My first memory of St Vincent‘s, Redfern, is etched indelibly on my mind and goes back to 1971. It coincided with my release from enclosure as a Religious of the Sacred Heart in the wake of the reforms of Vatican II. I made an early visit to Redfern where Aboriginal people had already received hospitality in the Presbytery and Convent. What a royal welcome I received as I moved among the Aboriginal people being introduced as “Father Ted’s sister”! My first conversation with one of the men is still with me. He told me of his sad life of poverty and separation from family, and ended with the words:
“Sis, when you’re most lost, then you’re found”.
This was the beginning for me of a growing friendship with the Aboriginal people and of my first awareness of the tragedy of the “Stolen Children”. The Presbytery attracted hundreds of Aboriginal people from all over Australia as a centre of communication and, for many of them, the emotional discovery of lost relatives. It was not until decades later that this sad episode in Australian history came into the consciousness of the nation.
On my first visit to Redfern I also met the famous rag-picker priest from Europe, Abbe Pierre, who had become known for his great work after Wor1d War II for the homeless and dispossessed. He was followed over the years by so many inspiring figures, indigenous and non-indigenous, from Australia and Overseas. We connected with them (and still do) as a Community in solidarity with their struggle for justice and self-determination. One of the great gifts of Ted’s leadership was to provide a strong spirituality for the struggle. Rooted in the Gospel and unfolding with such reflective insight each week, this offered us a way of integrating Contemplation and the call to Social Justice. This model inspired some of us (Maureen Flood, Marie Grunke and myself) to initiate what has become known as the “Street Retreats”. We felt the need to move into the less sheltered environment of the inner city and to allow the socioeconomic and political realities to sharpen our understanding of the kind of apostolic spirituality needed for today.
Retreatants are billeted in houses to which the powerless and disadvantaged have ready access as friends. The Gospel imperatives began to speak through the daily encounters in the households and on the streets with life at the edges. There we found the graced revelation of the God of Liberation and unconditional love working where least expected. It was the initial experience at St Vincent‘s Redfern that urged us to share with hundreds of others around Australia these “Street Retreats”, which have been offered in Redfern and other inner city contexts since 1984.
The heritage that Ted leaves us at St Vincent‘s is a crucial one. Christian spirituality has a new and urgent role to play in the heart of the political and socio-economic area. Education and legislation are important to combat the deep racist attitudes that exist among old and new settlers, but it is at an even deeper religious level that transformation really takes place. Acceptance of others who are different means entering into solidarity with them and reaching out in love towards them. As Ted so often says,
The love in question is a genuine love for concrete human beings whom we know by name.
This is what offers an energy that flows from friendship not ideology. Long may this energy flow from St Vincent‘s Redfern!
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