Shirli Congoo’s encounter with the Salvos has led to her role as a Territorial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministry Coordinator, writes David Goodwin.
How did you get involved with the Salvos?
I don’t have a church background. About seven years ago, there was a 14-month period in my life where I lost a nephew I cared for and two of my brothers. I was emotionally and physically bankrupt and heartbroken. I had nothing in the tank and felt like my world had crashed around me.
Being leaders in our families, both my husband and I have family and cultural
responsibilities which also include organising the funerals. One of our responsibilities is contributing financially and we source the finance through family contributions, taking out bank loans or accessing our superannuation—but the deaths were six months apart from each other and our family resources were very limited.
Joel Maxwell, who was assisting in Salvation Army Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) ministry in Ipswich at the time, arrived at our house during the organising of my youngest brother’s funeral. He linked us with the local Salvation Army who provided us with very practical assistance including using their hall, suicide support group and some financial assistance.
During his week with us he offered prayer and came alongside us in our grief. After the funeral I thanked him for his support and he stated, “Don’t thank me, thank God.” I knew that I wanted to know this God if he comes to people in their time of need and I wanted to be a part of that. I haven’t looked back in seven years.
What are some of the regular or key parts of your job?
The Territorial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministry exists to work with and encourage all expressions of The Salvation Army to live in reconciled relationships before God and with one another. We can consult on the cultural appropriateness of any materials developed, provide guidance on how to assist referral and access pathways to encourage use of TSA social programs, and develop or source culturally appropriate materials and training for social programs and mission teams.
We also assist and lead Indigenous community consultations and engagement, and our team can advise on how to create services and ministries that are culturally inclusive, appropriate and accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
What sort of impact do you see your role having on people’s lives?
I see The Salvation Army steadily becoming more aware and active in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander space through being educated, equipped and empowered to being more responsive to our communities’ needs and aspirations. We need to think beyond charity to include truth, justice and advocacy as a central part of our response.
I have an awesome team of people who are at the frontline working with Salvation Army mission expressions who inspire and excite me with their work and ministry. I draw wisdom, strength and encouragement from them. I hope that through my leadership the feelings are reciprocal.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the way the Salvos approach ATSI ministries?
With relation to becoming one Salvation Army, our National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council and the Eastern Territory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministry have been actively engaged by national leadership in leading the co-design of what our ministry would look like nationally. We believe this type of engagement operates from the principles of self-determination.
Personally, I take a lead from our Elders on the Advisory Council who have identified priorities that have been presented to leadership. At this stage both our ministry and national leadership recognise and acknowledge that it is going to be an ongoing journey of walking together whilst also respecting cultural protocols of leadership.
How can people in the wider organisation support ATSI ministries?
Basically we would encourage engaging in the local context in a respectful and meaningful way. Educate and equip yourself through training and developing your knowledge base—we provide online training as part of our role. Also do a scan of your area of responsibility to see if that space recognises the local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples and if it is a culturally safe and accessible space. Within The Salvation Army our role is to provide support or advice for you to be able to do that.