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Mixed marriage of Indigenous and Christian spirituality

Peter Kirkwood |  27 August 2010

While the result of the federal election still hangs in the balance, it looks likely that the new member for the crucial seat of Hasluck in Western Australia will be the first Aboriginal Australian to sit in the House of Representatives.

Distinguished health and education bureaucrat Dr Ken Wyatt is the Liberal candidate for Hasluck. Along with political pioneers Neville Bonner and Aden Ridgeway who served in the Senate, his election will be a milestone heralding increased Indigenous representation and greater access for the Aboriginal voice in federal parliament.

In a similar vein, Joan Hendriks, who features in this interview, is a pioneering Indigenous voice in the realm of Catholic theology. With an Aboriginal mother and Irish American Catholic father, she is a bridge figure between the Indigenous and Catholic worlds. Her life's goal is to bring these two realms into productive engagement, and she is taking on an increasingly prominent public role in bringing this about.

She spoke to Eureka Street TV at an international Indigenous theology symposium held in June at the Brisbane campus of the Australian Catholic University. She was one of the keynote speakers at that meeting. This video is sponsored by the university's Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-Religious Dialogue.

Hendriks talks about her personal journey exploring the two sides of her heritage, her view that the Christian God and Aboriginal creator spirit are one, and the important role in her life of dadirri, or quiet inner contemplation based on connection with land.

As a revered elder of the Ngugi people of Stradbroke Island in Moreton Bay, just off Brisbane in Queensland, Joan Hendriks is commonly and affectionately known as Auntie Joan. I first met her in 2008 when I made a documentary for ABC TV's Compass that followed her on a trip to Venice where she presented a paper at a major international theology conference. The program reveals her fascinating family and tribal background.

Her parents met and were married on Stradbroke Island, but moved to the mainland just before she was born. Because of the shame at that time of a mixed race marriage, her parents could not go to church, but they made sure their children went to Catholic school and to Sunday Mass. She was brought up and lived most of her life in Brisbane, but has recently moved back to the island.

It was only in the 1980s when Auntie Joan's own children were grown up that she started to explore her Aboriginality in earnest. It started with a national Catholic gathering of Indigenous people that opened her eyes to the richness of her Aboriginal heritage. She became even more involved in the Church, and began speaking around Queensland and beyond about justice and reconciliation.

At the age of 68 she started studying for her Master's degree in theology, and graduated in 2008. She immediately applied to do her doctorate which she is undertaking at ACU. As well as studying at the university, she also lectures on Indigenous and cross-cultural issues to students in a number of faculties.

In 2007 Hendriks received an Honorary Fellowship from the ACU, and in 2008 won the ACU Indigenous Research Award and Scholarship for her study entitled A Dialogue Between Christian Theology and Indigenous Spirituality.

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Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.