An AM with the PM out at Candle Hill
Australian Columban, Father Bernie Lane, who works in the parish near Cerro Candela on the outskirts of Lima, reflects on the recent visit of Prime Minister Rudd to the area, and the work of Mercy Sisters Joan Doyle, Tricia McDermott and Jacqui Ford.
Greetings from a Lima-town that is returning to some normality after the APEC Forum conference. It brought a rather unexpected occurrence with the visit of the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to a slum suburb in one of the Columban Parishes here in Lima. Specifically it was to visit the women’s and children’s health centre that some Sydney Mercy Sisters have established and slowly been developing over the past dozen years.
Last Saturday morning Kevin Rudd travelled out to the north side of Lima and left the bitumen roads and followed the rocky, dusty road that leads to the “Cerro Candela” area.
As is the case each year at this time of the year, the schedule and programme of activities is full-on, but I made sure that I was present for the AM visit to Cerro Candela by Kevin Rudd. There are some Sydney Mercy Sisters, Tricia McDermott and Joan Doyle (a third sister, Jacqui Ford, is presently home in Sydney), who have been working away for a good dozen years among the people of “Candela” especially in the area of children’s health and women’s well-being.
Most of us “Aussie” Columbans were present; Tricia and Joan had let us know during the week that the invitation had been accepted and that the PM would make the trip (“99% possible”!) out of Lima to the area and see the Health Centre. “Candela” is part of the Columban Parish where Peter Woodruff is Parish Priest. In terms of geographical vicinity, it is the parish adjacent to the St Francis Xavier Parish where I live with Tony Coney. So for once I did not have to travel far to assist at a parish event or activity!
Leaving aside any type of “political leanings” or “party politics”, it was an impressive happening and visit by Rudd. He demonstrated a depth of humanity, sensibility, authenticity that I reckon is encouraging given the common “images and stereotypes” of political leaders. Sure it was a moment in the “spotlight” with a considerable media contingent including both Australian and Peruvian media networks. There was some good political “PR” with the social content i.e. visiting a shanty town and “pressing the flesh” among the gathered people in one of the poorest parts of Lima and announcing the donation of the $40,000 for the X-ray equipment. But his easy-going manner and approachableness, together with his words when he spoke officially, were most impressive.
The fact that he was prepared to make the effort within a very busy schedule I reckon is worth noting and acknowledging. It would have been an early start to the day. He arrived about 8am and that would have been after approximately 30 minutes in the official speeding cavalcade from the “other side of town” where all the dignitaries etc. are staying and the main APEC sessions are taking place. So he was up early and was then heading back for one of the main gatherings of the leaders. A good effort in my book!!
The visit highlights the great work, initiatives and dedication of the Mercies out in “Cerro Candela” with generous support from people especially in Australia and with the “Mercy network”. And it is providential that Kevin Rudd has “Mercy connections” having done his primary schooling with the Mercies, then his secondary at Marist College, Ashgrove, in Brisbane.
It was good “PR” for Australia. The PM certainly made positive impressions. As a person I know from the neighbourhood who has worked with our CMC project commented after hearing the translation of his reflection: “We need leaders like him in our world”. It certainly was an amazing moment of affirmation for the gathered local people living in poverty but with smiles on their faces as they realised that they were being visited and recognised by a world leader! And those of us Aussies there among the crowd were warmly greeted as well, especially both those who knew us as “Padrecitos” (an affectionate way of saying “Father”). There was a terrific “festive atmosphere”. It has presented us as “Aussie ambassadors” and, hopefully with more importance, as instruments and witnesses of the Gospel and Kingdom values.
I think we all managed to greet the PM. He stopped and spoke with Chris Baker and I for more than a minute. While all the attention was on Kevin Rudd and he was given the tour of the clinic and an adjacent school for little kids, we got into some great conversations with the Aussie media people. I even got interviewed (an audio taped conversation) by Chris Uhlmann from ABC! Paul Bongiorno (Channel 10) and Karen Middleton from SBS were very interested and personable. Karen has written a beaut reflection on her blog site; it’s worth reading! While the official aspects of the visit were taking place there was some good conversation with members of the Australian media team. And I managed to stay behind the cameras!
In the present times with so many negative comments, criticisms and “bad press” towards the Catholic Church and Christianity it is a “good news” story. The project of the Mercies is a concrete example of faith in action for social justice and in defense of life and the dignity of people with emphasis on the preferential option for the poor. And, not to sound “preachy”, but it connects with this past Sunday’s Feast of “Christ the King” and the powerful and challenging Gospel of Matthew 25… “Whatsoever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters you do to me…”
I consider that the visit was providential, and there was a feeling of some pride in being an Australian citizen. We are certain that Kevin Rudd was the only Government leader attending APEC who ventured outside of the “golden triangle” of the most wealthy suburbs of Lima, the luxury living conditions of the five-star hotels and conference centres for the APEC Forum, and the massive security to visit a shanty-town suburb among the sprawling slums of Lima. And it has had me and others recalling with gratitude the continued generosity of people in Australia towards projects here in Peru for the people, and the generosity of Australians when it comes to responding to worthy causes.
The PM spoke with a lot of heart and with Christian-Gospel values. He highlighted the moral responsibility of wealthy nations to assist the poor; he stressed the importance of the “Millennium Development Goals” and his commitment to them, and he said something that really touched me … “if we question practice of foreign aid or our responsibility for assisting the poor, then we just have to look into a child’s eyes…as I’m doing this morning”. And from what I observed he certainly did that yesterday with a genuineness… even to dancing with some kids and sitting on the floor and talking with some in the school.
Also a significant moment was when one of the local women dressed in traditional dress thanked him as an Indigenous person of Peru for his “Sorry Statement” to the Indigenous peoples of Australia earlier this year. And it was an affirming moment for the people of “Cerro Candela”.
There were no vegemite sandwiches, but, all in all it was a memorable occasion! It has certainly given the “APEC” meeting here in Lima a slightly different tone to the rather cynical sense that I have carried! What an extravagant talk-fest, and so much expense has gone into the realisation of APEC here in Lima; and the chaos caused by the security etc. However the meeting with Kevin Rudd, and reading of what has been discussed especially following on from last weeks “G-20” summit in Washington in the face of the present world economic situation; it has given a different slant. There might be some rays of hope that some new and more just financial systems and practices will be established and implemented. And that “yes” we might see some inroads in overcoming the inhuman poverty that so many of our brothers and sisters in today’s world are forced to live and experience.
There were certainly “rays of hope” on the smiling faces of children and adults out at “Cerro Candela” last Saturday morning with the visit of PM Kevin Rudd!
It definitely made this past weekend, which also saw our celebration of St Columban’s Feast Day (November 23), a memorable one!
Peace and regards,