Sacred site

In the middle of the 1970’s Mark Raper S.J., then Director of the Jesuit “Asian Bureau”, asked me to write an article on the links between contemplation and social awareness/action. Mark could have supposed that I might know something about contemplation, though that would have been a somewhat doubtful assumption. It is true that I had, been living a completely enclosed `contemplative” life for twelve years, before the changes f Vatican II brought our contemplative, Eucharistic life back to earth and back to an earthed theology of Eucharist. I wanted to write the article. I knew that the Eucharist is broken bread for broken people but in my whole life I’d had very little, if any, direct contact with poor, broken, dispossessed and unjustly outcast people. I knew I needed to go somewhere beyond the walls that insulated our lives and limited our vision and understanding. But how could I do that? As I wondered I remembered something I’d heard about Redfern, in Sydney — something about Fr Ted Kennedy and the urban aboriginal community he and others were living with, serving, looking after and learning from. After having contacted Ted and been encouraged by him (albeit in a fairly vague and general way!) I got permission from my superior to come to Redfern, from Melbourne. There is a sense in which I have been here ever since.

One of my most vivid early memories is of a day which was like any other in the St Vincent‘s Redfern- Community. The Presbytery, the Convent and the yard were crowded with Aboriginal people. There were others taking shelter in the Church. Ted would be emerging any time from the sacristy where he lived. Mum Shirl was already outside her room, holding court and holding forth about something or other. In the small kitchen huge quantities o food were being prepared by a few of the team of people who lived and worked in the Community at that time. These included Pat Durnan, Tom Hammerton, Joan Hamilton, Chris Smith, Karen Donnelson, and Germane Hurst.

On this particular day a woman arrived exhausted, as if from a long journey. She looked ill, tattered, torn, weak and hungry. I’ll call her “Mary”. Chris Smith and I went to look after her, thinking “cup of tea or something to start with”. She knew Chris, looked at her and, with some hesitation, said, “Sis, do you reckon I could have a bath?” We took her to the convent and upstairs to the bathroom which had a really large tub. We ran a lot of hot water, carefully undressed Mary and lowered her thin, black body into the bath. She was smiling as if all her dreams had come true. While we sponged her she kept reaching her arms out n the water as if to embrace it. Then she would cup her hands, fill them with water, slowly lift them over her head and let the sparkling shower fall all over her. All the time she was repeating a kind of chant “beautiful I water, lovely water, lovely warm water”.

As we continued to bathe this beautiful woman’s body I was overwhelmed by a sense that this was indeed the body of Christ in our hands. That moment taught me more than I could have learned in many years of contemplation. Daily contact, conversation, laughter, many tears and great sorrows shared with Aboriginal people in and around the St Vincent’s community have coloured and dictated my life, my thinking and my theology ever since.

One of the greatest teachers of theology was Harold, a homeless, aboriginal man who spent most of his time walking around the streets. Sometime after my first prolonged stay in St Vincent‘s community, three of us Blessed Sacrament Sisters, Betty, Marie and I came to live in nearby Newtown, and Harold became a daily visitor. One night soon after we moved into the house, I was home alone. Suddenly there was a loud knocking on the front door. It was Harold. “What are you doing Sis”, he asked. “Just sitting in the chapel Harold”, “I’ll come in and sit there too.” We sat in silence for a while and then Harold pointed to a Breviary lying on the bench between us and asked “what’s that book?”’. I replied, “It’s the book we say our prayers from Harold.” “Oh, is there a blessing in that book for me?” he asked “Yes, I’m sure there is.” I found a blessing and read it for him. Again we sat in silence for a good while and I felt deep contentment with the whole situation. Harold stirred. “What is it?” I asked. His reply was a question, “Don’t you want me to read a blessing for you?” My world turned upside down and in that instant many of my assumptions and presumptions were totally shattered. Harold did read a blessing for me and I have never received a greater one. He was a Christ-bearer, as are many of the poor.

Fr Ted Kennedy’s ongoing, consistent teaching of Gospel values in relation to attitudes towards and care of Aboriginal and other poor people has formed, at St Vincent‘s, a community of care, concern and justice for all. The weekly celebration of Eucharist is prayerful, joyful and open to the unexpected. The “Sign of Peace” is much more than a brief gesture to whoever is close by. At St Vincent‘s, when “Peace” is announced, the community becomes mobile, tactile and vocal. We move we seek out, we touch, we inquire. We shall have been told already whose birthday it is, who is ill or anxious or in need one way or another. The presence of Aboriginal people brings all of us into direct contact with the world Jesus seems to have loved the most: – the world of the poor the afflicted, the dispossessed and outcast. They show us the face of Christ who made himself one with them.

Through the years since the 1970’s many things have changed. The Convent has been demolished – (perhaps a sign of the times in which we live?) The Aboriginal Medical Centre has developed and expanded. The number of Aboriginal people in and around the Church has diminished but, wherever they may be, they know and we know that this is their place – a Sacred Site. So many Aboriginal people have died on this land and/or been buried from here that the Church the Presbytery and the land are forever sacred to them and also to us as a community.

In St Vincent‘s Redfern Community the air we breathe, the land on which we stand is laden with the suffering of generations of the dispossessed original peoples of Australia. The overwhelming spirit of the community is of longing for Justice and Reconciliation for and with a People who have been so comprehensively and unjustly dispossessed. Surprising as it may seem, running beneath and through every layer of this situation is a constant overflowing river of laughter. It can break out at any time, suddenly, unexpectedly. The unexpected is never far away and whether it arrives in laughter or in tears it is generally presumed to be somewhere close by.

One of the reasons why I love this community so much is that the telling of stories is given considerable space. Be they sublime, terrible, funny, shocking, sad or too long, every story is received and honoured. The liturgy enfolds the stories of the day – the personal and the communal. This can be demanding. At St Vincent‘s the liturgy is not always consoling or comfortable. The Mass is not ended until announcements have been made by anyone who wants to let us know something: how a sick member is managing, when one or another protest march will be on, when the next meeting of the women’s Christian/Muslim group will be, or the next meeting of parents of Gay or Lesbian people, or some urgent message from Pax Christi or from members of our congregation who visit refugee detention centres. The needs of the poor and oppressed are woven into the fabric of every celebration of the Eucharist at St Vincent‘s, Redfern, just as they are woven into every aspect of the life and teaching of Jesus.

When we are listening to the Sunday readings my eyes are sometimes drawn to the wall behind the reader. The paint is peeling off in curving ribbons, exposing another layer underneath. What could seem, at first sight, like neglect reminds me that there is always something more, something beneath the surface or behind appearances. Our Church building appears to be run-down, perhaps a bit like “Mary”, but just as there was something revealed in “Mary’s” worn out body there is more teaching in the poverty of the stone and the wood the paint and other simple decorations than might at first appear. Yes, some work needs to be done on the building but I hope it will remain simple, bare, minimalist, allowing for that other layer of history and meaning to be glimpsed, always there, just below the surface: – all the broken black bodies, the lost land the suffering, all the laughter, all the “broken” rights and “all the broken rites” – just below the surface and always in our consciousness.

The song is gone; the dance

is secret with the dancers in the earth,

the ritual useless, and the tribal story

lost in an alien land.

`Bona Ring” {Judith Wright, Collected Poems, Angus & Robertson 1994)

Oh yes, I did learn something from coming to Redfern all those years ago, something about the links between contemplation and social awareness/action. You can’t have one without the other, at least not in the Christian scheme of things.

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