There Is Also Hope
“We took them to many places where there were grave problems but where there is also hope.”
These words come from Rachel Perkins, the producer of “First Contact” which screened on SBS television in mid-November over three episodes. Did you see it? Produced by Rachel for Blackfella Productions and hosted by Ray Martin, it followed six non-indigenous Australians with strong, often negative, opinions about indigenous people as they are immersed into Aboriginal culture for the first time. Through the experience the six participants find their views challenged by what they see and the people they encounter, and in varying degrees their attitudes are changed.
The background for ‘First Contact’ came from the researched evidence that six out of ten Australians have never met an Aboriginal person and the assumption that this ignorance is the source of misperceptions and prejudice towards Aboriginal people. These attitudes stand in the way of understanding, respect and support. The programme challenges this ignorance with a first time immersion experience in actual situations of aboriginal people.
As well as spending time in the homes of respected Aboriginal leaders in Redfern, and mining centres in the Pilbara, they visit Elcho Island, where the housing is dire and unemployment is rife. They witness the drunk and the vulnerable on the streets of Alice Springs and the altruistic community groups that support them. They meet the inmates of Roebourne Regional Prison, and the women of the Kimberley’s Fitzroy Crossing who are dealing with the ravages of alcohol and domestic violence. This is also an opportunity to see the dire situations many Aboriginal people face, to meet them in their homes and communities and to see some ways they are working to overcome adversity and rise above the challenges that surround them. As Rachel Perkins said: “We took them to many places where there were grave problems but where there is also hope.”
What stands out in the three episodes is the dedicated efforts of many of the Aboriginal people to confront the problems their communities face and to work at ways to bring about positive change. One impressive example of this was the recent handover of the Yula-Punaal Aboriginal Education and Healing Centre in the Central Coast area of NSW, an event strongly supported by Sisters of Mercy.
The Yula-Punaal Aboriginal Education and Healing Centre, Mandalong, is located on a property named ‘Kywong’ at the base of the Watagan Mountains, a site symbolically significant to the local indigenous community. A group of far-sighted aboriginal people: Louise Campbell, Tammy Wright, Debbie Swan, Michelle Knight and Victor Wright had a dream of it becoming a place that belonged to Aboriginal people, a place of their own to heal the broken, be they families or land. Despite many difficulties and setbacks, particularly in obtaining the necessary funding, they have never lost sight of their Dream.
The property was purchased by the Indigenous Land Corporation in 2002, and was officially divested to the Yula-Punaal Aboriginal Education and Healing Corporation in October 2013. The official opening on November 5 marked the culmination of eighteen years of work by the Yula-Punaal Aboriginal Education and Healing Corporation Board. The original purpose of the centre was to support ‘at risk’ Aboriginal people through a culturally appropriate alternative to gaol initiative. This has since broadened to include cultural education and spiritual health and healing programs.
In recent times Mercy Works has made a significant contribution to the work of the Centre, providing resources for a community gathering space that welcomes Aboriginal female offenders on release from prison and provides a good environment where they can receive case planning.
A Mercy presence has been with the group throughout their journey, in key supporter Sister Pat Adams rsm.
Of the handover celebration Pat said:
The day of the 5th November 2014, was one of great joy and a sense of justice for the local Aboriginal group and myself at Yula-Punaal. This is the final result of the Land Claim made by this Women’s Group in 1996. It is a long story, and I have been privileged to have been invited to walk with the Group over the years.
My friendship and journey with the First People of this Land has been a long one. I have become involved in different areas when asked by the people. One of the areas that has been top of the list has been support of families in many situations.
It started in 1979 in the Diocese of Maitland. I was concerned that Aboriginal children were not finding a place in our Catholic schools. This inspired the interest of curate, Father Brady. He initiated a request for my release from my teaching role in the Catholic school at Raymond Terrace. The Congregation supported this move and a contract with the Diocese was drawn up. With the Congregation’s trust and contribution it was full steam ahead.
This was a new and untried step in ministry. In the area of the diocese where Aboriginal people were located there were no Mercy communities. At this stage it was required that I live in a religious community, so we negotiated with the Sisters of St Joseph to accommodate me for two nights at Tuncurry and two nights at Taree. For the rest of the week I returned to our Mercy community at Raymond Terrace. This lasted for about twelve months, but was heavy going.
This whole Mission was a very delicate journey. In that early stage there was mistrust and anger on both sides. As the years rolled by and friends in the Koorie communities saw that they were needed to bring change for the better, we worked on ways to improve access to education. For the benefit of both communities I invited Aboriginal elders to come and teach some of their real history in the schools. I believe this has been the most effective healing process in the Ministry.
This journey has been for me a wonderful experience of Mercy mission and ministry. Over the years I was assisted by study opportunities in the Missiology Programme at Turramurra and by the chance to be taught by the land and the people through Desert Retreats. As a supporter I worked together with Aboriginal people from all over the State to advise the State Vincent de Paul Society on the needs for better acceptance of Aboriginal people. I spent a year living and working in Redfern, a many faceted faith experience. Fr Ted Kennedy along with Mum Shirley mentored, advised and challenged me in engaging with Aboriginal people, many struggling with the impact of displacement and dispossession. This was the litmus test for my true commitment to this Mercy call.
As we go forward I am encouraged by our dear Pope’s statement that it is in the culture and spirituality the people experience God. This is a dream that is in many hearts, striving to be included.
God has not finished with me yet, and there are plenty of opportunities in the Spirit of Mission in ISMAPNG to carry on Catherine’s Vision.
Messages to: Pat Adams rsm
Daphne McKeough rsm
Photo: Sr Pat Adams, seated left; and Louise Campbell standing 3rd from left; with Mercy sisters from the Aboriginal Network group on a visit to Yula Punnaal.