Unsung heroes

Listening outside the church at Gunbalanya – Lois in pink

All Saints 2012

A Reflection

Marian Free

In the name of God who alone can judge the secrets of the heart. Amen.

Today I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to speak from the heart. I think most of you know that I spent the first week of my holidays in Darwin. It was my first time there and it was a marvelous experience. Two particular experiences were very confronting and challenging and relate to what are perhaps the most difficult and divisive social issues of our time. So please be clear, I’m sharing how these events touched me, not trying to provide answers, or to tell you how to think.

One experience was this. I was sitting in the Cathedral waiting for the service to begin when the a bus-load of Iranian asylum seekers arrived – five of whom were to be baptised. The issues surrounding asylum seekers are complex and I don’t want to argue the rights and wrongs or even to suggest that I have made up my own mind on the issue. What struck me was that when someone is sharing your pew, it is hard to think that when you are going home, they are going to jail.

The second profound experience occurred during a visit to Kakadu. The Bishop had organized a local priest to take three of us out for the day. After a visit to some rock art, we drove to Oenpelli (Gunbalanya) – that part of Kakadu over which the indigenous people have Native Title. Our purpose there was to meet with the local priest – Lois and some of her congregation – Hagar Lois’s sister who is a teacher at the local primary school, Marlene her sister-in-law and a young woman named Leandra.

Lois’s story is that her family come from a place near Katherine, but they moved to Gunbalanya when she was quite young. Among other things this meant learning another language and a dislocation from her family’s spiritual home.  Despite numerous difficulties in her lifee Lois’s faith remained strong and she was the obvious person to lead the church in her community and is now their priest.

From our host for the day I learned that a major issue confronting Lois in her ministry was the occasional visits to the community by people from a Pentecostal expression of Christianity. These people are very enthusiastic and make wild promises about such things as healing from alcohol dependence. As a result they gather a following from among the residents of the community. When they leave, those they have left behind often discover that the promises had no substance, that they are unable to stay away from drink, that they are not healed of their ailments. As a result, they return to their former ways with the one difference being that now they are disillusioned with the Christian faith. As a priest Lois must do what she can to pick up the pieces and, if she can, restore their faith.

Lois and her friends talked a lot about sharing the Good News and very little about any problems in their community. It was only as we were leaving that Hagar, Lois’s sister grabbed my arm and said, “This is what we need to do more of – talk to each other.” I could only agree. We hear so much about indigenous communities through our media, the problems with alcohol and petrol sniffing, the endemic sexual abuse, the violence and the hopelessness but few, if any, of us have been into these communities or spoken to people who live in them. If we don’t make connections, if we don’t sit down and talk how can we have opinions about policies and decisions that affect their lives?

I often feel helpless in the face of such suffering, especially as I live in a part of Australia in which my contact with aboriginal Australians is so rare as to be almost non existent. I left Gunbalanya feeling incredibly privileged to have shared time, be it ever so brief with Lois and her friends and wondering what if anything I could do to make a difference. In particular I wondered how I could respond to Hagar’s plea.

Saints come in all shapes and sizes, and by far the majority are the unsung heroes who simply get on with their lives no matter how difficult they are. Women like Lois, Hagar and Marlene are Anglican women who remain strong and positive in the face of considerable difficulty and all they asked of me and of you is that we listen to their story. It is hard to know how to help, but, if you look at the envelop that you would have received in your pew sheet last week, you will see a photo of Lois. This year the proceeds of the Archbishop’s November Appeal will be directed to Indigenous ministry in the Northern Territory and Bathurst. (Readers who would like to contribute are directed to the website for the Anglican Board of Missions. http://www.abmission.org)

Gunbalanya is a four hour flight and a three hour drive away from Brisbane. There is little that we can do to respond directly to Hagar’s plea that we talk. However, we can support the work of Lois and others like her by giving generously to this Appeal. It is my hope that this year our donations to this appeal will outstrip all previous years and that we will take any opportunities that come our way to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ whose lives are so vastly different from our own.


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