Her grace and deep faithfulness to God’s mission over many years has been a blessing to those who have known her.
Dorothy Jessie Ruth Roberts was a Bundjalung woman who grew up on a reserve near Lismore in the 1940s and 1950s speaking the language of her ancestors, a practice she maintained all her life. It was a time when Aboriginal peoples’ movements and personal lives were tightly regulated by Aboriginal Protection Boards.
She was the second of five daughters in a devout Christian family. From as early as eight years of age, young Dorrie would tell her grandmother she was going to be a minister or pastor when she grew up.
By the age of 21 she had met and married her husband, later the Rev. Charles Harris – and they had moved to Ingham in north Queensland where Charles was beginning his ministry.
The winds of change were blowing when Dorrie married Charles Harris in 1963.
That same year the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King famously shared his dream – in the words of the Prophet Amos - that “justice would roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”.
In Ingham and in subsequent ministry roles in Townsville and Brisbane with the Methodist Church, Dorrie and Charles began living out their version of Dr King’s dream, bringing comfort and hope to First Nations and Islander people who were suffering the pains of dispossession, deprivation and discrimination.
Prison ministry and diversionary programs were a strong focus in their work.
As the movement for racial equality, land rights and self-determination gathered momentum in Australia through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Dorrie was a central presence in the movement of the Holy Spirit that led to the founding of the Congress in 1985, and later in 1988 March for Justice, Freedom and Hope.
Former Moderator of the Northern Synod Rev. Dr Djiniyini Gondarra remembers Dorrie’s counsel at the time of foundation.
“I give thanks to God for the life, ministry and shared leadership of our sister,” said Rev. Dr Gondarra.
“From the very beginning in 1982 at the Crystal Creek, North Queensland gathering, Charles and Dorrie together with my late wife Gelung and I became firm friends and partners in ministry, sharing a vision for Aboriginal and Islander Peoples.
“Charles and I thought we should form a separate Church but it was our wives and particularly Dorrie who were strongly discerning we should not break the body of Christ, we should find our place within the Uniting Church.”
“Both these women later went on to study at Nungalinya College in Darwin and be ordained in the UCA.”
When Charles Harris passed away tragically early in 1993, Aunty Dorrie felt God’s call to ordained ministry, and she undertook studies that led to her ordination as a Minister of the Word in 1999.
She served in the Goorie Good News Centre in Grafton, the Marmung Uniting Fellowship in Coraki and as a prison and hospital chaplain.
Aunty Dorrie continued her activism in her community and was acknowledged as Lismore’s Aboriginal Citizen of the Year in 2016 in an Australia Day award.
She was an important mentor and encourager of First Nations women who followed in her footsteps.
Rev. Denise Champion, the first Aboriginal woman ordained in South Australia recalls of Aunty Dorrie:
“For me she was such a great mentor. She has been on the whole journey with me and she paved the way for us.
“When things got tough she was always there to encourage. She was always a great colleague. We recognise her wisdom and what she gave to Congress.”
On 7 November 2019 Aunty Dorrie joined Congress National Executive, national leaders of the Uniting Church and many other supporters at Uniting Theological College in Sydney for the launch of her friend Rev. Dr William Emilsen’s book A Struggle for Justice – a biography of Rev Charles Harris.
In reflecting on her own life at that event, Aunty Dorrie said it was easy to support Charles’ vision of Congress and dream and that she was doing the same thing, struggling on in the Church on her own path.
“I've retired,” she said, and they say ‘Are you sure you retired again, Dorrie? Because you keep going’.”
“I thank God for where I am today and the life that God has given us, and I give God the glory and the praise for what He's done in our lives.
“I'm just so overwhelmed. God bless you and those who have been involved with us over the years.”
Interim National Chairperson of the UAICC Pastor Mark Kickett has paid tribute on behalf of the Congress.
“We, the UAICC, honour and acknowledge her life of service, dedication and commitment that never grew tired or weary, as many of us would bear witness to the amount of times ‘retirement’ was spoken of, but she would laugh it off, saying “you never retire from God’s work,” said Pr Kickett.
“On behalf of UAICC, we pay tribute to a woman of faith, love, dignity and hope. Aunty Dorrie exuded all of these qualities and much more and my prayer is that we are inspired by her life and all that she has achieved and be reminded that this service she committed herself to was because of her love and personal relationship with Jesus the Christ.”
Past UAICC President Rev. Garry Dronfield described how Aunty Dorrie invited him to minister to her community in Lismore. “She embraced me with such a generous heart and gave me responsibility, even adopting me through ceremony as a Bundjalung person and giving me a Bundjalung name.”
“Her faith in God’s purpose for you was something powerful that touched so many of our lives. She was always available for her mob, all the time.”
Assembly President Dr Deidre Palmer expressed her sadness at Aunty Dorrie’s passing and gratitude for her life and ministry:
“Aunty Dorrie was an amazing woman of God and Minister of the Word. She was faithful, passionate, wise, and gracious and it was our privilege to spend time with her and hear the stories of her ministry, her commitment to Congress, and the development of its younger leaders. She truly embodied Christ’s hope, justice and love.”
Rev. Simon Hansford, Moderator of the Synod of NSW & ACT remarked that “Aunty Dorrie stands in the deep and vital tradition of women’s leadership in the Uniting Church and the Congress.
“Her wisdom and care encouraged and discipled many First Nations people – and Second Peoples in ministry, shaping and equipping the Church for God’s mission into the future.”
Rev. David Baker, Moderator of the Queensland Synod said:
“The Queensland church remembers a woman who gave sacrificial leadership and service to the establishment of a strong and vital ministry with the indigenous community in Townsville. She led, with Charles, a ministry that gave people the dignity and hope of the Gospel.”
A service of thanksgiving for the life of Aunty Dorrie is being arranged in the Old Aboriginal Reserve of Cubawee at 450 Kyogle Road, Tuncester west of Lismore at 11:30am on Saturday 22 August 2020.
A second service and burial will take place later in Townsville where she will be laid to rest with her first husband, the Rev. Charles Harris.
Aunty Dorrie is survived by her sons, Charles and Phillip, and daughters, Sharon and Charmaine, her sister Carol, and grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Our prayers and love are with her family and many friends.
In the coming days and weeks, we encourage all Uniting Church members to reflect on Aunty Dorrie’s journey and her significant contribution to our life and mission.
13 August 2020
Pastor Mark Kickett
Interim National Chairperson Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress
Dr Deidre Palmer
President, Uniting Church Assembly
Rev. Simon Hansford
Moderator, Uniting Church Synod of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory
Rev. David Baker
Moderator, UCA Synod of Queensland
Aunty Dorrie with her children - photo courtesy Rev Dr William Emilsen.