Sharing the Meal


An article from the South Sydney Herald, October 2004 by Jeremy Hartcher

A year and a half ago two women gathered in St Vincent’s church, in Redfern, to feed the hungry. They bought a chicken and a loaf of bread on their first morning and had one guest. Now they feed more than 200 people each week, free of charge. However, this service is under threat because funding from the Catholic Church was cut last month, forcing money to be raised on a week to week basis. Brother Michael Gravener helped establish what he calls ‘Sharing the Meal’, and is upset by the lack of notice and explanation given to his group. "It has become an important space for the disadvantaged, including many Aboriginal people in the area. They [the Catholic Church] supported us unreservedly when they pledged the money and now they’ve withdrawn it for no good reason. They didn’t even contact us to tell us the funding was being withdrawn," he said.

The group is mainly coordinated by Mary McMahon and Kate Gavan, who used their own money to get everything off the ground. The demand for food grew quickly so they sought outside funding. The Charitable Works Fund (CWF), which is a branch of the Catholic Church, granted them $200 a week. On recent advice of an unnamed Indigenous community mernber, the financial controller of the CWF, Michael Moore, decided to remove the funding around June 30 this year. The CWF did not notify the St. Vincent’s group directly but one justification suggested was that other services exist in the area to satisfy the needs of the needy people of Redfern. These alternative providers are the Salvation Army – who provide meals at $3 each – and St Vincent De Paul, who deliver food parcels to peoples’ homes, following an interview process.

Kate Gavan believes these services are inappropriate for the people she helps each week. "It’s ludicrous because our people, a lot of them haven’t got homes. There’s a lovely lady that comes here and she sleeps in a Moreton Bay Fig in Redfern Park. How the St Vincent De Paul come along and interview people like that I don’t know. I’m very sad about it all, particularly because we’re in the middle of winter", she said. The Vicar-General, Monsieur Brian Rayner, defended the Catholic Church’s position saying that the CWF gives more than enough money to such groups. "The charitable works fund gave out $292,000 last year to Catholic Aboriginal Ministry. We take advice from the Aboriginal Community as to what is appropriate to donate and it was considered inappropriate for us to continue that donation", he said.

‘Sharing the Meal’ also claims to offer more than just a free meal. Michael Gravener believes the service has developed a stronger sense of community for disadvantaged Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of Redfern and surrounding areas. "We provide meals for people, but this is also really a place to provide friendship and relationships with people, and it’s been a real hit. We provide a bit of fun and sharing and on Fridays Helen Reagan comes in and plays the guitar. It’s a really nice atmosphere and people just love coming," he said.

Since the funding was cut the organizers have had to turn to their own pockets and have appealed to Redfern locals to help keep it going. A local Jewish doctor contributed $1000 a few weeks ago, after hearing about the group’s plight, but even generous donations like these will not keep the group operating indefinitely.

As the morning meal finished up last Friday, twenty people, who were left in the church, sang along to an old Beatles tune. Someone tells a joke and boisterous laughter momentarily cuts into the music; the joy on peoples’ faces is clear to see and one of the regulars who benefit from the meals, Mark Christopher, put it simply. "Besides the great food, I’ve made some friends here which is nice. And it’s very pleasant and relaxing", he said.

The local clergy at St Vincent’s do not attend these sessions, except to open and close the church doors each day. Even the young, foreign seminarians – who used to join in and play music at the meal – have stopped coming. The founders would love to see the church administration more involved. The increased detachment of the priests is at odds with the church’s history, once led by Father Ted Kennedy, who tirelessly helped the poor for more than thirty years.

A steady source of funding is still needed to keep ‘Sharing the Meal’ alive but its founders are determined to keep it going, even if it means reaching deeper into their own pockets.

The CWF’s $200 a week contribution was re-instated in January 2005. While this welcome change of heart promises the ‘Sharing of the Meal’ a steady but modest stream of income for the time-being, it falls quite short of covering the cost of providing upwards of 200 meals a week for the steadily increasing number of people who attend.

Donations of cash or kind are always welcome.

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