In our increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural society, one challenge is how we find both meaningful and inclusive ways to celebrate, commemorate, lament and strengthen bonds of peace and harmony. On the one hand, erasing spiritual expression in the name of secular unity impoverishes and leaves us short of the depth and connections which community ritual can bring. On the other, it is not enough today simply to settle regularly for one expression of faith leadership, however well tried, nor just to include several such expressions (at the risk of length, tedium, and exclusion of other 'minority' voices). In Toowoomba, we have employed various approaches in recent years for important community gatherings and recognition of disaster and tragedy. Depending on circumstances, through the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, we have both used traditional means and venues and multi-faith representation, and have also begun to create new pathways.
One of the most moving explorative community rituals was at Acland on Australia Day 2015 - see further here - but we have also developed a number of 'community affirmations' for special occasions, including Harmony Day - see here for a well-established example. Last Sunday was another wonderful step forward. Together with Toowoomba Regional Council, it was a delight, as chair of the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, to work with the Nepalese Association of Toowoomba on a commemorative event to mark the Nepal earthquake last year. Using the lovely new Civic Square space at the new Toowoomba Library, we shared stories, music, video clips from Nepal, and a moving candlelight vigil - first lighting and circling the area with candles and then placing them by the water. It was a powerful expression of lament and commitment to renewal and of the binding of our different lives and backgrounds together to celebrate, support and heal our shared city and world.
My own contribution to the event is below - a new community affirmation for such occasions I hope we can develop further with other elements in the future:
TOOWOOMBA STANDING TOGETHER
Community Affirmation in the face of disaster and emergency
We meet today to affirm and support each other.
We acknowledge the first peoples of this land and their continued gifts among us.
We welcome all who join us in our shared journey of peace and harmony.
May we always celebrate our diversity as central to our common life and fruitfulness.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to share and honour our pain and sadness.
We hold with tenderness all that is hurting among us and in our broken world.
We offer up our sorrow, heartache and compassion.
May our tears and grief be transformed into healing and renewal.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to strengthen hope and solidarity.
We pledge ourselves to rebuild with love and courage.
We seek to do all we can to rejuvenate what has been destroyed.
May our hearts and hands always reach out to those in need, wherever they may be.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together:
many outlooks, many cultures – one community.
One of the wonderful unexpected outcomes of our flag washing on Australia Day was a phone call I received from an active member of the Lock the Gate Alliance. This is a national coalition of people from across Australia, including farmers, traditional custodians, conservationists and urban residents, who are uniting to protect our common heritage - our land, water and communities - from unsafe or inappropriate mining for coal seam gas and other fossil fuels. The person who rang was unknown to me yet had felt moved to contact me by photos she had seen of our event. She expressed deep thanks for the gathering, telling me about her involvement with local people in Acland and further afield who had been so negatively impacted by unbridled mining development. She lives interstate but the photos of the event brought home to her the powerful mix of courage in adversity and deep distress in the people she had encountered. As a filmmaker trying to share such stories, she had frequently been torn, she said, by the need to encourage such people to tell of their experience whilst not seeking to make things worse. Initiatives like yours, she said, are so valuable as they provide people with something and somewhere to hold their grief, space for mourning, for healing and for hope beyond hope. She was, she said, today at best a non-observant Buddhist, yet she knew this was so needed.
It was a marvelous conversation, not just in justifying (if that were required) our gathering on Australia Day, but also in reminding me of the deep need we have in our contemporary world for meaningful community rituals to help hold share out common humanity and build solidarity in the midst of our pain and joy, our fears, hurts and hopes. For millenia the great spiritual and religious traditions of the world have offered this. They can still do much, if they are open to listen, to development and to creative partnership with others. We need also however, whatever out religious traditions or none, to respond afresh to the movements of challenge and grace in our own day. This has given me food for thought and, I hope, inspiration for further action. Indeed, my phone partner also reminded me of the work of another heroine of mine: Joanna Macy, an activist Buddhist who has so enriched us with her own creative community rituals, touching the depth of our hearts and the soul of our troubled yet astonishing world.
I am not a great fan of what is called 'the pathetic fallacy', particularly in films when the rain, for example, comes down when times turn sad and miserable. There are some special occasions however when these things do seem to come together. A few years ago, this happened before the first Five Lands Walk on the NSW Central Coast. Some of us gathered on the beach for a special dawn ceremony before the main event. As one of our Aboriginal elders finished singing the final song whales appeared off shore, seemingly beaching gloriously in the joy of that splendid morning of spiritual renewal. The flagwashing we shared on Australia Day was similar moving occasion. Earlier that afternoon, on a hot day, I attended the solidarity event after the fire at the Garden City mosque. As we drove out to Acland the clouds gathered and, as we arrived, rain began. In that place of so much political and environmental conflict, it felt as if creation itself was weeping with us for the failings of our nation and world and that, like gentle tears, it was washing and healing us as we prayed together. It was a beautiful event. The liturgy touched many hearts. It lifted the spirits, not least of the Aboriginal elders present and of Glenn Beutel (who so gracisously welcomed us and who so ably the practicalities of the flag washing).
A few days ago I was approached by meditation friends to lead a flag washing ceremony this Australia Day. I am happy to do so. The concept is deeply peaceful and nonviolent. Washing is a natural, soothing and renewing process and has spiritual resonance with all kinds of faiths and cultures. As a response to the challenge of celebrating Australia on the day of dispossession of its first peoples and ancient cultures, it is also a creative one. Surely that is a conflictual and offensive anachronism which one day will be replaced by another date for a genuinely whole community affirmation of Australia's amazing nation? In the meantime, washing the flag is one way in which we can together ask for healing and renewal for us and the wider world. Whereas burning a flag is a furiously aggressive and destructive act on various levels, washing can be both an appropriate act of repentance and reconnection.
Within Australia, the inspiration for our Toowoomba flag washing comes from Western Australia, where, on 27 January last year, a group of Christian leaders led a public ceremony of repentance outside the Perth Immigration Detention Centre (see story here). The liturgy used was drafted by the Revd Elizabeth Smith and is the basis for the one I have drafted for our own gathering here.
Our flag washing ceremony is open to all and will take place towards sunset at 5.30 pm this Monday, 26 January 2015 in the Tom Doherty Park in Acland. Such a venue, built and maintained by volunteers over decades, was suggested by those who approached me as appropriate because it is a symbol of community life and hope. For Acland, today radically changed due to mining developments, has been a place of contention over a number of years and a place which thereby symbolises many Australians' longing for healing and reconciliation. As the friends who will join me have expressed it:
The Australian flag is a powerful symbol. It has the strength to unite. The act of washing is tender and compassionate. It symbolises a desire to be a nation that is kinder, more gracious, more generous and inclusive of all who live here and of our natural treasures.
As we join together in this symbolic act of purification, we cast aside despair and argument and celebrate our shared values and the decency of ordinary people.
We understand how very blessed we are living in this amazing country.
We believe that if we are all people, we are all equal.
We believe that good will prevail and that light will flourish.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.