Funeral of John Dixon (Dicko)

One of my memories, and it haunts me still, even after as long as thirty years, is the death of an old Hungarian man who died in a nursing home without family or friends. He died a destitute and there was no-one to claim his body. I expressed the wish to bury him and I had to wait several weeks for the Government Contractor to accumulate enough bodies of derelicts from Sydney streets at night, to dump in a common grave. In white society, to be destitute is to be derelict. And to be derelict is a social shame.

But when I came to Redfern, I found that destitution is by no means a sordid shame, that there are any number of people willing to claim the body. So it is today with Johnnie Dixon. He died destitute, but for him that was anything but shameful dereliction. It was in fact his glory and the gate to freedom; it opened my eyes to the significance of the faith and love of the women who tended the body of the destitute Jesus at the Easter tomb. And it opened my eyes to what aboriginal people possess already in a unique way, what St Paul found to be the hallmark of apostleship-in-action:

But it seems to me God has put us apostles at the end of his parade with the men sentenced to death; We have been put on show in front of the whole universe, angels as well as men … We have no power, but you are influential, you are celebrities, we are nobodies.
To this day we go without food and drink and clothes; we are broken and have no home. We are treated as the offal of the world, still, to this day, the scum of the earth.
(1 Cor. 4, 9-13)

It is the story of every aboriginal funeral I have ever attended, the story of the triumph of love in the human heart that can dismiss human shame for what it really is. It is in that spirit that we come to bury Dicko today.

Dicko came to Redfern when he was hardly more than a boy, just eighteen years old, twenty two years ago. He became to me as he was to so many of you, – a brother and more than a brother. The grief now is terrible, but a strange joy is there too, because Dicko’s life was really a Song of Hope. He represented in his life the passionate hope expressed by Oodgeroo Noonuccal in her poem "A Song of Hope":

Look up my people
The dawn is breaking
the world is waking
To a bright new day
When none defame us
No restrictions tame us
Nor colour shame us
Nor sneer dismay

I’d like to recall just a touple of incidents about Dicko that occurred in this Church here. The first is when his little daughter, Catherine May, was baptised, and Uncle Leo Coe provided the fire outside for the smoke ceremony, which Dicko, with Gloria, led. We thought he would explode with tenderness and pride.

The second incident was when last Saturday week he led, a mob in here to the Evening Mass and jubilantly called us all to celebrate the success of Cathy Freeman.

This is our Church, he would often say, and reminded the whites as he light-heartedly did last Saturday week, to expect to pay a surcharge. Whenever he spoke to the congregation here, which he often did, he spoke with an authority over his own life, and in the unerring language of the heart.

He seemed to well up with boundless love for all he met. He said, in effect, what Jack Davis wrote in the poem "Need":

I need a bouquet of words today
To bind my heart
in interplay
To strengthen my will
to grind to grist
to lighten the dark
and the shrouded mist
to remove the mask
unclench the fist
To better the world
for tomorrow

What was outstanding in the life of Dicko was his final fidelity – fidelity to the last and the least. It was always an unnegotiable fact that Dicko could never move away from the embattled streets of Redfern, because that is where his mates were, that’s what Koori means.

In the words of Kevin Gilbert:

In the ghetto streets of Redfern
prowls the battler on the dole
the Blacks still free come morning
who survived the night patrol
and paddywagon coffins
who only ply their trade
where politicians don’t count votes
police training grounds are made.

The one enduring greatness in the life of Johnnie Dickson is what he made of the pain and adversity. He seemed to say, again with Jack Davis:

If we were constantly to remind ourselves
of the unbelievable immensity
of the universe,
the intricate pattern of our being;
recognise the fragility of our intelligence listen to our own heart beat;
remember that crosses like our own are being borne by others.
that the cross of our very existence
is the birth of pain …

Then we will have mastered the art of living
and begun to remove
poverty from its pedestal,

When Pope John Paul visited Alice Springs on 29th November, 1986, he said to the Aboriginal people words that are particularly applicable to Dicko:

You have kept your sense of brotherhood. If you stay closely united, you are like a tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber. The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burned; but inside the tree sap is still flowing. and under the ground the roots are still strong. Like that tree you have endured the flames, and you still have the power to be reborn. The time for this rebirth is now.

And to quote Oodgeroo Noonuccal:

See plain the promise
Dark freedom lover!
Night’s nearly over
And though long the climb
New rights will greet us
And joy complete us
In our new dream time.

May black angels lead him into Paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome him on his way, and lead him into the holy city. Jerusalem. May the choir of black angels welcome him: and may he, with Lazarus who was once poor, have everlasting rest.

Ted Kennedy, 1995
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