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The Gospel According to Angelina

Read Thursday, 20 Dec 2018

Angelina Hurley testifies to fizzling miracles and the knack of holding firm and fast to family.

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Illustration of two hands crossing forefingers, as to depict a Christian cross

Mother: Christian. Father: Atheist. Chalk and cheese was the apt analogy for my parents, as far as their religious beliefs went.

My mother was born, and grew up, on the Aboriginal Mission of Cherbourg; three and a half hours drive inland, north-west of Brisbane. She lived a life of religious indoctrination and governmental control, which left her influenced by the Christian faith of our colonisers. My father was born and bred in the city. He was an urban-dweller, prejudiced against God by rock ‘n’ roll, human rights protests and black activism. Dad has passed on now, but Christianity isn’t something you would have bothered talking about with him. The topic usually ended in belligerent debate.

Despite these contradictions, my parents shared an essential set of compatible principles. They agreed on standards of behaviour and the importance of politeness and respect. They expected me and my brother to abide by their principles. What was important was the serious and strict embedding of the beliefs and practices of our Aboriginal culture and heritage into our lives. I found it confusing as a kid sometimes, when trying to keep up with both the rules and the contradictions.

‘Don’t swear,’ said Mum.

‘Did ya tell that kid to piss off’? asked Dad.

‘You have go to Sunday School,’ said Mum.

‘You don’t have to go to Sunday School,’ said Dad.

‘God is real,’ said Mum.

‘Nooooo he isn’t,’ said Dad.

There was a loophole, too, which added to our frustrations. This loophole – governed by the framework of parental privilege and prerogative – allowed Mum and Dad to change the rules whenever they felt like it. This would manifest usually on Sundays, when my parents decided they wanted a break from the kids. A decision would be made to send us off either to Sunday School or to my Grandma’s house.

Option 1: Sunday School

This was something my brother never seemed to mind. He’d just make friends and play with the other kids. I was a little bit older, and listening to fictional biblical stories, playing games and colouring in pictures of Jesus was torturous. It bored me to death! I’d rather be home listening to music or hanging out with my school friends and cousins.

Option 2: Grandma

This was the option neither of us enjoyed. The unannounced or imposed Grandma visit was always scary. Grandma was an intimidating woman who enforced her matriarchal status on everyone. Let me tell you: hanging with Grandma was a religious experience all of its own.

One Sunday, a loud knock at the front door ruined my peaceful Sunday breakfast. My brother and I clocked each other across the table with fear. Mum and Dad acknowledged each other with a smirk. Mum went to answer the door and our worst suspicions materialised.

‘Oh, look who’s here!’ exclaimed Dad.

We looked up to see Grandma standing in the doorway. Six foot tall, she was dressed in the long granny coat she always wore, regardless of the temperature. On her head, off-kilter, sat her favourite hat – adorned with faded material flowers – and in her hand, she clutched a matching handbag. She was a force to be reckoned with. She hustled me out of my chair so she could sit down.

Let me tell you: hanging with Grandma was a religious experience all of its own.

‘So, who’s coming to Church with me today?’ she asked.

‘Not me,’ mumbled my brother, ‘I’m going to Sunday School.’

He stuffed a whole block of Weetbix in his mouth and bolted from the room.

I could see my goose was cooked. The pending stress of it all ignited my childhood bronchitis, and I started to cough at the table. I made a last-ditch, sad-face appeal to Mum for pity. I was begging for an out.

‘Oh I don’t like that cough – I think she should stay home’, said Mum.

‘Nonsense. The pastor will see to that at church’, Grandma insisted. ‘I’m going today to get my eyes fixed’.

Mum looked to Dad, but his head was already buried in the TV guide. His plans for the day were cemented.

‘She’ll be right,’ he mumbled.

‘But you said I don’t have to go to church,’ I protested.

‘That was before,’ he said. ‘Go with your Grandma. Respect your Elders.’

And there it was! The contradiction. Cultural obligation overrides everything. The stunned look on my face just made Dad laugh. He threw $20 at Grandma for the taxi fare.

Illustration of fingers crossing in a 'no' formation

Grandma was far from the stereotype. She was not mothering, patient and caring. My Grandma was from the school of Do As You’re Told, Don’t Talk Back, Sit up Straight, Speak When Spoken To. The ride to church wasn’t enjoyable.

On arrival at the church Grandma made her usual scene-stealing entrance, meeting, greeting and introducing everyone to her grandchild who was there to be healed. She shoved me into an aisle seat for easier access to the pulpit when the time came. I dropped into my seat, arms crossed, as my bronchitis set in. I couldn’t stop coughing.

The service began and I watched as the pastor conjured a frenzy of exuberance from the crowd. The congregation sang, danced, preached and practically hurled themselves down the aisles. This wasn’t just any church. The non-evangelical side of my family called this place The Knock ’em Down Church. People would rush down the aisles (usually appearing more possessed than enlightened) only to stand in a long line in front of the stage, repeating loud mantras of praise, as they waited to be healed by the pastor. I had grave doubts about whether this was the right way to fix my bronchitis.

My Grandma got up out of her seat and started tugging my arm to force me down the front. I wasn’t having any of it. I dug my feet further into the carpet.

‘Come on, you’ll get cured,’ she insisted.

‘No I don’t want to. I’m fine’, I yelled. Totally irritated by this stage, there was no way she was getting me down there.

Frustrated, Grandma took off by herself. I watched in disbelief as she stood in front of the pastor, closed her eyes, recited the required mantra, got shoved in the forehead, and fell back into the arms of waiting patrons. I watched people applauding Grandma as she wobbled her way back up the aisle to the pew.

‘I’m healed! I’m healed’, she shrieked.

‘That’s great, Grandma.’ I tried to respond without smirking.

I had grave doubts about whether this was the right way to fix my bronchitis.

The service finally ended as the huge wooden doors of the church opened to a new world of vision for Grandma. Maybe the beam of sunlight distracted her, I’m not sure, but as she continued to praise the wondrous healing powers of the church, she misjudged her steps. Grandma walked straight into the statue of the cross out the front of the church. As if re-enacting the healing ceremony, she fell straight back into my arms.

‘Grandma, are you alright?’ I yelled.

There was a huge red mark on her forehead. I suggested it was time for us to go home.

There are two sides to my family – the religious and the non-religious, the believers and the skeptics, the rational and the irrational. I never have been able to marry the two, but somehow, for some reason, the union has endured. It’s not about the belief or disbelief in God or any faith. The glue to our family is our overriding strength of culture, heritage and identity.

I waved Grandma goodbye at the front door. She stayed in the taxi, too embarrassed to come inside. I walked down the hallway to the familiar sound of cricket commentary blaring from the television. Aromatic smells of Mum’s cooking wafted from the kitchen. I flopped onto the lounge next to Dad, in front of the TV. Mum popped her head into the doorway.

‘How was church, baby?’

‘Grandma’s still blind,’ I informed her, as Dad burst out laughing.

Illustration of hands held

Angelina’s reading of this story was recorded at Brisbane Indigenous Media Association (BIMA) by Paul Watts.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.