In March 1999, I married my fiancé; a man who would make a good husband and father. We’d been together for 6 years and Australia was the third country we’d lived in so I thought we had the skills to overcome our challenges. On the first day of our marriage, the problems we’d excused away glared at us. 4 months later, he took a job interstate to think about his life. 18 months later after a long equivocation I requested a divorce. He arranged the paperwork. I took off my engagement and wedding rings. We parted company and remained on good terms.

Ever since, I wondered what to do with the rings. The significance of being engaged and married seemed more valuable than cash. These emotionally laden items felt cheapened by imagining a dollar amount, however useful the money. Wedding rings differ from other jewellery because the theory is you wear them from the day you marry until the day you die. Although 50% of marriages end prematurely, at the time they’re bought, exchanged and worn, wedding rings announce a lifelong commitment to love.

A few months ago, I met someone. We chatted about our wedding rings and pondered whether, where and how to sell our rings. But a sale wasn’t what we wanted. What to do. I pondered which communities have a lower income and a strong Christian ethos. The missions have left their mark in more ways than one for Aboriginal people and like African-Americans, there is a strong Christian influence on contemporary Aboriginal lives.

Part of my desire to give the rings to an Aboriginal couple was to participate in Sorry Business. Earlier this year at the end of the Black Lives Matter George Floyd riots, I became aware of being the recipient of stolen goods; goods we can’t return. The need for political and systemic change is central to closing the gap as the movie In My Blood It Runs deftly shows. But there is a need for individual action, too. My intention was to find a way to acknowledge the multiple ways I personally benefited from the loss of land, culture and people. I hoped this minor act would somehow lighten 250 years of systematic humiliation.

A quick search listed the National Office of the Aboriginal Presbyterian World Mission in Burwood. The phone for Rev Kevin Murray was available. Although I called 20 mins before office opening hours, I hoped for a person. Kevin answered and I blundered into the conversation. I have an unusual question. I’ve got my engagement and wedding rings to give to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it and I wondered whether you might know anyone. He agreed it was an unusual request and not one with a ready answer. A few hours later the contact details of Kayleen Manton of the Mt Druitt Indigenous Church appeared in a text.

On Saturday morning, we met at a local café in Rooty Hill, a convenient place for Kayleen, my partner and I. We both told our stories. Kayleen asked whether we knew the transfer of wedding rings was a significant cultural practice in Yarrabah, her country in North Queensland. When a woman dies or divorces it’s gifted to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. She disclosed the significance of her own mother’s wedding ring – a complicated story which isn’t mine to tell but it’s worth saying her mother needed government permission to marry and divorce.

In discussing the gift, I saw the poverty of my Western culture through the eyes of someone whose culture and history was deeper and more complex than my English heritage had prepared me for. As we chatted about the history of the rings and our personal lives, I peeked beneath the cultural surface of the people who’ve been here for over 70,000 years and understood there was more to the gift than anticipated. Within an hour-long café conversation I felt welcome.

When I heard Aboriginal people speak about community, it felt different. There appeared to be a depth of responsibility and connection unfamiliar to my Western ears. Community feels to be a nebulous term in our culture and I’m unsure of its definition these days. There are people I connect with but would I call them my community?

I asked Kayleen what community meant. She recounted a congregation member who’d died a few years ago; a whitefella who supported a large Aboriginal family in any way he could. At the funeral, his White family disclosed they’d thought he’d died a lonely old man but the large number of mourners highlighted his vibrant life within an extended community.

Yet the mainstream society treats Aboriginal people with suspicion. Kayleen recounted a recent visit to a garden nursery with a similarly conservatively dressed middle-aged White friend. Her friend with a large handbag walked out the door uncontested. Kayleen saw the shop clerk’s demand to search her smaller handbag for what it was; a micro-aggression. She now shops with a very small handbag.

That afternoon, Kayleen drove to Goulburn to meet her family. The rings would lead to a lively conversation where a number of people would hear the details about our café conversation as well as who gets the rings and what it might mean to the family and community. When I contacted Rev Kevin Murray of the Aboriginal Presbyterian Mission, my simple thought was he would find a couple to give the rings to. What became clear is our contemporary Western cultural practice to reduce items to a mere commodity – a transaction with as little emotional value as possible – is shallow and incomplete.

As we prepared to leave the cafe, we received a handcrafted gift decorated by the aunties. We left feeling welcomed by Kayleen and her community.