On the afternoon of Sunday 10 December, community members involved in defending the forests of Gumbaynggirr Country came together to mourn their destruction and build hope for the future.

People from Friends of Newry, Friends of Pine Creek, Friends of Kalang Headwaters and the Forest Ecology Alliance joined with Gumbaynggirr Elders and members of the Uniting Church at Newry Forest, which was heavily logged this year until a legal action was brought by Uncle Micklo Jarrett in August. The group was welcomed to Gumbaynggirr homelands by Uncle Micklo, who reminded them that “we all belong to the Earth”.

The afternoon was organised by the Uniting Church’s Forest Advocacy Ministry as a part of its new Koala Chaplaincy project, in collaboration with Friends of Newry.

Focussed around the area of the proposed Great Koala National Park, the Koala Chaplaincy project aims to care for forest defenders, support collaboration between groups working to protect the forests, and advocate for the care of forests to reflect the unceded sovereignty of First Nations Peoples. The project is building a range of resources for support. Forest Chaplain the Rev. Dr Jason John, whose role is funded by the Quaker-administered Jan de Voogd Peace Fund and the Uniting Church, provides pastoral care, confidential listening and debriefing to people who are actively engaged in defending the forests. Jason also supports two regular faith gatherings – the non-denominational Gleniffer worship service and the outdoor Gleniffer ecofaith community.

The Lament and Hope event at Newry included a flute piece played by student minister Jessi Levy for centring those gathered; reflections by Jo Armytage of Friends of Newry, Uncle Micklo and Uncle Bud Marshall; rituals led by Jason; and sharing time. Through listening, speaking, physical movement and touch in and as part of a damaged forest, those gathered affirmed their love for the Earth and held a space for complex feelings associated with trauma and loss as well as the hope and healing that comes with taking action.

Uncle Micklo said, “I love this land. This land is a part of me. It is our father, our mother, our saviour, our everything. In each of these areas we have special places. Food, rock formations, sacred mountains, totems. Our names of places are after animals. Everything that we have in our life comes from Earth and the animals that live on the Earth.

“The old people always said, never take more than you need. Our ancestors have always looked after the place. Two hundred and thirty years ago we lost control of what was happening on our homelands, but now we have a voice again.

“Uncle Bud and I put in an affidavit to say this is our sacred homeland. I find strength now that I can say something to stop people from chopping down the trees, and I do it with love and respect. Destruction is detrimental to all human beings and animals on this planet.”

Jason commented on lament and hope in the context of the Advent season: “If you know any of the versions of the Christmas story, it’s actually a time of despair and hope. Jesus’ radical mum is ranting about the powerful being pulled down from their thrones, the hungry being filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. The government is abusing its power to maintain its position, Mary and Joseph are humiliated by their family and forced to sleep with the animals, where they dare to show hospitality to unclean shepherds, thus becoming defiled. Then the astrologers engage in non-violent resistance, and Mary and Joseph flee to become asylum seekers in Egypt. The hope is hard to see at Christmas, and it comes from people taking action.”

Jo Armytage of Friends of Newry said, “It’s a blessing to be on this land. There is a pain that goes with defending the forests. But whenever I gather together with others, I feel my faith in humanity restored. Even through our traumas we are building a network that is working for a more positive future for the next generation. We can make a difference, working together in love.”

Jessi Levy, student minister at Bellingen Uniting Church, said: “It can get hard to maintain hope, when our efforts keep being frustrated by forces focused on short-term gains of stripping forests, and we wonder why they can’t see how needed and valuable these forests and the life in them are to all of us and to future generations.

“It’s so encouraging that leaders here are emphasising fighting with love, not hate, and keeping each other going with love. Scriptures remind us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers. We struggle for love – of the forests and their creatures, the Earth, each other and our descendants – and with love.

“Affirming that love, through meeting together like this, being held and heard in lament and in sharing, is an invaluable way to support each other and keep hope alive – and to be reminded: when we are feeling too worn down to get up and fight, we can get up and love.”