Lives that mattered

As we come up to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday this year, issues of race, discrimination and reconciliation are very much on the public agenda around the world.

Massive demonstrations have indicated the public in many countries has had enough of racism and is demanding change. These massive demonstrations would not have been occurred if there were not still deeply entrenched racist structures and attitudes. In Australia, the protests have centred on black deaths in custody, but the international theme is Black Lives Matter, and this has got me thinking about some of the black lives that have mattered to me.

The only famous name I will mention is Shirley Smith, “Mum Shirl” of Redfern. I met Shirley when she came with Fr Ted Kennedy to talk with my seminary class about what they and the Church were doing in Redfern. After 45 years or so, I don’t remember the details, but one of my classmates said or asked something stupid, and Ted went off into a genuine Irish-Australian rage. He left, threatening to come back with truckloads of Aboriginal people to occupy all the vacant rooms in the college.

Mum Shirl, by contrast, I remember as being strong and clear, but restrained and very old-fashioned-Catholic in approach to young men destined for priesthood. Later, Shirley was a presence in my first parish. She worshipped at Redfern, but one of her houses was in our parish. (Shirley was “Mum Shirl” because of all the “children” she looked after, all the kids she brought up and put through school.) Some of her kids were in the parish school and the First Communion class and so on. So, I knew her as a “parent” who, like any parent, was ever watchful that her children were not disadvantaged in any way, wanting them to have better education, better inclusion in everything, than she had experienced. So, this was the domestic Shirley, not the public figure, but still a force of nature: strong, wise, passionate but always commanding respect by giving respect. God knows how many lives she changed, how many lives she saved in her time.

By way of contrast, there was Nigel. Nigel was only about 15 when he popped up in one of my later parishes. He’d been told by police in his country town to get out and never come back. Anyway, why Nigel matters is that he was just such a good kid. When one of the parish staff died suddenly, Nigel, who had not known the man, received the message that his “back office” work had supported the Skillshare program of which Nigel was a part. So, Nigel decided he had to go to the funeral, out of gratitude. He was like that, but also smart and articulate and full of possibilities. One day he was telling me about his hometown and how powerful the Aboriginal kids were there. “You had to be in with them or you were in trouble,” he said. Now Nigel was a fair, blue-eyed, blond kid, so I asked, “How did you get on?”

“I am Aboriginal,” he said, looking at me as if I was the stupidest creature he’d met. I don’t know what became of Nigel. I helped him get out of town very quickly after he took up with the wrong guy’s girlfriend. Obviously, his life wasn’t going to be easy out there on his own. But his was a “black” life that really should have mattered.

And then there was Frank the Poet. Frank lived in a house on parish property. Informally he was the parish’s “poet-in-residence”, having his writing published, while formally he worked, especially with the Aboriginal people connected to the Education Centre and Skillshare and, occasionally, he talked to students from the Catholic high school about the Aboriginal experience in Australia. Now, Frank was a man educated in both cultures, so we could talk about all manner of things. If we happened to disagree, he had the quiet, wry, Aboriginal way of letting you know: “Oh, you think that, do you?” So, I was taken aback one day when Frank really blew up on a group of Year 9 students from the high school. Again, I don’t remember exactly what the problem was, but quiet, cool, wise Frank was shouting at kids that they were racists. It was a reminder of how deep, or how close to the surface, the hurts of black history are, even in people who seem to have really found their place in life.

Here, these few must stand for so many other. I’ve been privileged, through priesthood, to know so many Aboriginal people who have enriched my life one way or another. I hope I’ve learned a few things along the way. And I hope that, following this strange and troubled year, things truly will get better.

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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