Australia's wildfires have consumed million acres of brushland, rainforests, and national parks. More than 30 people have died and according to some estimates, one billion animals have been killed. The area that has burned is roughly the size of England.
As CT reported earlier this month, the fires have forced some Christian missions teams to evacuate. Hillsong announced several weeks ago that it had raised more than one million Australian dollars to support those affected by the fire. And the board of directors of A Rocha Australia, part of an international Christian conservation group, said it was building partnerships with Christian and non-Christian conservationists to aid with the recovery.
As an aboriginal Christian, Brooke Prentis hopes the tragedy causes Christians and the country at large to commit to listening to the voices of Australia’s indigenous people, communities which have lived on the land for thousands of years.
“My deep prayer and hope is that while this is a tragic situation for us. ...maybe it's through tragedy that finally Aboriginal peoples are included as part of the fabric of our political, social, moral, and religious systems in Australia,” said Prentis, the incoming CEO of Common Grace, a Australian organization that organizes ecumenically around justice issues.
Prentis joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and CEO and president Tim Dalrymple to discuss why she’s passionate about unity in the church, the tragic significance of January 26 for the aboriginal community, and how to pray for Australia during this time.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #196
Tell us more about yourself and your involvement with Common Grace. And about your journey there.
Brooke Prentis: So I'm actually an Aboriginal Christian leader and a descendant of the Wakka Wakka peoples. And Wakka Wakka nation is one of the over 300 nations of Aboriginal peoples in these lands that we now call Australia. And so it's a very exciting time for Common Grace and for the Australian church, because we believe it's actually the very first time with me stepping into the CEO role that an Aboriginal person, an indigenous person from Australia, is going to be the CEO or national leader of a national Christian organization or movement that isn't specifically indigenous. So it's a very historical appointment as well as an exciting appointment.
I'm actually a chartered accountant by profession. And one of only 22 indigenous chartered accountants in all of Australia, which is quite a fascinating concept as to where we are. About 3% of the Australian population is Aboriginal peoples, which is a population of about 650,000 peoples. Our population levels are still not at the same level as they were pre-colonization. If we look at 1788 as a point of colonization of Australia, there's a lot of injustice that we as Aboriginal people still face, a lot of inequality, and so we're trying to overturn those. At Common Grace, one of our justice areas is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice.
I'm also a theologian. In Australia, there's only about five Aboriginal Christians who have a master's or Ph.D. in theology. And so I often say we've been kicked out of the capitalist regime and we've been kicked out of the theological regime. And I guess I embody both of them and try to bring some healing and hope to these lands now called Australia, and to all peoples. It's also interesting to think about Australia in the global context, both from an economic point of view, but also a theological point of view.
Let's talk a little bit about the fires and "fire season." What does that mean and what is really normal in Australia when it comes to fires?
Brooke Prentis: This concept of "fire season" is a very interesting one. I've tweeted a couple of things about it actually because I heard the prime minister of Australia call it fire season. This was new to me. As indigenous peoples of these lands now called Australia, science tells us, we've been in these lands now called Australia for over 65,000 years. For some Christians, a theological concept would say 6,000 years, and we're happy to hold the difference between those. But from my generations, we're talking about 2000 generations of my family, my story, my culture in these lands now called Australia and many other Aboriginal peoples. We have our indigenous weather systems and knowledge and it's something Australia hasn't really paid attention to.
The indigenous voice in Australia is the one that we are trying to have heard. It's been interesting with the bushfires that this has been an opportunity where people have talked about, "we need to learn from indigenous people and how we manage the land," but that hasn't really been taken up by our political leaders. And so when the prime minister used "fire season," I thought, hang on, this isn't fire season. This is either our summer, if you want to talk about European seasons, this is summer. But if you actually look at indigenous weather systems, Australia is a very large country, about the size of all of North America. When you think about summer here in Australia, for much of our top end, which is the Northern territory and Queensland in terms of our states and territory, it's actually cyclone season. It's the wet season in the North of Australia. And so to talk about a fire season is a very narrow concept.
In most indigenous weather systems, there's actually six to eight seasons. That's how we view the calendar year, without a calendar pre-colonization. We have to be very careful about how we talk about it. And that's why these bushfires are so devastating. Because these are fires on a scale we have never ever seen. When indigenous people say, these are fires that we have never ever seen, we're talking about 65,000 years. This is a moment, not just for Australia, but for the world to really wake up and pay attention.
When we look at the climate scientists—so we've got indigenous knowledge, then you've got climate scientists—who have been saying for decades that Australia will feel the first effects of global climate change, and it's here. We are facing it. It's devastating, and we haven't really had a great national response. It's been very state-based. But it's basically, in every state and territory there are fires. We haven't really had the national response from our political leaders that we require.
My deep prayer and hope is that while this is a tragic situation for us, but maybe it's through tragedy that finally Aboriginal peoples are included as part of the fabric of our political, social, moral, and religious systems in Australia. And that we can work together to work out how we look at this situation in our present and into our future, and how the past has affected that present and will affect our future if we don't come together.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you've seen churches respond to the fires?
Brooke Prentis: Pretty much every church is responding to the fires in some way. Obviously, one of the key roles is that we are still in an emergency situation and so there's evacuation centers. So many people have been evacuated and much of the Australian church and Christian organizations are helping to run those evacuation centers and providing the emergency relief and support, as well as taking up fundraising for those affected by fires and to provide that emergency relief.
Are the fires still just as bad as they were before or are they on a path toward improvement? What would be the latest from your perspective?
Brooke Prentis: It's still a bit of a mixture. Some of the biggest fires, we're getting reports through now that they have been contained and controlled. But where we haven't gone to, is assessing the level of damage and destruction and devastation. The reporting has been around people's lives that have been lost, people's houses that have been lost, people's businesses that have been lost. And there has been some reporting of the scale of fauna, animals, but also the flora and the trees and the plants that we have lost. But I think is still something to be assessed and will be interesting whether the Australian mainstream media actually start reporting on that.
My fear, and I feel it deeply as an indigenous person, is that we have lost entire species of plants and animals. And many people, and especially from the United States of America, have come to Australia to visit our beautiful flora and fauna, because then unique species where you can find them nowhere else in the world. One of the particular places that's been devastated is a place called Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. It's an incredible place. Most of that island has been burnt by the fires. And the intensity of the fires is something that we've never seen. And so yes, we're already seeing some beauty through the growth, the regrowth that's happening, and little shoots coming out of the trees, which is beautiful, but. It'll be interesting to see what we've lost and whether it can be recovered.
I think we're talking about years and decades of analysis and rebuilding. And then my fear is that "fire season," it isn't actually a season, it's the whole year through. Our summer is technically December, January and February, and these fires started back in September. Not to the same intensity as they've been over October, November, December, and January. But that's not our summer.
It's still hard to talk about in a way. There's still emotions as we think about what we've lost, how we really build and what the future looks like.
When it comes to the church in Australia, is there a widespread agreement on the facts of climate change and the human contribution toward climate change and the need to take dramatic action, or is there a similar sort of split to what you see in the American Christian community?
Brooke Prentis: There's absolutely the similar splits, and that's within the church and within society. And that's why, for Common Grace, climate and creation care is one of our four justice issues that we tackle. But this is another area where we need to look to indigenous knowledge. We know over thousands of years of practice what is happening in the lands and the waters. It's great the climate scientists have what they say, but indigenous people are saying the same thing.
When will the world listen to us? As indigenous peoples, we are part of God's story. God placed us in each of our lands. And here, if I speak as an indigenous person from these lands now called Australia, our role as appointed by the Creator is as custodian, steward, and caretaker. And the laws that the Creator gave us, the same creator God that Christians have, teach us who the creator is, how to care for creation, and how to live in right relationship. And for me, these are three biblical principles as well.
When we look at this particular bushfire season, Australia has been in an incredible drought. And one of the passages that I'm often teaching Christians about is from Job 12:7-10, "But ask the animals and they will teach you or the birds in the sky and they will tell you or speak to the earth and it will teach you or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?"
When we had the drought, the emus, our big flightless native bird, walked into some of the urban centers—the first time it has ever been seen in history—before the mainstream media started talking about the drought. But we as Aboriginal people saw this, non-indigenous people saw this. The emus were trying to tell us there's no water. And for indigenous people, we don't really have a separation between the human and the non-human. It's all of creation. And as Christians, I believe that's what we should also be thinking about. God created all of this, and you just have to walk these lands now called Australia, even as a tourist, to see the unique, ancient, and beauty of creation, of our animals, and our plants, and our natural environment, our mountains, our beaches, our rivers.
I don't fully always understand why there's this political divide. We need to actually look at what is happening. And for Christians, Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And so when Aboriginal peoples are telling these things and saying these things, will people listen to us? A majority of indigenous peoples in Australia are actually Christian, which I think is actually a different situation to the United States of America. And so that's a miracle in itself, considering the history of Australia, that a majority of us are still Christian.
How did Christianity first come to Australia? And what are some of the positive, and also the darker ways, that that happened?
Brooke Prentis: We're about to head towards January 26, which is a date that divides the nation of Australia. For us as Aboriginal peoples, January 26 we refer to as a Day of Morning, Invasion Day, Survival Day, or Sovereignty Day. We're the only indigenous peoples without a treaty with First Peoples out of all the Commonwealth nations, but one of the last liberal democracies to give a treaty or treaties to indigenous peoples.
But this 26 of January, it represents the 26 of January 1788, which is when Arthur Phillip came on the first fleet and is really the key moment of colonization in these lands now called Australia. So for us, it marks a date of disposition, destruction, and in many cases, death—the genocide and massacres that happened towards Aboriginal peoples. And many of the world don't even understand that. And many Australian Christians often say, well, Jesus came on the first fleet, and I have to correct them. And I say, "The Bible came on the first fleet."
It depends how we look at Christianity. I've already talked about how indigenous people have the Creator, the same Creator as the Bible, and so we often look at Genesis 1 and say that it's the greatest Aboriginal dreaming story ever told. We need to remember that often when we read the Bible, you're reading through a cultural lens. The Bible is often taught through a Western cultural lens. And so that means that you're an understanding and interpreting through such a lens. And so we need to remove that lens and look with fresh eyes, understand that we're reading with culture, which has often been Western culture.
But interestingly, while in 1788 there was a chaplain on the first fleet, the actual missionaries that came from the London Missionary Society would not come for another 30 to 50 years after that. And so it's a bit of a different history to the U.S. I've learned a little bit about the Californian indigenous people from the amazing Johnathan Codero, that when the Spanish came 500 years ago, they came as missionaries. But when Australia came and the colonizers came, they didn't come as missionaries, they came as colonizers to take the land. And those missionaries that came out from London were actually to deal with the convicts. It was nothing to do with the Aboriginal peoples because it was a campaign of extermination of us. And if you read any of the legislation, history, and the journals of those first invaders and settlers, they're talking about getting rid of Aboriginal peoples and we won't have to deal with the Aboriginal problem in the future. And that's why I say, that it's a miracle that we survived, and that's God's miracle.
They were good missionaries, but we can't just talk about those stories cause they actually few and far between, and we suffered under many Christian missions. For instance, their involvement in the stolen generations. So Aboriginal children are removed from their families right up until the 1960s. You were removed from your family, placed on a mission. You were told your family had died. But it wasn't about going to any sort of school. At the age of 10, you were sent out as domestic servants, particularly if you are girls, and boys were sent out as farmhands. They worked their entire lives.
And so this is part of what's contributed to present-day Australia. And we often talk about the Australian churches, that they're on stolen land. So you've got stolen land, stolen wages, stolen generations, and today I call our present-day injustices stolen lives.
How would you say that Aboriginal culture began to shape, impact and make very distinct Australian Christianity?
Brooke Prentis: I think we are such an important part of that history, but I think the Australian church is still only just coming to terms with how our story is part of the Christian story in Australia. Still so many Christians have no idea that a majority of Aboriginal peoples are Christians because we're not necessarily sitting in the churches on a Sunday. And that's because of the racism that exists. It's because of not being welcome in the churches and these sorts of things.
And so that's part of the work that I do, trying to educate the Australian church. And I stand in the footsteps of many incredible Aboriginal Christian leaders that have gone before me.
My message is, I talk about this in the Australian church is also for the U.S. church to listen to your indigenous theologians. You have many great indigenous theologians, but my fear is the U.S. church actually doesn't know who they are, and so get to know them—Terry LeBlanc, Cheryl Bear, Randy Woodley—so many incredible people over there as well. And follow NAIITS, an indigenous learning community. It's an incredible organization, not just for indigenous peoples, but this is for all of theology.
So Common Grace is retelling the story of William Cooper, an Aboriginal Christian leader and the Australian church doesn't know him. He's a huge inspiration to me. In 1940, he called on the Protestant churches in Australia to set aside the Sunday before January 26 to reflect on Aboriginal injustice and to pray for Aboriginal peoples. And that's what we've reinstated over the last four years to honor his call.
We've got still a long way to go in the Australian church loving us as their neighbor, as their Christian brother and sisters, but the movement is growing. People are coming on the journey with us. And my prayer is that happens in the US church too. That the US Christians come on a journey with their indigenous Christian leaders and get to know them and their incredible faith journeys.
How do you wrestle with the fact that that the Bible and the gospel came on alongside oppression and violence?
Brooke Prentis: Yes, it's a question I get asked often. It is a wrestle each and every day when you think about the oppression and the violence and what has happened to my peoples in the name of Jesus Christ. But I think we are called to be truth-tellers. Australia has not faced up to its true history. My deep prayer is that happens in the Australian church, which should be a place of love, as we follow Jesus, who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I would love to see that.
With the incredible Aboriginal leaders who fought for justice, it was Jesus who drove them to fight for justice, as well as their conditions. And to hang on, we cling so tightly to Jesus because he's often the only thing that we have left. He is complete love. And so our Aboriginal Christian leaders that have gone before us, who grew up on the missions, who were sent out as domestic servants at the age of 10 years old, the fact that those Aboriginal leaders, many of them who are now in their seventies and eighties if they're lucky enough to live that long, still so faithfully follow Jesus is a huge inspiration to us as the next generation of Aboriginal Christian leaders.
And I think that's an example for all Christians here in Australia, but in the world as well. Why do we follow Jesus when we suffer so much? And that's the great mystery and the great beauty and the great love of Jesus. That's why hurts so much more when the Australian church can tear us down and show racism. And racism is a sin. The Australian church still hasn't come out very strongly on the fact that racism is a sin. Racism hurts. It always has, and it always will.
And I think when we look to the United States of America, really understanding your true history is something that I'd love to see the U.S. church really understand. There's African American stories, the one that most people know around the world. But underneath that African American story is your indigenous story. And many African Americans don't even understand the indigenous story. And so there's layer upon layer upon layer.
But God, Jesus, Spirit have seen all. They've heard all. And so we as humans, as part of God's story and the mystery of God, have a role to play in not just our own lives. As indigenous people, it's not just about the present generation. We're thinking about the past generation and the future generation. That's how our whole societies are structured.
Many of these things that I'm passionate about being indigenous drives the understanding, the deep feeling, but also my Christian faith calls me to care for God's creation. I will always be perplexed about why not all Christians see that because in the Bible that I read is a Jesus who calls us to justice.
That's why Common Grace exists, to bring about that common grace that we can extend to each other, which comes from Jesus.
One thing about Common Grace is that it is is very ecumenical. It works with lots of different types of churches, of all different sorts. Do you have a sense of the breakdown of different denominations in the Australian Christian population?
Brooke Prentis: When we talk about the Australian church, we're talking about all the major denominations in Australia. It isn't quite as the way it's structured in the U.S. So the Common Grace movement as an ecumenical movement has Anglican, the Uniting Church of Australia, Presbyterian, Baptist, the Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, the Pentecostal churches and so forth. Which is great because as indigenous people, we've worked ecumenically to survive. And so we hold those theological differences and come together in community. And so that's what we're calling people into is to that community and to celebrate the gifts and diversity of all the different denominations.
Among the Aboriginal people, we're spread across every major denomination and small expressions of the Church. We celebrate our different faith journeys and denominations that we belong to. And so I think we're a great example for the Australian church in how to come together. You know, it's the cross that jumps congregation and denominational lines, and race and class. That's the power of Jesus and the cross.
What's the traditional relationship that Australian Christians have with politics?
Brooke Prentis: It's diverse and split. There are those that are on the justice journey and understand the injustices that face Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, that face asylum seeker and refugees, climate and creation in justice, and family violence, which is a massive issue in Australia. And so anyone that understands Jesus’ call for justice is very involved in politics.
It's a sad fact that the Australian church continues to talk about the left and right divide. What I'm trying to call people to is that in Jesus, there is no left and right. And so I don't understand why we have this split because Jesus just calls us to particular things in the Bible. For me, that's a call to justice, including economic justice.
My prayer is that the Australian church—and I think it's worse in the Australian church than it is in Australian society when it comes to talking this left and right divide—come together and love all peoples, and then call our political leaders to also love all peoples.
For many of our listeners, one of the most significant expressions of Australian Christianity present in their own minds has probably been through Hillsong. Could you share some of your experiences of Hillsong as someone in ministry in Australia?
Brooke Prentis: Hillsong has obviously impacted the Australian and global environment. I have many friends in Hillsong, including the leaders. They continue to grow, and that's a beautiful expression of Jesus growing across these lands now called Australia and the world, and so that's something to be celebrated. There's Aboriginal people that belong to Hillsong as well.
But there are also many other churches who are doing incredible things and have a long heritage and association in Australia and including the relationship with Aboriginal people.
So Hillsong is big and play a role, but you know, the Anglican church, the Uniting Church in Australia, the Salvation Army, the Catholic church, Presbyterians, Baptists—and you start naming them and you forget others—they are all making an impact and doing incredible things. And I guess my call is that we come together across those different denominations to find community and to be the body of Christ in these lands now called Australia and the world.
What would you say that the fires, in particular, have revealed about the state of Christianity in your country?
Brooke Prentis: I think I'm probably a little bit surprised that it hasn't had more of an impact. So usually during a natural disaster, people are searching for God and often the churches are filled. I don't think we've seen those stories coming out.
Many churches are holding church services and people are seeking comfort in all sorts of ways. Even besides the bushfires with our current prime minister, Scott Marson, who's a Pentecostal Christian, the mainstream media, and now talking about Christians, which we've never really seen. It's quite interesting to have that in mainstream media, and that's happened over the last couple of years. The important thing is to remember that this isn't the first time we've had a Christian prime minister. It's the first time we've had a Pentecostal Christian prime minister, but our former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was a Christian, former prime minister, Tony Abbott was a Christian as a Catholic.
But people have found much comfort in prayer. I think that's probably been the biggest impact out of the bushfires. And there's been so many reports, incredible stories, of people who've never prayed before and they're in the news going, "I've never believed in God, and I was praying."
There's a Christian bush retreat center in the Blue Mountains that has two prayer labyrinths. And the prayer labyrinths actually created a fire break and saved part of the property. And there's also some Aboriginal rock art on that property, and the fire stopped like a meter from the rock art.
There's lots of stories, and I pray that those people that have searched for God, that they continue to search for God and Jesus in their lives.
You've mentioned the importance of listening to Australian Aboriginal Christians. What are one or two things that you would really want our listeners and the global church in general to learn?
Brooke Prentis: To me, it's coming back to our concepts of common grace that we have as our organization's foundation and footprint. We are bringing people together across the depth and breadth of the church. My prayer for all Christians around the world is that we unite for the common good, that we find common ground, and that we share in common grace. And we can do that if we are centered on Jesus in our heart, mind, and spirit. And that we love our neighbors, all our neighbors, as ourselves, as Jesus calls us to.
How can our listeners pray right now for the Australian church?
Brooke Prentis: Pray for the Australian church that we do embrace the concept of love for all peoples, and it's not based on rules and regulations, but the beauty of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Pray for Australia with these bushfires, but for all the natural disasters that will continue to come. We are in a climate emergency. Pray that the Australian church looks to Jesus as to how we start to pray. Prayer is huge and so many Christians aren't praying, and we need to pray more.
One of the things that I put on Facebook, I saw all these people say that we were praying for rain and I said, "Please be specific with your prayers because we're in cyclone season, so if you're not specific to send the rain to particular places, we could have floods." And that's the power of prayer.
To actually believe in the power of prayer. How coming together in community to pray is so powerful and brings us together. Believe in the power of prayer because we believe in God and we stand firm in his promises. Hopefully that means something to some people.
Did you have a prayer that you want to end with?
Brooke Prentis: Yes, I'd love to end with a prayer that Dr. Byron Smith, who's part of Common Grace wrote for the bushfires, and I think it speaks to all peoples and I would just like to acknowledge those around the world who have been praying for Australia. Thank you. It is still emotional times for us. Pray for political action and pray for our hearts and minds as we recover from this significant trauma. And if we can recover. And so let me share this prayer written by Dr. Byron Smith.
Creator of life, this beautiful land cries out. For the disfigured splendor of charred forest, blackened soil, ash and skies, we grieve. For the hundreds of millions of creatures that perished in smoke and flame, for the millions more who emerged from the Inferno to starvation, for the twisted, frayed, and torn strands of ecosystems that may never recover, we mourn. For smoke-filled lungs, dread-filled hours, anxiety-filled evacuations, for ruined livelihoods, incinerated sacred sites, smoldering homes, for bereaved families, inflicted trauma, gutted dreams, we weep. Lord, have mercy.
Jesus, our brother, our generosity echoes your own. For the dangerous labor of firefighters, for the kindness of strangers, for neighborly bonds reforged in calamity, we offer thanks. For sandwiches made, shelter provided, funds donated, we are grateful. For accurate reporting, insightful forecasts, skillful logistics, we acknowledge our debt. Christ have mercy.
Spirit of truth, your justice flows like water onto parched soil. For too long our notions of prosperity have been dominated by theft, destruction, and fire, stolen land, poisoned rivers, dirty fuels. May we rediscover true wealth and mutual trust and care in treasured stories and places, in clean water and air. May justice fall like rain, pouring like grace on the tongues of the poor, settling like ash in the mouths of those who profit from lies. Let ancient wisdom be respected, careful science heeded, the worship of money rejected. May we truthfully embrace our full history, honestly acknowledge our present crises, humbly nurture a shared future. Lord have mercy. Amen.