A Struggle for Justice
by William W Emilsen
Australian indigenous leader the Reverend Charles Harris was instrumental in the establishment of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, a movement of First Peoples within the Uniting Church in Australia. This is his biography ...
I feel so very honoured to be asked by the author William Emilsen to write the foreword to this book that chronicles the life and achievements of the Rev. Charles Harris. Charles was a man born before his time; he was a pioneer with vision and extraordinary leadership. He believed that life was short and that he had so much he wanted and needed to accomplish for his people.
The Rev. Charles Harris first came into my life when I was aged eleven. He and his wife Dorrie came to visit my mother (Jean Pattel), who was highly respected in the Methodist Church and also in the Aboriginal community, as they knew of her strong Christian stance. My mother was a proud and loyal Methodist come Uniting Church Christian and she raised all her children in the Methodist and Uniting Church tradition.
They soon became family friends and frequent visitors to our home. We referred to them as Uncle Charlie and Aunty Dorrie and our love for them grew with each passing day. Uncle Charlie filled the gap that my father had left after he had deserted our family when I was ten years old. My father left us destitute and extremely vulnerable to the practice and forced removal of families and children under the Queensland Government Aborigine Protection Act. Uncle Charlie was a very important father figure in my life and Aunty Dorrie was like my second mother as mum and she were very close.
At that time Uncle Charlie was a very conservative evangelical Christian and his theology tended to be that of the Pentecostal background. Uncle Charlie was driven to start his own church and asked my mother for her support to establish it. Uncle Charlie started the first Aboriginal Church in Townsville in Far North Queensland. I can remember the little weather board church with its narrow doorways in Garbutt and each Sunday the congregation grew until it was full to the brim. On one particular Sunday Uncle Charlie had just finished preaching hell fire and brim stone putting the fear of God into his congregation when he made an altar call for anyone seeking healing or wanting to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour to approach. Several Aboriginal people went to the front for prayer and the laying on of hands and Uncle Charlie was slaying them in the Spirit and they were going down like flies. This one man, whom Uncle Charlie and two other Christian men were praying for, went down under the Spirit and no sooner did he go down before he started to convulse and froth at the mouth. Uncle Charlie lifted his head and said to the congregation that this man is possessed by a demon and everyone that didn’t have a relationship with Jesus should leave because when he drives out the demon it would seek out anyone who did not have God as their Lord and Saviour. Immediately the majority of the congregation ran for the narrow door and began pushing and shoving each other to get out. I recall my twin sister Narelle and I laughing at them because it was such a funny sight to see. Some of these people considered themselves to be, prior to this, holier than thou, but their true colours shone through on this day.
Uncle Charlie and Aunty Dorrie would spend many hours, in the years to come, with my mother and confide in her and seek her counsel on many issues. I recall on one occasion Uncle Charlie had just come from a Crystal Creek church meeting. He was now the Reverend Charles Harris; we were so proud of his accomplishments and he spent several hours with us telling us about his vision to establish the National Black Congress and how this would build ministries amongst our people, for our people and with our people. This was the first time I had encountered the new radicalised Reverend Charles Harris and I was so excited for he was preaching what I firmly believed and our family were so enthralled by his vision. He asked us if we would join and support his ministry and vision and we all agreed that we would take this journey with him and give him all our backing and support.
Over many years Uncle Charlie preached to the broken hearted and the downtrodden Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia and he brought a lot of people to the Lord and many would follow him in a decade’s time to become members of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.
Charles grew to be a great orator preaching to both Black and White Australians, challenging them to step out in faith and to dare to dream and to move out of their comfort zone so as to allow God’s will to guide them to a place of equity, justice and peace….where ‘the lion and the lamb shall lie down together’ [Isaiah 9:7]. Charles shared his vision and called Christians to work with him to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministries and to establish within the mainstream denominations a church that included empowered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clergy and ministries across Australia.
His dedication and commitment to social justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people saw him rise up and forge a road for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians to minister to their own and to the building of a national black church which bridged the divide between us all as Australians.
Charles was an amazing mentor to me. We would spend many hours sharing deep theological discussions and he would teach me different ways to interpret biblical verses while discussing our political situation and oppression. I was an eager student and hungry to learn from this man who had such influence on my Christian walk and who regardless of power or position remained a humble servant of God. His humility was visible to all who knew him and his righteous anger challenged us all. In all the years I knew Charles I never knew him to sit in judgement of anyone, for he firmly believed that we all processed redemptive qualities.
Charles was a man ahead of his time and a visionary. His visions were brought to reality through the works of many good men and women and I am proud to be one of them. Charles had the ability to embrace both the Christian and secular worlds and bring them together in a way that no other leader has in Australia. The 1988 March for Justice, Freedom and Hope was the pinnacle of his ministry; it showcased his charismatic nature and ability to draw together people from all across Australia - rich and poor, white and black, oppressor and the oppressed, the franchised and disenfranchised peoples of this land. Charles was never given the recognition that he so deserved in and outside the Church for his incredible vision and leadership.
I am so grateful that God brought this man into my life and I was able to learn from him all about God’s will, mercy and grace and to be inspired by him to be a better version of me. There are many stories yet to be told and I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to share more about this amazing dedicated man, as I have very fond memories that will challenge and humour us all.
At the end of the day the Rev. Charles Harris would be betrayed by his own under the guise of Christian obedience. The conservative members of Congress and some state leaders would struggle to take the leadership from him. My mother faithful and loyal to the end stood up and challenged these Christian men and reminding them that it was Charles that brought them to the Lord and if not for him they wouldn’t be here at all. Many other Congress leaders, men and women, followed showing their support for Charles. They couldn’t understand Charles’ prophetic stance and as the President of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress he was compelled by God to hold governments and churches accountable and to highlight the suffering and oppression of his people. Charles would tell me that we are called to proclaim:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19 NIV)
For Charles this was the epitome of his ministry to his people.
The national Congress meeting would be the end for Charles as he suffered a massive heartache and his poor health would not allow him to return to take up his rightful place as the founder and President of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. Those of us who were faithful to Charles were driven out of Congress and marginalised in our own Uniting Church in Australia.
Charles would share with me over the remaining years how he felt about this betrayal and I would later see the decline of Congress and sadly with the death of the Rev. Charles Harris the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress would slowly wither on the vine.
I hope this book will be the beginning of what I consider to be the long overdue and rightful recognition that the Rev. Charles Harris deserves and is entitled to.
Anne Pattel-Gray Ph.D, D.D
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