Redfern Reflections – Reality and Relationships

I have been attending Mass at St Vincent‘s Redfern pretty consistently since 1983. Through my involvement with TCFA (A national Catholic university association) I had meet Ted Kennedy and had contact with his church at Redfern. Since leaving uni, I had lived and taught in the outer urban wilderness of Green Valley and in the underdevelopment of Sri Lanka. Returning to Sydney sick, I went to live with my parents and began going to church at the parish in which I had grown up. Each Sunday I would walk out feeling angry and alienated. It was so neat and organised with its ministry for this and that but there didn’t seem to be a place where I could make sense of the multitude of questions that my contact with the violence, pain, inequality and resilience of the human experience had posed for me. My trying to make sense of the messiness of life didn’t belong in the neatness of this church. My discomfort continued until one day I remember clearly deciding as I walked out the door, that I would not come back because it just wasn’t good for me to be there. So from then on, I’ve become a Redfern Regular and gradually it has become a very important part of my life.


Back in 1983, the music was provided by Sister Ursula, with the help of one of her mates. Sister Ursula was over ninety at the time (or so it seemed). Her organ playing was uneven, to put it mildly. The Living Parish hymns would get slower and slower, when a rush of adrenaline would then have us catapulting through numerous stanzas. It always seemed that the poorer the job the congregation was making of the hymn, the more verses we would sing. I think it would be fair to say, that Sister Ursula and her sidekick would not have got a gig anywhere else, particularly in the parish from which I had just come but they symbolised what was special about Redfern. People contributed their talents and were valued just as they were. Later I discovered that Sister Ursula and her helper had both given decades of their lives to being with the poor of Redfern and I felt even more honoured to have known them.

Of course one couldn’t talk of Redfern without reference to Ted. His homilies challenged but didn’t anger, his message was of inclusion and of love. Ted has the gift of putting a twist on things in such a way that you come to see things differently. One of my favourite is his description of the gospel as a murder mystery, not a “who done it?” but a “why did they do it?” His constant reminder of the poor, what they have to give us and their centrality in the gospel message is both powerful and empowering. I love the Eucharist prayer that Ted often uses, particularly that line about “people who come unexpectedly into our lives’. That seems so aptly to describe the people who find themselves at St Vincent‘s. Regardless of their formal denomination I see them all as RCs, Redfern Chums.

In many ways, more impressive than what Ted said, was what he did. Although it is many years ago, I have vivid images of a wedding at Redfern. Ted was not officiating but part of the congregation, when a sad and near-hysterical crying began outside the church. It was Patty Newman a very fragile, damaged, aboriginal woman. I sat in the church feeling very annoyed with her for mucking up my friends” wedding and wanting to go out and keep her quiet. Ted went out, gave her a big hug and brought her back into the church were she sat happily cradled in his arms. I still had much to learn! Redfern seems to be at its best at Easter. The three main ceremonies with their distinctive themes and moods, provide the hooks for us, in a very real way to make sense of our own and the society’s sharing of bread, pain and joy. I’ve always referred to it as “doing the Trifecta”. Over the years there have been some moments in those ceremonies that have been very special. Christopher Lyon’s near total emersion in the foot washing bowls as a squirming two year old caused such hilarity that even the ever focused Ted was compelled to join in. The involvement of Glen and others in dramatic representations of the Good Friday message have linked us to a very deep sadness and sacredness. Uncooperative smoke and sparklers, stuck slides, music played at the wrong time, all little hick ups in Easter Saturday night liturgies of which I’ve had some responsibility but it’s all OK at Redfern. It’s the people not the performance, the effort not the effect that seems to really matter.

There have been times of political crisis, for example, the aftermath of the East Timor elections and the Tampa incident, when I have felt a deep heaviness of heart and alienation from mainstream society and its values. Coming to Redfern has been crucial for me in those times, in order to feel a connection with kindred spirits, both from a political and religious dimension. In one of Edmund Campion’s books I recently came across a quote by the poet, James McAuley, that states, “Why should you think because my bishop is a liar and a schemer that this somehow disproves the fact that Christ rose from the dead?” Without making any suggestion that the same could be said for any current holder of episcopal office, I know that Redfern parish does help me believe in the resurrection, because firstly it helps me annunciate and share in the crucifixion. Redfern is not a place – it is an ongoing experience. You carry it with you, but at times it grabs you, whether you want it to or not. On a very damp Tuesday, I had left work early in order to go to Mum Shirl’s funeral in the cathedral, dressed in appropriate professional/funeral garb. I met many of my front of church aboriginal friends on the train. They, with a bottle or two, greeted me warmly and made sure the whole carriage knew we were mates. When we got to St James station, my partly accidental separation from them was quickly ended as my mates ensured that I was found and didn’t have to enter the lofty portals of St Mary’s Cathedral alone. Funerals are an important part of Redfern and we have grieved together at the loss of vital members of the community like Dorothy, or their loved ones like Beth’s son Michael.

Beside the funerals there have been some great christenings. Everything from the beautifully, thoughtfully scripted with sensitive symbolism, music and booklet to the more spontaneous style where the family mayor may not turn up on the appointed day (perhaps responding to the influence of the Holy Spirit or spirits of some other kind). For a long timer like me, I look around the Church and feel a real connection with so many of these children and adolescents because I shared in their welcome into our community. (I would even be prepared to sign an appropriate stat dec. if ever there is some question of the whereabouts of their baptismal records or certificates.) Redfern has of course also been the setting for some great weddings and in the case of four couples that I can think off, played the Yvonne Allen introduction agency role itself. We know quite confidently, that for those couples married at Redfern, it wasn’t the length of the aisle, the “appealing” interior or the photo opportunities that attracted them. My mother came with me to one of those weddings at a time when the Church was looking at its best. Months later she asked politely whether the renovations were finished yet. (I think it was probably the floor coverings that she had in mind.) There was even a Sunday when the building itself asked for help. A sharp wooden slat from the roof landed next to the altar, not long after communion was completed.

My work and much of my network of friends and colleagues, is in a totally secular context, so Redfern is a part of my life that many of those people know nothing about. A number of years ago the 7.30 Report, with its great close up shots of me, did its best to change all that. I felt “outed” (don’t believe what they say about low ABC ratings) but it did lead to some interesting discussions…

During my times of absence from Redfern, largely through travel or illness, I have done my calculations with time zones and worked out that it is roughly 10 am, Sunday at Redfern – mass time. Even though I’m not there, I know people are gathering to share bread and stories and I’m somehow with them in spirit. When I was in hospital, at about that time on a Sunday, a kind soul from a local parish gave me the gift of a Catholic Weekly, but somehow reading it just didn’t provide quite the same experience. When I have been sick, the support from the Redfern community has been wonderful. My recent attempt to make some sense of my time of serious illness in writing has been deeply influenced by my years at Redfern and could only have come to completion because I had an encouraging community to write it for and trustingly share it with. Redfern is about continuity and the long haul but it is also illustrated by some special moments and images such as ­-

  • Watching two males, obviously in a relationship, smile openly at each other as they sang Peter Kearney’s line “Peaceful and joyful and gay’.
  • Being there when Eileen, the community matriarch, read the Eucharistic prayer.
  • Seeing the simple altar, the bearer of the Eucharist but also of pamphlets, petitions and plates of the best Passover Iamb you could ever eat.
  • Observing the inclusion of the slightly crazy and those that wander in and out whether they be human, canine or feathered.
  • Delighting in seeing Veronica Green sitting on the soft seat knowing that for her, with her cancerous bones, it was a triumph of her will over pain.
  • Sharing the sign of “piss” with Charitha
  • The visit of our Muslim friends with its spirit of friendship, new life but deep sorrow.
  • Listening to the sharing of news, protest rally dates and requests for help which naturally conclude the mass.
  • Relaxing with a serious coffee and an RC (Redfern Chum), whether it was the old Greek laminex tabled milk bar, the trendy Second Cup or more recently Cafe Cana.
  • Getting together at someone’s home for lunch, drinks or a book club meeting. At these times there has been a sharing of stories, hot cross buns or profound insights, just depending on the mood.

There are days like the birthday, book launch and anniversary parties for Ted, that have been absolutely wonderful. Full of vibrancy, warmth, new, close and long lost friends. The atmosphere and people, providing a reminder of the rich tapestry of life, its consecutiveness and the sheer joy of celebration. There are more normal Sundays, full of humour, reality and spontaneity. There are other days when the experience is very discordant or jarring, where the aching pain of an individual or group has been overwhelming and I’ve left the church feeling a deep sadness or frustration but somehow more in touch with what it is to be fully human. So for me Redfern is about relationships and reality. It’s about being real within those relationships and it’s about being in relationship with the real.

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