have been attending Mass at St
Redfern pretty consistently since 1983. Through my involvement
with TCFA (A national Catholic university association)
I had meet Ted Kennedy and had contact with his church
at Redfern. Since leaving uni, I had lived and taught
in the outer urban wilderness of GreenValley
and in the underdevelopment of Sri
Returning to Sydney
sick, I went to live with my parents and began going
to church at the parish in which I had grown up. Each
Sunday I would walk out feeling angry and alienated.
It was so neat and organised with its ministry for this
and that but there didn't seem to be a place where I
could make sense of the multitude of questions that
my contact with the violence, pain, inequality and resilience
of the human experience had posed for me. My trying
to make sense of the messiness of life didn't belong
in the neatness of this church. My discomfort continued
until one day I remember clearly deciding as I walked
out the door, that I would not come back because it
just wasn't good for me to be there. So from then on,
I've become a Redfern Regular and gradually it has become
a very important part of my life.
in 1983, the music was provided by Sister Ursula, with
the help of one of her mates. Sister Ursula was over
ninety at the time (or so it seemed). Her organ playing
was uneven, to put it mildly. The Living
Parish hymns would get slower and
slower, when a rush of adrenaline would then have us
catapulting through numerous stanzas. It always seemed
that the poorer the job the congregation was making
of the hymn, the more verses we would sing. I think
it would be fair to say, that Sister Ursula and her
sidekick would not have got a gig anywhere else, particularly
in the parish from which I had just come but they symbolised
what was special about Redfern. People contributed their
talents and were valued just as they were. Later I discovered
that Sister Ursula and her helper had both given decades
of their lives to being with the poor of Redfern and
I felt even more honoured to have known them.
course one couldn't talk of Redfern without reference
to Ted. His homilies challenged but didn't anger, his
message was of inclusion and of love. Ted has the gift
of putting a twist on things in such a way that you
come to see things differently. One of my favourite
is his description of the gospel as a murder mystery,
not a “who done it?” but a “why did they do it?” His
constant reminder of the poor, what they have to give
us and their centrality in the gospel message is both
powerful and empowering. I love the Eucharist prayer
that Ted often uses, particularly that line about “people
who come unexpectedly into our lives'. That seems so
aptly to describe the people who find themselves at
Regardless of their formal denomination I see them all
as RCs, Redfern Chums.
many ways, more impressive than what Ted said, was what
he did. Although it is many years ago, I have vivid
images of a wedding at Redfern. Ted was not officiating
but part of the congregation, when a sad and near-hysterical
crying began outside the church. It was Patty Newman
a very fragile, damaged, aboriginal woman. I sat in
the church feeling very annoyed with her for mucking
up my friends” wedding and wanting to go out and keep
her quiet. Ted went out, gave her a big hug and brought
her back into the church were she sat happily cradled
in his arms. I still had much to learn! Redfern seems
to be at its best at Easter. The three main ceremonies
with their distinctive themes and moods, provide the
hooks for us, in a very real way to make sense of our
own and the society's sharing of bread, pain and joy.
I've always referred to it as “doing the Trifecta”.
Over the years there have been some moments in those
ceremonies that have been very special. Christopher
Lyon's near total emersion in the foot washing bowls
as a squirming two year old caused such hilarity that
even the ever focused Ted was compelled to join in.
The involvement of Glen and others in dramatic representations
of the Good Friday message have linked us to a very
deep sadness and sacredness. Uncooperative smoke and
sparklers, stuck slides, music played at the wrong time,
all little hick ups in Easter Saturday night liturgies
of which I've had some responsibility but it's all OK
at Redfern. It's the people not the performance, the
effort not the effect that seems to really matter.
have been times of political crisis, for example, the
aftermath of the East
elections and the Tampa
incident, when I have felt a deep heaviness of heart
and alienation from mainstream society and its values.
Coming to Redfern has been crucial for me in those times,
in order to feel a connection with kindred spirits,
both from a political and religious dimension. In one
of Edmund Campion's books I recently came across a quote
by the poet, James McAuley, that states, “Why should
you think because my bishop is a liar and a schemer
that this somehow disproves the fact that Christ rose
from the dead?” Without making any suggestion that the
same could be said for any current holder of episcopal
office, I know that Redfern parish does help me believe
in the resurrection, because firstly it helps me annunciate
and share in the crucifixion. Redfern is not a place
- it is an ongoing experience. You carry it with you,
but at times it grabs you, whether you want it to or
not. On a very damp Tuesday, I had left work early in
order to go to Mum Shirl's funeral in the cathedral,
dressed in appropriate professional/funeral garb. I
met many of my front of church aboriginal friends on
the train. They, with a bottle or two, greeted me warmly
and made sure the whole carriage knew we were mates.
When we got to St James station, my partly accidental
separation from them was quickly ended as my mates ensured
that I was found and didn't have to enter the lofty
portals of St Mary's Cathedral alone. Funerals are an
important part of Redfern and we have grieved together
at the loss of vital members of the community like Dorothy,
or their loved ones like Beth's son Michael.
funerals there have been some great christenings. Everything
from the beautifully, thoughtfully scripted with sensitive
symbolism, music and booklet to the more spontaneous
style where the family mayor may not turn up on the
appointed day (perhaps responding to the influence of
the Holy Spirit or spirits of some other kind). For
a long timer like me, I look around the Church and feel
a real connection with so many of these children and
adolescents because I shared in their welcome into our
community. (I would even be prepared to sign an appropriate
stat dec. if ever there is some question of the whereabouts
of their baptismal records or certificates.) Redfern
has of course also been the setting for some great weddings
and in the case of four couples that I can think off,
played the Yvonne Allen introduction agency role itself.
We know quite confidently, that for those couples married
at Redfern, it wasn't the length of the aisle, the “appealing”
interior or the photo opportunities that attracted them.
My mother came with me to one of those weddings at a
time when the Church was looking at its best. Months
later she asked politely whether the renovations were
finished yet. (I think it was probably the floor coverings
that she had in mind.) There was even a Sunday when
the building itself asked for help. A sharp wooden slat
from the roof landed next to the altar, not long after
communion was completed.
My work and
much of my network of friends and colleagues, is in
a totally secular context, so Redfern is a part of my
life that many of those people know nothing about. A
number of years ago the 7.30 Report, with its great
close up shots of me, did its best to change all that.
I felt “outed” (don't believe what they say about low
ABC ratings) but it did lead to some interesting discussions...
times of absence from Redfern, largely through travel
or illness, I have done my calculations with time zones
and worked out that it is roughly , Sunday at Redfern -
mass time. Even though I'm not there, I know people
are gathering to share bread and stories and I'm somehow
with them in spirit. When I was in hospital, at about
that time on a Sunday, a kind soul from a local parish
gave me the gift of a Catholic
somehow reading it just didn't provide quite the same
experience. When I have been sick, the support from
the Redfern community has been wonderful. My recent
attempt to make some sense of my time of serious illness
in writing has been deeply influenced by my years at
Redfern and could only have come to completion because
I had an encouraging community to write it for and trustingly
share it with. Redfern is about continuity and the long
haul but it is also illustrated by some special moments
and images such as -
·Watching two males, obviously in
a relationship, smile openly at each other as they sang
Peter Kearney's line “Peaceful and joyful and gay'.
·Being there when Eileen, the community
matriarch, read the Eucharistic prayer.
·Seeing the simple altar, the bearer
of the Eucharist but also of pamphlets, petitions and
plates of the best Passover Iamb you could ever eat.
·Observing the inclusion of the
slightly crazy and those that wander in and out whether
they be human, canine or feathered.
·Delighting in seeing Veronica Green
sitting on the soft seat knowing that for her, with
her cancerous bones, it was a triumph of her will over
·Sharing the sign of “piss” with
·The visit of our Muslim friends
with its spirit of friendship, new life but deep sorrow.
·Listening to the sharing of news,
protest rally dates and requests for help which naturally
conclude the mass.
·Relaxing with a serious coffee
and an RC (Redfern Chum), whether it was the old Greek
laminex tabled milk bar, the trendy Second Cup or more
recently Cafe Cana.
·Getting together at someone's home
for lunch, drinks or a book club meeting. At these times
there has been a sharing of stories, hot cross buns
or profound insights, just depending on the mood.
are days like the birthday, book launch and anniversary
parties for Ted, that have been absolutely wonderful.
Full of vibrancy, warmth, new, close and long lost friends.
The atmosphere and people, providing a reminder of the
rich tapestry of life, its consecutiveness and the sheer
joy of celebration. There are more normal Sundays, full
of humour, reality and spontaneity. There are other
days when the experience is very discordant or jarring,
where the aching pain of an individual or group has
been overwhelming and I've left the church feeling a
deep sadness or frustration but somehow more in touch
with what it is to be fully human. So for me Redfern
is about relationships and reality. It's about being
real within those relationships and it's about being
in relationship with the real.