everywhere. And whether it is perpetuated individually or institutionally, it is deeply personal to people on the receiving end.

So how can we as individuals and as a church do better in this space?

Dora Gibson, a Thuubi Warra First Nations woman from Hope Vale in Far North Queensland, believes the answer lies in people of different races and cultural backgrounds getting to know each other on a personal level.

‘We just need people to get to know us as an individual, not as a stereotype’, says Dora, a lifelong member of the Lutheran Church and a former teacher who today works with an employment agency helping young people become job-ready. ‘Treat us as a person, treat me as Dora. Get to know people.’

Dora and her husband, Trevor, run cultural workshops in Hope Vale when COVID restrictions allow and she says an example of the power of personal connections came through the visit of high school students from Melbourne last year during NAIDOC Week, which celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

‘They came and lived with us, they saw what we did, they took part in our activities and saw firsthand that it’s not all that bad living in the bush and experiencing living off the land’, she says. ‘Later one of the boys said, “I’m glad we came. You opened our eyes to something we didn’t even know existed. I’m just so thankful that I was given the opportunity to come and see everything firsthand”.’

Having lived much of her life in a community that has a majority of Indigenous people, Dora says most of the racism she has encountered has been what she describes as ‘institutional’. ‘That’s why we were placed in these missions’, she says of former government policies that segregated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in places like Hope Vale. ‘That’s the onset of what I believe is when we were treated as a minority and treated as a stereotype, “Oh, you’re living in a mission”.’

‘Then as we were growing up, we were expected to live with white people down in the cities, so we were sent away, as part of assimilation. That was when they were trying to make us white, in the early 1970s to 1980s’, says Dora, whose secondary schooling included several years at Concordia Lutheran College at Toowoomba.

Of course, a further government policy involved the removal of Indigenous children from their families – people later known as the Stolen Generations. Dora believes the responsibility for that tragedy lay at a systemic level, rather than with people involved in carrying out the policy. ‘You have to feel sorry for them because in their mind they were trying to do the right thing’, Dora says. ‘But it was very detrimental to our whole race.’

During her time working for the local council engaging parents of school-aged children with teachers and schools in the district, Dora also encountered institutional prejudice. She says many people expect a teacher to be a white person and it was assumed that she was the ‘helper’ to a young white ‘teacher’ she was with. In fact, their roles were reversed.

While such attitudes have been painful for Dora, her response is incredibly gracious. ‘It’s not their fault. It’s not deliberate. It’s just the mindset’, she says. ‘It does make you feel inferior though. If it wasn’t for the colour of our skin, it would have been different.’

She says her Christian faith has helped her forgive the injustices, but she doesn’t forget the lingering hurt.

However, Dora is hopeful that a growing appreciation of First Nations culture, country and language in Australia can usher in a change in opportunities and a positive sense of identity, particularly for young people.

She is also buoyed by ongoing efforts within the church in reconciliation and making worship more inclusive of Indigenous culture and language. ‘It was through the church that our written language was kept alive, so that’s a big thing. The gospel was read in our Guugu Yimithirr language as well as in English. And still, we do that here, we have hymns in language.

‘Just little things can make a difference. It doesn’t have to be big. You start from that, and from little things big things grow.’

Unlike Dora, Indonesian-born Ani Sumanti has only lived part of her life in Australia – since 2013. But she, too, has experienced the hurt and harm of racism – ‘lots’ of times.

A qualified pastor in Bali’s Presbyterian Church, Ani has been serving as a lay worker at Pasadena Lutheran Church in suburban Adelaide since 2016, as well as ministering to the Indonesian Christian Fellowship which meets there. For the past few years, she has also been working as an aged-care carer, having undertaken studies to better support her late mother, who had dementia before she died last year.

Before joining the staff at Fullarton Lutheran Homes in 2021, Ani worked at a community-run aged-care home outside of Adelaide. There, she says, other staff yelled at her if she didn’t immediately understand them, ignored her, were rude to her and treated her as beneath them, due to English being her second language.

‘Sometimes if I didn’t understand something, their words, they would raise their voice’, says Ani, who began English studies in Australia in 2015. ‘And it was very painful for me; I was crying because I found it shocking. Why would someone not explain first what they mean rather than yell at me?

‘Some of them just ignored me, didn’t talk to me, and made me feel like they put me on the bottom, not the same level with them.’

Ani, who has also experienced negative ‘looks and body language’ when needing assistance with language while shopping, says an Asian-born Muslim friend has told her of the discrimination she has experienced, too. ‘She told me it’s very hard to find a job because they are not accepting someone who wears a hijab and maybe they’re a bit scared because they had heard news about radical Muslims’, Ani says.

‘And my friend said it’s very painful and very sad for her because people are not accepting, not welcoming for her.’

However, Ani, who endeavours to gain a greater understanding of Australian culture through talking with her Australian husband Mark Mosel, doesn’t find such behaviour difficult to forgive.

‘We see this of people in the world everywhere, some are arrogant, and some are humble’, she says. ‘I come from a culture where we care for each other, where the community is more important rather than yourself, but here I find the culture more individual. So that’s why I need to adjust. And then I just try to forgive rather than accept bad thoughts in myself which is not healthy for me.

‘We are all people. We just want to respect each other, just accept that we are different, but we can work together.’

Like Dora, Ani believes that listening to and building relationships with people of different cultural and racial backgrounds is the key to eliminating racism. ‘We need to sit down together and to understand each other, rather than be judging’, Ani says. ‘Maybe we can learn from other cultures and even learn a bit of their language – there’s a door we can build a relationship with. They may be struggling in their life, for their family or how to survive here. We need that attitude everywhere.’

How can we be inclusive?

We have sisters and brothers in Christ from every race and nation. And God may place not-yet Christians of different cultures in our lives, too. So how can we better welcome, include and embrace these fellow (and future) members of God’s family?

Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Educate yourself by reading from reputable sources about the culture, race or nation of the people you meet, including about the local First Nations people.
  • Learn people’s names correctly – check the pronunciation and spelling, and have pen and paper handy so that they can write it down for you. Addressing people by name shows that you respect them.
  • Learn a greeting in the language of the person you have met. LCA Cross-Cultural Ministry is preparing a 40-language friendly phrases booklet entitled ‘Heart Talk’. Email or sign up to CCM eNews at
  • Get to know people, ask them about themselves and what their interests are. When we get to know people, we are less tempted to buy into stereotypes.
  • Make a welcome sign for your church or school that includes a welcome in the heart languages of the people in your neighbourhood.
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