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3 July 2022
Maria with her husband Paul at Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory.
Words Naomi Singlehurst
In the months leading up to NAIDOC Week 2022, Maria – The Salvation Army’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement Coordinator for South Australia and the Northern Territory – participated in a 13-day ‘cultural mission immersion experience’. It was designed to help emerging Salvos leaders gain deeper insight into, and understanding of, Australia’s First Nations people.
The tour visited Salvos churches, programs and services in Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs. It also included connection with local Elders, visits to culturally significant sites, prayer walks, cultural training and more.
“It was an eye-opener for me,” Maria says. “It gave me a better idea of the amazing programs The Salvation Army runs in the Northern Territory. Now it is a matter of connecting back with key managers and leaders … looking at how we, as The Salvation Army, acknowledge, understand, honour, respect and create a culturally safe and welcoming space.”
“We have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living the effects of terrible experiences, and we must have understanding. It means looking at how we engage in truth-telling around injustices to Aboriginal peoples, [asking] what does reconciliation look like for us and ensuring our spaces are welcoming and safe – spiritually, culturally and physically.”
Maria grew up around the eastern Goldfields of Western Australia, including the Mount Margaret Mission.
“School gave me the English and maths,” she says. “But I also had the Aboriginal teaching of culture, kinship systems and language, and the importance of maintaining our own stories because I had grandfathers and grandmothers who were able to teach us.”
For most of her adult life, Maria was based at Port Augusta on Barngarla land, working in Aboriginal health in the field of drugs and alcohol, dental care and women’s mental health. She then worked on the remote Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in lateral violence education and running breakfast programs.
Maria also worked in creative arts therapy and spent two years working with her first husband with the Church of Christ in Mooroopna, Victoria, and surrounding areas offering support, prayer and pastoral care.
Passionate about reconciliation and faith, Maria and her family took on the funding and running of an existing program and continue to run ‘Dusty Feet Mob’, a dance and performance group that performs at festivals, schools, churches and more. This was seven years ago.
“We go to schools and talk about the reconciliation journey, cultural awareness around the Stolen Generation, and also talk about our Christian faith and where God has led us,” she shares.
“In all this, Jesus is central to my life. I committed my life to God when I was about seven or eight. My whole journey has been sharing the love of God to people, and I pray that God continues to guide me.”
During NAIDOC Week 2022, Maria will support Salvation Army churches, programs and services as they engage with and more deeply understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and culture.
She says: “For me, the 2022 NAIDOC theme – ‘Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!’ – means getting up there and continuing to be a strong advocate for our people. ‘Stand Up’ means I stand as a strong Aboriginal person, empowered to make a difference.
“NAIDOC is always a great time because it is a chance to showcase who we are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It offers a focus and space to showcase our history, languages, songs, our dance, our art, whether it’s through education, storytelling, poems, singing or dancing. It is also a chance to show that in 2022, we are still standing strong and proud.
“I think we really are all in this together, and my hope is that, as one, we can move forward in this space and embrace all the beauty that Australia has for us all. I would encourage everyone from all different backgrounds and nationalities to join with us and embrace the NAIDOC celebrations we bring to the community. There is great strength in standing up and standing strong together!”