Boat People


This morning I came face to face with an illegal immigrant, and I felt compelled to expostulate:

Rabbit kitten just was sittin
In the grass as I passed:
Ears were flappin, heart was tappin –
this the question that it asked:

‘Immigration made this nation.
Came in boats that scarcely float:
rabbit pest turned out best
at forcing owners to be donors.

‘These the dangers from the strangers
Stealing terra bloodbath terror,
seize the riches, spread diseases;
chalk it up as holy error.

So small rabbit, who inhabit
second-hand wide brown land?
Put the queries, hear the theories.
For shame who shake at all we take?’

Rabbit plague
Terra nullius?

Two Women and the Whole Armour of God


ST GEORGE’S ANGLICAN CHURCH, DUNSBOROUGH

SERMON 23 AUGUST, 2015

I’d like to introduce you to two women I’ve been spending a lot of time with lately. Two women who wore the whole armour of God in very different ways.

They are the Australian musician Dorothea Angus and the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Frenchwoman Jeanne Jugan.

I am researching both women and writing feature articles on each, hopefully to get them published in suitable magazines.

Dorothea was British-born but came to Adelaide with her parents when she was six just after World War I. She got a scholarship to study piano at the Elder Conservatorium, probably enrolling in 1928 alongside Miriam Hyde, who turned out to be a famous composer.

The classmates made a pact to swap their new compositions with each other every year; and they kept to this pact for decades. Dorothea made more than 250 broadcasts and recordings on the ABC, and many of them were pieces by Miriam Hyde.

Dorothea’s piano teacher, Brewster Jones, died, and her scholarship ended. Her new teacher was the noted organist John Horner. Under his tutelage, Dorothea fell in love with the organ, and in 1938 was giving recitals in Adelaide and Sydney and enthusiastically received as ‘Australia’s top organist’. But getting a job was harder.

St Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide, it seems somewhat reluctantly, eventually appointed Dorothea in 1936 as ‘Assistant to the Precentor.’

Now the organist at St Peter’s was J.M. Dunn who had been Cathedral organist since 1891 – a run of 45 years! The year Dorothea was appointed to the staff Mr Dunn died. His assistant Canon Horace Percy Finnis became the new organist. But this priest was also the Precentor and Bishop’s Vicar. It’s not hard to imagine the talented Dorothea, frequently, but anonymously, being called to the organ keyboard, or to lead choir practice, and for Canon Finnis to take all the credit.

Dorothea Angus 2_webIn any case, Dorothea’s mentor, John Horner, was on a visit to Perth, and heard that Perth College was looking for someone to play the organ for Chapel and to teach all the music in the school, and he persuaded the Principal, Sister Rosalie and Archbishop LeFanu that Dorothea was the right person for the job.

Dorothea arrived in 1938 and found the music at Perth College to be chaotic and was desperate to go back to Adelaide. Two things stopped her: the coming war, and a growing friendship with Sister Rosalie. This was a friendship of opposites: Dorothea was always stylishly and fashionably turned out, Sister Rosalie was an old-fashioned Anglican nun always in habit with veil and wimple.

Sister would often slip into the Studio late in the afternoon while Dorothea practised and sit quietly in a corner. The two women had big personalities and big ambitions. From my interactions with Dorothea, I imagine they talked about faith in an energetic and purposeful way. Dorothea was always a little prickly; always ready to take down an opponent in argument.

Later on in life, she was sick in hospital, and I visited her. As soon as she caught sight of my collar across the ward, she yelled, ‘I don’t want a stupid priest. I’m not dead.’ I enjoyed the banter. But it was sad that such a talented woman had put up such a defensive shell around her, an armour that was not really the armour of God, but armour that came from being so hurt by the church that she dared not let it happen again.

Jeanne Jugan also experienced being silenced by the church. Jeanne was born in 1801 in a small fishing village in Brittany. She nearly married in her twenties, but told her mother, ‘There is some work that God has for me to do that has not yet been revealed.’

In her forties, she was sharing a house with two other woman in the beginnings of a prayer community. One day Jeanne found an elderly blind woman and brought her back home. She carried her up the steep spiral stairs to their apartment and gave the old woman her bed. Jeanne slept in the attic. She had discovered the work she was called to do: in community care for the elderly who would otherwise be on their own.

To support this ministry, Jeanne took a basket and began walking and begging money for her elderly people. People responded to Jeanne’s request by giving generously. The work grew. In only three or four years, they had opened several houses around Brittany. Women were being attracted to be part of this ministry.

The three founding women were working out a Rule of Life for their little community. A shiny new parish priest Auguste le Pailleur arrived in their village. He became spiritual director to the other two women. When the Rule of Life, which was partly a Constitution, was put into action, there was an election for Superior. Jeanne Jugan was elected without question. She was in everyone’s mind the one who had started this work.

Father le Pailleur used his authority as parish priest and deposed her, and put Marie, one of the other women, in her place. He then had himself declared as sole Founder of the Order.

The Sisters acquired a large property for their motherhouse where they could train the large number of young women coming to join. The property was called La Tour. Le Pailleur decreed that Jeanne would no longer go about begging for the order, but would live at La Tour-St Joseph among the postulants and novices, with no rank or recognition. Jeanne stayed there until her death 27 years later.

When they had completed their Chapel, the Bishop came and they had a large celebration. After the Mass, the Bishop sat with all the Sisters around him in a large circle. He spoke. Then Father Le Pailleur spoke. He talked about their beginnings. He mentioned all the founding Sisters by name, one by one, all except Jeanne. It was as if she wasn’t there, and had never been there.

Only once in that 27 years was there any official recognition of her presence. The Sisters had been given the chance to earn rent from one of their properties. A rich benefactor had warned them that they really needed to make up their mind about this because their identity depended on it. The Sisters were divided. Some argued that the rents were God’s way of making sure they were provided for. Others believed that if they came to rely on rents they would forget that they were dependent every day on God.

Someone remembered Jeanne Jugan in the novice house. They called her to the meeting, even though she wasn’t formally part of the council; she hadn’t even formally been professed as a full member of her own Order. They gave Jeanne the casting vote, and her signature appears on that one document. Significantly Father le Pailleur’s signature is not on that document.

Then Jeanne returned to the novice house. Those who remembered Jeanne afterwards remember an old tall peasant women with piercing blue eyes. They remember how joyful she was. They remembered how she joined in their work and their recreation. They remembered the advice she gave them about being ‘little’: if they were going to be of real help to the old people in their care, they had to be genuinely little with the little people, not be ladies condescending to do good.

In her forced retirement, being pushed away into the ranks of the least important members of the Order, Jeanne discovered how to put on the whole armour of God. She refused to be bitter, as most of us would be tempted to. Instead, she went into that silence, that withdrawal, to find God, to find joy. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she discovered she was actually in a position to pass on her values to every new member of the Order as they came through the Novice house.

She died on St Joseph’s Day 1879, which was also Father le Pailleur’s feast day, so there was no announcement of her death. The next day, Father le Pailleur sent out a circular letter to all the houses of the Little Sisters of the Poor, thanking them for their good wishes and congratulations on his feast day. There was no mention of the death of the Founder of the Order.

The story does end well. The villain of the piece, Auguste le Pailleur, was eventually removed from his position as Superior and sent to a convent in Rome for the rest of his days. One wonders whether he found the same joy in his forced confinement as Jeanne had in hers.

Jeanne was recognised by 1902 as the Founder and first Sister of the Order. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and Pope Benedict made her a Saint in 2009.

You and I are unlikely to be beatified and canonised. We are the wrong denomination, for a start. But Jeanne Jugan reminds us to use the whole armour of God not as a defence against the world, but as a way of turning the world’s attacks into new opportunities for being close to God.

Sticks and Stones: Adam Goodes and Australian Racism


First published on Starts at Sixty website, August 12, 2015.

I’ve never told anybody this story before. 

61 years ago on the veranda of the Infants’ Class Room at Tambellup School, I called Valma Eades ‘a black boong’. I remember the year precisely because the Infants’ (Year I) Room was separate from the rest of the school, and I sought out Valma on the veranda. This veranda was up two steps from a bitumen path. I was a skinny five-year-old white boy, and Valma must have been seven. She loomed over me.

But where on earth did I find the expression ‘black boong’? It was not a term that our family used. I think I had heard the town kids whispering it, and I wondered what the reaction would be if I used it directly on an Aboriginal person, so one play-time, I sought out Valma Eades and  I called her ‘a black boong’. Her reaction was instant and strong. Her fist landed under my jaw and lifted me off the veranda into the air. I landed on my back on the bitumen path.

In that instant of painful encounter first with Valma’s fist and then the hard bitumen path, I learned that Valma was right and I was wrong. Even though I was only five, I learned that it was wrong to use racist names against Aboriginal people. Even though issues between children should not be resolved through violence, in this case, Valma was right to give me a swift, sharp lesson.

You see, I lived on a 4,000 acre (2,000 hectare) family farm that until 100 years before had been the summer range of Valma’s great-grand-parents and their family group. On our farm was a freshwater lake that we called Lake Toolbrunup. Each year for forty, maybe fifty thousand years until just the end of the 19th Century, large groups of Noongar people had gathered at Lake Toolbrunup at the end of summer to enjoy its water,the freshwater crayfish they called ‘gilgies’ and cool shade. Now it supported our sheep.

How this farm had come into the possession of our family, and the white people from whom we had bought it, neither Valma and I had any idea.

Valma, on the other hand, lived with her parents and brothers and sisters  in a canvas tent, 6 foot by 4 foot, on a reservation on the edge of town. A trough at the end of the line of tents boasted one cold water tap between two tents. Their only heating in the bitter Tambelllup winters was an outdoor wood fire. To keep warm, kids burrowed into the sand near the fire. Valma’s mother cooked over this fire.

There were Aboriginal children at the Tambellup school who camped with their families on our farm, as on other farms. They lived in tents and brush shelters. Their diet was kangaroo, sheep and damper. We knew, vaguely as six-year-olds, that the feared Mister A.O. Neville, Protector of Aborigines, had prescribed the places where Aboriginal families could live and who they could live with.

However this exchange of land had taken place, Valma and I were brushed with this history. There was unfathomable sorry business between us. And this history was, and is still, inscribed on every Australian girl and boy. None of us can escape the fact that we live in the shadow of a gigantic land swap.

White Australians booing Adam Goodes is always wrong, just as calling Valma Eades ‘a black boong’ was always wrong. And if Adam Goodes is strong enough to stand up and fight back, it hurts, just as Valma Eades’  uppercut hurt. So it should.

What’s a Protestor Worth?


How Much is Protestor Worth?

Published on Starts at Sixty January 14, 2014

At the end of June 1971, I found myself in ward 52 of Royal Melbourne Hospital, prescribed complete bed rest and given heavy duty drugs to help my back pain. At the same time, the Moratorium Movement was planning its third march to protest against the Vietnam War. My hospital regime allowed visitors for an hour a day, between 7 and 8 p.m. Several of my fellow-theological students were involved in the Moratorium and were keen to recruit me. It was my first opportunity to march: I had been in country WA for the previous two marches and had not been required to make a decision.

‘We could put you in a wheelchair and push you down Swanston Street,’ my friends said, as though it was a student lark. But it was far more serious than that.  I was torn, but in the end, when June 30 came around, I was too unwell to participate. At 7 p.m. that night I saw the black and white images on TV and heard my friends’ first-hand reports of the 100,000 citizens who marched to the Shrine on St Kilda Road.

Melbourne Moratorium (courtesy ABC)

In the late 60s and on into the 70s many people, particularly those of us who were students, had to decide whether or not to take part in protests. These were not easy or automatic decisions. We saw people arrested and locked up at protests and knew prison was a possible consequence of civil disobedience. We heard of students in Queensland being jailed simply for gathering. ‘Don’t bother applying for a march permit,’ premier Bjelke-Peterson told potential protestors, ‘You won’t get one. That’s government policy now!’

We read about Martin Luther King Jr and his time in Birmingham City Jail in 1963. Founder of the Plowshares Movement, Catholic priest Dan Berrigan, who had been a leader in the anti-Vietnam war movement went to jail for trespass on and damage to the General Electric nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania.

Mrs Bessie Riscbieth OBE, JP

A prototypical West Australian protestor was elegant and wealthy Mrs Bessie Rischbieth J.P., O.B.E. Mrs Rischbieth, a theosophist and feminist, was  a grande dame from upmarket Peppermint Grove. I remember her in 1966 aged 89 wading into the Swan River in front of the bulldozers as her attempt to prevent the filling in of the river for the building of the Narrows Bridge. While she did not succeed there, her direct action earlier stopped the construction of a swimming pool in Kings Park. In court Mrs Rischbieth was haughtily defiant, but paid her fines. I don’t recall if she was ever sentenced to prison. it’s unlikely.  No judge in small town Perth would have risked the fuss!

I learned two things from these protest movements: protestors should expect the normal consequences for their illegal actions. Just because their protests are morally right does not excuse them from the normal legal accountabilities. In fact, doing time is a way of demonstrating moral seriousness. Secondly, protestors need to be part of an organisation, people who can keep them honest, protect them in ugly situations and support them through the processes of court and prison. Solo protestors are extremely vulnerable to early burnout.

I am encouraged by the new round of protests this century, including by groups working to protect the environment. Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace clearly know the history of the anti-Vietnam War and anti-nuclear protests, and like Bessie Rischbieth and Old Testament prophets, take symbolic actions in the very places where the environment is at risk.

We are poorly served by some of the correspondents writing reports of Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace. They seem ignorant of the history of protest. They seem to believe that the protestors think they should be above the law. For the ‘Arctic 30’ (those detained by Russia for their protests against the Gazpron oilrig), the media have been strident in condemning Russia for their over-reaction, but they have not praised the protestors for the legal risks they ran. They have not even appraised their moral stance. The end result is that they denigrate the moral seriousness of the protestors.

Greenpeace provide strong support to those detained and to their families publicly and it would seem privately, but parts of the media don’t get the process.

I’d like those reporters to read about Bessie Rischbieth, about the Berrigan brothers, Martin Luther King Jr, the Palm Sunday marches, Harvey Milk, all the heroes who have made ours a freer society. Maybe then they could more accurately evaluate the efforts of those who put their lives on the line today to make the world a better and safer place.

Novel Readings of Australian Men’s Emotions


 

I’ve been reading two new and extraordinary Australian novels: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Tom Keneally’s Shame and the Captives. Both deal with the Second World War.

My brother and I were born just after the War. He remarked recently how much the men we had grown up with had been marked by that war. We grew up on a farm, and we saw farmers who spent their time drinking not farming; our nearest neighbours lived with their grandparents, but they turned out to be paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather who shared their house. On a remote farm, one farmer loyally cared for ‘Mad Jack’. Today this eccentric would be recognised as an untreated sufferer of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The novels by Flanagan and Keneally take us to events that damaged many Australian men: the Burma railway and the Cowra break-out.  Both novels, though explicitly fiction, describe the events fully, but exploit what novels do best: they humanise the characters. Both novelists are unusually ambitious. Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans is a doctor who ends up as Officer Commanding the prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. This is dangerous ground. Australians have made ‘Weary’ Dunlop into a hero and this character is too like the legend of ‘Weary’. But Dorrie Evans believes he is no hero. He is a man just managing to hold himself together in the extreme conditions.

Flanagan shifts the time backwards and forwards between the doctor’s pre-war infatuation with his uncle’s young wife, and his serial womanising after the war. His one real act of heroism may be some years after the war when he saves his society wife and children from a Tasmania bushfire.  But on his death-bed, he has a kind of vision of his heroism on the railway. He remembers when the Japanese guards force him to select 200 men to march to another camp. The men are sick and dying, and he must make selections knowing that he is sending the men to a certain death, others he is saving. Yet he moves through the parade, putting his hand affectionately on the shoulder and naming each man chosen. He gets up early next morning, feeling the heavy responsibility for his choices. In his dream, each man comes up to him, shakes his hand or salutes him with a cheery ‘Thank you, Sir,’ or ‘All the best to you.’ Somehow the little he does, even the mistakes he makes, are seen as heroism, and Flanagan shows us how hollow he feels, almost as though he is a fake, or has been mistaken for someone else.

I was gripped by Flanagan’s depiction of loyalty between ordinary men. Just trying to stay alive in a hellish world, they both helped each other and sometimes failed to help each other. The profound cruelty inflicted on these men created something of beauty, a tiny bloom in the dark jungle. We all know and feel the barrier to giving this bond of mateship its real name. Flanagan dares once in the novel to call it love. The novel also acknowledges how the hardships also ravaged Australian men in ways that their children who are Flanagan’s generation – my generation – are only beginning to understand.

For Richard Flanagan, behind unexpressed emotions the laconic Australian male hides a vulnerability, and many are not only vulnerable but fragile too.

 

Our emotions are unexplored territory, and Tom Keneally, from an earlier generation, knows that our lack of familiarity with the world of emotions makes it difficult for us to explore the emotional lives of others. The Italians and the Japanese in the POW camp at Gawell, the fictional palimpsest for the real Cowra, provide Keneally with contrasting case studies.

I was surprised to learn that most of the detainees were not internees but were prisoners of war. The Italians and the Japanese were kept in separate compounds and had very different attitudes to being captured: the Italians were on the whole relieved. Their allegiance to Mussolini was not deep, and in any case Italy was about to fall to the allies. The Japanese seethed with resentment both towards themselves and their captors. Their ambition as warriors had been to kill or be killed in the service of the Emperor. To be so weak as to be captured was shameful, and they bore their shame with difficulty.

The Japanese despised the Australians for looking after the camp according to the Geneva Convention. This compassion was weakness. They refused to cooperate and found little ways to make life difficult for their captors.

The Italians by contrast were happy to work on Australian farms, to attend Mass with Australian families and to reach out for human contact. We follow Giancarlo, or “Johnny”, the work-release prisoner on the farm of a widower and his daughter-in-law. An affair develops between the two, leading to confusion in the novel’s climax when Tengan is re-captured on their farm after the “break-out”.

Keneally shows us the emotional deafness of career Colonel Abecare and his subordinate Major Suttor, whose main interest was writing a popular radio serial, both to their own feelings and to the cultural-based emotions of their prisoners. The shame of Japanese warrior Tengan and his hatred for his enemy is well-drawn. On the other hand, the contempt of the Koreans for their Japanese superiors is hidden from the Australians. They saw the warrior mentality and loyalty to the Emperor as dangerous and meaningless.

The killings and suicides in the break-out shock the Australians who are not prepared for such extreme expression of emotion. Abecare, the old English soldier, is slaughtered, and the Australians are left to muddle through. And the novelist continues to hint at a kind of cultural autism, an inability in Australian men to read the emotions of others, because they cannot read or articulate their own.

My brother is right. We accepted that generation of damaged men just as eccentrics. It has taken a life-time to begin to understand their impact on us and to learn to love and hate, and fear and enjoy, to be angry and disgusted, and to know that these emotions are the essence of life.

Christmas in a broken land


Those were the days when the heat’s fitful haze
turned the blue distant ranges to grey oceans,
and the sun’s morning light in spindling beacons bright
shone yolk yellow and all was stilled motion.

The bricks held their heat, shamed by defeat
they could no longer supply cool shelter;
Children ran slow and heard a bleak crow
caw listlessly over carrion with no one to tell it to

celebrate the arrival of God’s survival –
a new child in the bush down under:
not a plaster saint with blue robes faint,
but a battler, a beauty, God’s wonder.

Not a victory march through a triumphal arch,
but a nail-biter, to get there God’s struggling.
In today’s Australia, God appears a failure,
but God hangs on, power in long-suffering.

Maybe that’s why in the hot and the dry
we remember as kids God’s birthing;
nothing fancy or fussy, just a cowshed and mussy –
God’s total commitment to earthing.

–          Ted Witham, Advent 2013

I am sorry – Podcast for National Sorry Day


Image from the web site of the Pinjarra Massacre Site

Podcast for National Sorry Day

National Sorry Day will be marked on May 26. Some small thoughts to listen to are here.

Information about National Sorry Day is at http://www.nsdc.org.au/.

My review of Cavan Brown’s book on John Gribble is at https://thoughtsprovocateurs.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/rugged-and-painful-past/.

The story of the Pinjarra Massacre is told at http://www.pinjarramassacresite.com/.

PS: A written version of the podcast is on the web-site of the Anglican Parish of Dunsborough. Go to http://dunsboroughchurch.com.au/ and click on the brown folder marked “BLOGGING”.