Beth’s reflections on being at Redfern

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled (sic) by,
And that has made all the difference(Robert Frost)

About 13 years ago, I was going to yet another 6pm Saturday night Mass, “trying-out” this Church, then that. On this particular night, I decided to swing the car around and “try-out” Redfern Church, a place that had been recommended to me at times. Well, first impressions have startlingly remained with me; a somewhat dilapidated church in the more seamy of suburbs (I came from Coogee); many Aborigines outside asking “sister” for some money; somewhat dark inside; tiny congregation; altar swivelled to illogical position of being on the side of the building; a few tasteful flowers on the altar; a glimpse of ivy creeping through some broken glass in the windows; Father suddenly appearing to begin Mass, and right on the dot of 6pm; it seemed a mini-Mass in duration…about 15 mins. Then we soon filed out with Father at the front door, greeting me and asking me my name. Then into the blur of the dimly-lit outside world and, back home. Already I had a feeling that there was a palpable soul in that building that night, among its people. I had yet to discover what that was.

But what a night to remember! No microphone! No fuss! But that sermon! Short as it was, it was electric… with a content of an obviously-well-thought-out probing of the gospel of the day….even a somewhat new slant on what I had come to think I had known about that particular reading. It left me puzzling: “Yes, that sounds somewhat interesting. I’ll check that out!” But this I knew. Here, the gospel was preached without mediocrity. The “Good News” was becoming “good” again. I heard words, challenging, disturbing, hard-hitting, but always relating to THIS world. We live in the midst of a STORY, and Fr kept reminding us of that story, prior to Christ’s coming and after His Coming, and NOW.

My heart sang when I heard Fr quote from some poetry I was actually reading at the time. Poetry in a Sermon? The Secular Arts allowed into the Sanctuary? And a Priest who obviously loved that poetry and relished its relevance to a particular point he was making. Poetry so often says it better! On that night, I had gleaned the physical side of the Church fairly accurately. I had been jolted into listening again at sermon time (used take another book to read during that time elsewhere).I had yet to be introduced to the REAL Church; i.e., the Poor of Redfern in the presence of the Aboriginal people.

Incidentally, and most importantly, Fr actually remembered my name the next Sunday. To him, we were persons, not numbers. I remember saying to him down-the track: “You don’t get many here for evening Mass, Fr?” “No”, he said, “and I would be worried if I did!”

Yes, I’ve continued to come, with a hunger to hear the Word of God preached and to see it practised around me. The lack of clerical trappings and other ecclesiastical trimmings enabled me to focus on the essentials. Still quite alone, I used to sit in the front pew, so as to hear Fr Ted, as sometimes, the “interruptions” of Aborigines, children and dogs overrode what he was saying. It was not till much later that a microphone was installed. It was also not till much later that I didn’t even see those former distractions as such; they now seemed to have melded naturally into the whole ceremony without any “fuss”. Veronica Green and I met on the front pew, leaning forward to catch every word, and after Mass checking out each other to see we had not missed anything from the sermon. We often laughed at the surprises that came up in them, and we both loved being stretched further, being challenged to a different way of thinking.

Gradually I came to see that “The Poor” wasn’t just an Idea here. They were well and truly alive, entering and exiting the Church at will, unperturbed by anyone. But their physical presence around us was a constant reminder of their daily plight, the long-term effects that colonisation had placed upon them. Becoming clearer was my awareness of my own collusion in such a system. Becoming clearer was a delightful witnessing of a genuine mutual love-affair between these Aborigines and Fr Ted. He actually KNEW these people, their families, their stories. I had read about this in the likes of Vincent de Paul and of Damien of Molokai, but I had never seen this personally in a Priest before. I could not but be helped moved by the truth and beauty of what I observed here.

Much learning went on for me during those early years. As I sought, in my own way, to also be engaged with the Aborigines, I learned that their pain and their problems were far too big for me to “solve’. The direction I valued most was Ted’s; “You don’t have to solve anything for them. They will manage. You just walk with them and YOU will learn a lot”. He encouraged me to depth my own gifts, and it was this thought that made me offer myself for voluntary work as a Librarian at Tranby College, Glebe. I never dreamed that this would be the opening to about 6 years of almost daily contact with many Aborigines from all over NSW. I was asked to tutor and to teach there; it was a school for more that just the Koories!

What freedom also did I soon observe at Redfern when I noticed no Finance Committee, no Parish Council! No words were heard to preserve the comforts and the privilege of the clergy. I never felt that we were asked to be part of a Church that was running the show. I felt that Rahner’s prediction was being lived out in Redfern….viz. that the “Church” of the last part of the last Century was one that had to abandon its philosophy of “Triumphalism”. The hierarchy had to lose its power and the laity would once more be at the forefront of doing the Church’s work in the world. A diaspora or scattering of people into smaller, intimate groups would guarantee the Church’s survival along lines so different from those based on ecclesiastical and military foundations. At Redfern, we heard the Mercy, upon Mercy of God preached. And we were encouraged to commune with each other in that way, Indigenous and Non-Indigenous.

It took me a relative long time to get to know other people in the Congregation. As a wife and mother, I was going to this Church alone, and I found I had to leave almost immediately after Mass to be with my own family. It saddened me that they could not share my new discovery. I also learned that many who attended Redfern were “alone’, (if you get my meaning.) The place seemed to be a haven for those on the margins. As I grew to know and make more friends, I have really valued their friendship in every way. I don’t think I could ever have made the journey of my son’s (Michael’s illness and subsequent death at 16 yrs) had it not been for the faithful and loving support of that Redfern Community. And I have also had the joy of my older son, Andrew, not only “approving” of those who go to Redfern (myself included!), but actually loving them as my friends and, more latterly, his friends.

I’ve been involved with many of the activities at Redfern. I delight in various groups taking turns in preparing and sharing the feasts and mysteries of the Church life. I love the happy tension of the secular and the sacred sitting side-by-side. No matter what happens, (Mary praising God with full voice (and fuller gesticulations), kiddies running in and out, dogs being welcomed or Aborigines coming up to have their say), somehow Ted always kept the reverence of the Mass intact. The Kiss of peace and the Irregular lines filing up to partake in Communion bespoke a genuine need that we want to love each other and that we are still aware how far short we are from that. The natural inter-netting that takes place each week and then on into the week, often by phone, has helped us all respect each other as being most important to keep us more “alive.’

Ted said it clearly. The test of a parish priest is his respect for “THE POOR”. The Gospels call me to a sense of radical Justice and a willingness to stand up for the Poor at personal cost It is this call that drew me to Redfern, and it is the re-enforcing of that that will keep me there.

Ted has many, many friends. I am just one of those many. But I want to thank you, Ted, for your fidelity to me in my own struggle. I will never forget your kindness. I have loved your wit, your love of language and your full embracing of Life…in its darkness and in its exhilaration. You have had a steady and profound influence on my life, for the good. All I can say is, that on that Saturday night, when I turned that car in a different direction for 6pm mass, these words still ring in my ears;

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled (sic) by,
And that has made all the difference


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