The Challenge of Redfern

The challenge of Redfern would fill a book. The historical situation is that Fr Ted Kennedy sided with the Redfern Aborigines around Mum Shirl and became a close collaborator in her work. His genius was to privilege the excluded in such a way that they became friends. His deep and profound love of the Aborigines in Redfern and all their relatives around Australia was expressed in his extraordinary memory of names and places and where those names belonged. He could identify where each family was based geographically and knew members of visiting Aborigines’ families. This practical knowledge was matched with a keen theological insight and edge that came straight from a political reading of the gospel that left fellow travellers enthralled with its freshness and cultural critique. Ted had an eye for the angle that gave hope to the underdog and a passion to those who stood in solidarity with the underdog. Redfern parishioners – that strange, diverse and sometimes tortured group of all kinds, all colours and even various beliefs – somehow created a community that would have made Jesus proud.

The relationship between the Redfern parish and Indigenous people from far and wide has alluded many and is almost inaccessible to those from outside. Very few people who have had little experience of this Redfern genius could possible appreciate the complex way in which Indigenous people and Redfern Parish hold each other in respect through a sacred symbiosis. It defies any ordinary way of understanding mission because, like the gospel, it turns the idea of mission on its head. Like the Syro Phoenician woman teaching Jesus a thing or two about God’s expansive love, it was always the Aborigine who had something to teach at Redfern.

So it is not surprising to see some cultural shenanigans at Redfern with the arrival of the Neo-Catechumenal Way priests. They have little time for the inverted sense of mission that Redfern parishioners have lived and breathed for thirty years. They find it hard to appreciate inverse symbolic action as resistance and the Indigenous people’s rejection of their need to convert them to repentance for their drunkenness and rebel rousing The recent Redfern riots, as they are known, was an act of resistance to the terrible shrinking world of Aboriginal safety in Redfern. Like the Berrigans and other ploughshares people of the anti-Vietnam war days, the safe houses where "fugitives" from the law might find respite are almost gone as Aborigines live under the watchful gaze of our property protectors. Let’s not be fooled these are real problems and complex too – but it is clearly the property of the whites that is being protected while the blacks’ property is being raised to the ground and Aborigines are being rehoused “in the community”, away from Redfern, away from family and away from friends.

And what of Ted’s faithful band. They carry on. Not all at Redfern. Some battle scarred and needing a little time of retreat have found other digs for Sunday succour; others still are moving away from all church venues. And some still bravely march the fields of Redfern parish armed only with good humour, brave ritual, a meal for the homeless and helpless and a staunch belief in the God of the gospels they have heard so often

Ted is not well now – as a kind of symbol of the brokenness of the Redfern. But for us christians, brokenness is a phase of the paschal mystery which dawns in resurrection. There will be a phoenix rising from the ashes – of that we are sure in faith Just how and when is a matter of faith. While the battle is raging on the streets and in the parish, there is still a band of merry ones striking a blow for solidarity with the Christ in the blacks of Redfern.

Written for NCP publication, The Swag, May 2004.

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