Story-telling is an ancient tradition that has always been used to illustrate spiritual lessons and promote faith. It helps us better understand our lives, particularly at an emotional level, as well as provide a shared experience for any group. Stories help us explore moral lessons, discuss difficult topics, and foster empathy.
Stories are not mere flights of fantasy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it.(Azar Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books)
In January 2021, when the Uniting Church in Australia decided that church services on the Sunday before Australia Day on January 26 might focus on solidarity with Australia’s Aboriginal peoples, we decided to make space in the service for members of our congregation to sit in small groups for 20 minutes to share their experiences of encounter with Aboriginal people. This sitting together and telling our stories was intended to honour and embrace Aboriginal ways of being community.
Noticing the intensity and deep engagement taking place in each group, I sensed we had taken the lid off stories that perhaps had never been told and had been longing to get out. So the next week I shared that perception with the congregation and suggested those stories probably deserved to be captured beyond that moment. I invited everyone to write down and pass on to me their story of their first engagement with an Aboriginal person – just a few paragraphs and certainly no longer than a page. I would print these out and circulate the collection among ourselves.
Thus began a serendipitous process that would, six months later, culminate in launching a book!
Two weeks in, I had about twelve stories. I collated them and printed off a half dozen copies that were placed on tables at morning tea for everyone to look at. The title of this mini-publication was ‘Realisations’ – stories by members of Pilgrim Uniting Church engaging with Australia’s First Peoples.
Two things happened. Reading other people’s stories reminded some that they also had a story to share that perhaps they had almost forgotten. Others were intimidated by writing their story or had never valued them.
And so the momentum built – more stories written and handed in; some folk helping others who didn’t know how to go about writing what they had always held in their hearts. Then poems that had meaning; photos that had significance; and what should I do about longer pieces from the handful who had spent a significant portion of their lives living in Aboriginal communities or working in Aboriginal Affairs.
Every couple of weeks the updated A4 ‘book’ went on to the morning tea tables. I announced that we would publish these as a book. We would sell the book to each other for $20, and the profits would be contributed to the “Covenanting Committee”, which supported the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. A small group took it upon themselves to begin organising a book launch. Deadlines for final contributions, publishing and launching were set.
Self-publishing, also known as Print-On-Demand, is a wonderful gift to us all. I was once encouraged to write a book by a traditional publisher. When I presented the final manuscript I was informed that I would need to pay $3,000 up front to get them printed. Then I would have to find space to store boxes of books that I would have to sell!
My son, Head of Tech for a large art printing company based in London, pointed me in the web-based direction. He recommended Lulu.com. Check it out! No upfront costs. Nominate the price of the book you want to sell and Lulu take a percentage of that to publish it. Print-on-demand means you only print what you want, when you want it. All that Lulu needs is a PDF of what you want printed. It’s simple enough. That said, I found I also needed someone who knew about layout to help create a professional job.
On this serendipitous journey, we had discovered how anyone – and any church – can be a publisher. And it doesn’t cost money – it makes money! Working inclusively together helps cover all the bases needed, that usually only a professional can be hired to do. It takes a village to publish a book!
A small group of enthusiasts arranged the book launch as an addendum to the church service that spawned the original idea. The Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, himself an Aboriginal man and a Uniting Church member, would launch it. The Principal of a high school in the western suburbs invited a Kaurna man she knew personally, to welcome us to country and play the didgeridoo. Gifts of the book were created to give to special guests and those we had called upon to help who were outside the congregation. And of course, all the books we had ordered were sold, generating hundreds of dollars for Aboriginal leadership initiatives.
It was such a wonderful occasion that the Kaurna man decided immediately that he had found his spiritual home. He has been a great contributor to the congregation and its outreach to disadvantaged people ever since.
All in all, the embrace of the Aboriginal cultural practice of telling our stories spawned the original idea of sacrificing a sermon to open us to what would turn out to be a wonderful transformative journey of understanding and deepening spirituality.