Tag Archive: homelessness


I’ve been feeling a bit defeated of late, going through the motions but not feeling like there’s any progress or that anything changes. From the personal to the political the treatment of refugees in this country feels appalling. Going from yet another house inspection to today’s rally (Rally + Occupy for Manus: End the Siege, Bring Them Here) felt like “another thing”, an action that might not be progress, an action that might not make a difference… Difference is a funny thing. Because as I walked with these people, sat with with people, sang with these people… I realised they are heartbroken too. Evil was named and called out. It was planning meeting, protest, sing-in, sit-in… the message from the front is that we must take courage from one another. We sit with Manus… how does Manus sit with us? We are angry and we are hopeful. We are not alone and there is work to do.

This is our happening on our watch. Recurring rally’s are happening every Friday in solidarity with the Manus men. We are living through a time of extraordinary refugee and migrant crisis, Australia is 87 times the size of Jordan and they are playing host to 2.7 million displaced persons. Developing regions host 86% of refugees, globally 1 in 200 refugees is a child. This isn’t a thing that’s going away anytime soon. We need not to only be defending the basic human rights of these 600 on Manus but countless others. Build the world you want to live in and get amongst it.

#BringThemHere #LetThemStay

Too much

Dec 378

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A hollow grief, a hallow grief

We light candles in defiance of the darkness
raising our lights high to honour those voices silenced and stories untold
mine goes out.
A small enough gesture and mine is snuffed out before
it can transmit its’, however fragile, beacon of hope.
Discouraged, I lower my arm and my head but
a hand, bearing a lighter, comes into my view.
We each have that power – to share the light we have.
I had forgotten but this stranger reminds me:
the fellowship isn’t only with the Other but each other too.
Touched by grief, I don’t immediately move away following the vigil
a Chinese international student approaches to ask in broken English:
“Why do these people gather here this way?”
I try to explain but realise asylum “seeker” evokes Potteresque imagery
I let it lie – elusive to gain, as much to do with luck as skill,
glittering just out of reach… there are worse metaphors.
“You all show much courage”, she says.
“How’s that?” I ask.
“In China, this would never be allowed.”
What seems little enough… not nearly enough…
is to this person unthinkable
and I am confronted by my privilege to be here.
She moves off and a man joins me on the library lawn
“The powers you must overcome…
they would keep you from expanding.”
He lights a cigarette.
“They are going backwards, except,
it seemed backward even the first time”
he sighs looking around, “It is little enough”.
It is little enough.

Tonight on the anniversary of the “Regional Resettlement” initiative 55 vigils are taking place across Australia. It is little enough. It is something…

 

Messages from Manus

Timeline: Four years of abuse

19 July 2013: Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announces a new “Regional Resettlement Arrangement” with Papua New Guinea (PNG) so Australia can buy its way out of its ethical responsibilities. From this day forward anyone seeking protection and safety in Australia who arrive by boat will be forcibly transferred to PNG for processing and, if they are found to be refugees, be permanently settled there.
19 July 2013: The announcement causes distress amongst the people warehoused in detention in Nauru with peaceful protests escalating into violence.
3 August 2013: The Australian Government signs a new memorandum of understanding with Nauru similar to its Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea.
17 February 2014: 23-year-old Reza Berati is murdered, and over 60 others injured, some of them seriously, on Manus Island. Numerous witness reports state Reza Berati was attacked by a group of G4S staff and at least one local staff member employed by The Salvation Army. Several eyewitnesses reported that one attacker picked up a large rock and hit Reza Berati on the head with it several times.
5September 2014: Hamid Khazaei, who was only 24 years old dies from a sepsis infection three weeks after he cut his foot at the detention centre on Manus Island. Inadequate medical care and delayed medical evacuation were later reported to have let to to Mr Khazaei’s death.
26 September 2014: The Australian and Cambodian governments sign a deal under which people on Nauru who are found to be refugees are to be resettled in Cambodia.  This second deal again allows Australia to buy its way out of its ethical responsibilities.
18 November 2014: Then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announces that asylum seekers who have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Indonesia after 1 July 2014 will no longer be able to be resettled under Australia’s humanitarian program.
5 December 2014: bill passes both Houses providing the Immigration Minister with the power to detain people at sea (including outside Australia’s jurisdiction) and send them to other countries or vessels, even without the permission or knowledge of those countries.
20 March 2015: The report from independent review into allegations of sexual abuse on Nauru is released detailing reports of women being raped and allegations of children being sexually assaulted.
20 March 2015: A boat carrying 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers is intercepted by Australia. Its passengers are held at sea for nearly a month and undergo “enhanced screening” before being returned to Vietnam on 18 April.
28 May 2015: Thousands of men, women and children seeking protection are abandoned at sea in what is now known as the Andaman Sea ‘boat crisis’. Regional governments eventually agree to allow the boats to land but then Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s callous response to Australia offering safety is “nope, nope, nope”.
4 June 2015: Nine months after the $55 million Cambodia deal, four refugeesarrive in Phnom Penh from Nauru. All of these people subsequently choose to return to their countries of origin, despite the fact that all four were found to have well-founded fears of persecution.
1 July 2015: The Australian Border Force Act takes effect making it a crime punishable by two years’ imprisonment for medical professionals, educators and others contracted by the Australian Government to speak about what they see in offshore detention.
5 October 2015: The Nauruan Government announces that the Regional Processing Centre will operate under an open centre arrangement.
29 October 2015: Amnesty International Australia publishes a report revealing evidence that Australian officials paid boat crews to return peopleseeking asylum to Indonesia.
8 November 2015: Fazel Chegeni, an Iranian refugee detained in Christmas Island Detention Centre, is found dead after escaping the centre.
19 February 2016: Australia again rejects the standing offer from New Zealand to accept 150 people from Nauru or Manus Island, failing to provide sensible, durable solutions for the people trapped there.
21 February 2016: Baby Asha, a one-year old who was transferred along with her family from Nauru to Brisbane Lady Cilento Children’s hospital for medical treatment is released into community detention. This came after the doctors at the hospital refused to discharge Asha after the completion of her treatment, fearing she would be transferred back to Nauru.
23 March 2016: At the Ministerial Bali Process meeting a declaration was released (the Bali Declaration) which for the first time identified the need toprovide protection to refugees in the region.
15 April 2016: A refugee in Nauru is convicted of attempted suicide, which was recognised as a crime in Nauru at the time.
26 April 2016: PNG’s Supreme Court rules that the transfer and detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island is illegal.
26 April 2016: Omid Masoumali, a refugee living in Nauru for three years sets himself on fire. After more than 24 hours he is medically evacuated to Australia where he dies in a hospital in Brisbane on Friday 29 April 2016.
2 May 2016: A young Somali refugee living in Nauru sets herself on fire. She is later flown to Australia by air ambulance suffering burns to 70% of her body.
5 May 2016: A boat with 12 Sri Lankan people seeking asylum who were intercepted by Australian authorities earlier in the week are screened at sea before being returned to Sri Lanka. They were reportedly arrested on arrival at Colombo airport.
10 May 2016: The Federal Court rules the Government must provide a woman,raped on Nauru, access to a safe and legal termination.
July 2016: Amnesty International’s Senior Director for research visits Nauru where she finds a system of deliberate abuse hidden behind wall of secrecy.
10 August 2016: The Guardian releases the Nauru files – thousands of leaked incident reports from Nauru detail assaults, sexual abuse and child abuse.
19 September: UN Global Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York misses opportunity to find solutions to the global refugee crisis.
17 October 2016: In a new report Island of Despair’: Australia’s “processing” of refugees on Nauru Amnesty International find that the conditions to which refugees and people seeking asylum on Nauru are subjected amounts to torture.
30 October 2016: Immigration Minister Peter Dutton tries to introduce legislation to ensure anyone taken to Nauru and Manus and then resettled anywhere in the world, would never be able to come to Australia.
13 November 2016: The Government takes an extreme step in shirking responsibility byannouncing an agreement with the United States for some of the refugees in offshore detention to be settled in the US via a process administered by the UNHCR.
25 November 2016: Malaysia begins work on a pilot scheme to allow refugees from Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority to work in the country, which in turn reduces number of people forced to take dangerous journeys in search for a safe place to rebuild their lives.
24 December 2016: Faysal Ishak Ahmed collapses at the Manus detention centre. He dies on Christmas Eve.
31 December 2016: The Indonesian President issues a Presidential Decree for refugees which for the first time provides people seeking asylum and refugees in Indonesia with a more formal legal status.
14 April 2017: PNG Soldiers fire directly into the Manus Island detention centre putting lives at risk. 9 people are injured. No one is held accountable.  

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God, I trust You are holding all these chats and more. You encompass all that is possible beyond any limitations of my mind and imagination to dream of. “Prepare ye the way”… Who prepares for who? You are not a God of poverty and scarcity but love and abundance. The answer is in the story and the story is still unfolding.
I want to know how it ends.
Amen

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You can buy artworks by Abbas Al Aboudi here. Abbas does original works or can replicate your favourite photo… Below is a bit about Aboudi’s life and where this image came from. I asked for a copy of this, an image previously painted, because living through these times I wanted to capture something by asylum seekers for asylum seekers that speaks in their own voice to their own experience of these times. Also, because something of the image speaks to my own journey of starting to write/find my voice.

Painting a lifeline

Turning to art in desperation, he has discovered a way of processing the trauma and depression that threatened to engulf him. Exhibiting daring colour sense, he creates works that are fresh and haunting. One picture shows Aboudi′s handcuffed hands holding a pencil and references the humiliation he experienced while still a resident of the camp.

An Australian refugee advocate had sent him some painting supplies. When he went to pick them up from the parcel delivery centre, the camp guards would not let him back in with them. His pleas falling on deaf ears, Aboudi was at least able to secrete his supplies in a hiding place outside the camp. Later a sympathetic guard helped him smuggle them in. Others depict the despair and hopelessness which is the daily bread of asylum seekers on Nauru. Most of the refugees, including Al Aboudi, can’t return to their countries of origin for fear of persecution and Australia doesn’t allow any refugees into the country who arrived by boat post-July 2013. For many, the future looks bleak.

A glimmer of hope

Al Aboudi, who recently celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday in austere conditions, cracks a shy smile. About a month ago, he was asked by the contracting company that runs the Nauru detention centre whether he would like to be resettled in the United States. Three hours of thorough vetting and several weeks later and still no word.

All Abbas Al Aboudi can do is paint and hope.

My Art is My Saviour, Qantara.de, March 2017

Demonstrators in Australia held paintings by Alaboudi in August this year [2016] during nationwide protests urging the government to end offshore detention of refugees.

Alaboudi was heartened by this use of his canvases, which depict the conditions faced by refugees, such as a child behind bars and a portrait of Omid Masoumali, an Iranian who burnt himself alive on Nauru in May.

The Madness is Eating Us Alive, South China Morning Post, Oct 2016

 

 

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We come together today to walk the way of the Southern Cross, and visit seven sites from our shared history.  There is suffering in these events, and there are questions for us to grapple with.  We will hear the words of Christ on the cross, what might his words spoken in pain tell us?  We seek to participate in a process of learning, repentance and healing in our land.

We acknowledge that we gather today on the land of the Marabalak people of the Wurundjeri tribe of the Kulin Nations – people who have known the Creator Spirit, shared stories, and walked in this place since time immemorial – our elders past, present and future.

With the Creator Spirit
We walk the way of the Southern Cross
Under the Southern Cross
We hear again the words of Christ on the cross
With God deep among us
We seek healing and justice in our land

 

Site 1: A thirst for justice

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We are standing outside a house.  As every person has a story, so does every house.

This house was a house of comfort.
It belonged to a woman called Sally Russell Cooper. In the 1930s’s she opened its front door as a low-income boarding house and welcomed Aboriginal people to come and live with her. There were three bedrooms inside and a spare room out the back. Sally kept her front door open to her people until the 1970’s. For many Indigenous Australians, this house was, as Elders Larry Walsh and Reg Bow once said, “a refuge from loneliness and homelessness for more than 40 years.”

This house was a house of protest.
The 1930’s onwards were a time of momentum for Aboriginal people. During the Depression and the Second World War many Aboriginal people came to Melbourne seeking work. The growing political movement for Aboriginal rights also attracted people to Melbourne’s west. Sally’s father, William Cooper, was a significant local figure in the Aboriginal political movement fighting for basic civil rights. For many of the Aboriginal people who stayed in this house, there was hope of work at Kinnears Rope Factory and other factories nearby.  But the stronger hope was the hope of justice.

This house was a house of light.
Sally held lots of beautiful parties in this house. This was an important opportunity for Aboriginal people to socialise and support one another as society made it very difficult for Aboriginal people to gather together in groups.  This house was well loved as a safe gathering place.

Consider this house. The door. The windows.  The memory. Remember its story.

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Action
Choose a bushflower tube-stock from the basket, as an Indigenous version of the Hyssop plant, and take it home to a place of earth of your choice. Remember the story of the Aboriginal people in this country as you watch it grow.

 

Site 2: With and with each other

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328 family violence incidents were reported in Maribyrnong in 2013 rising to 974 in 2016 – that increase in incidents, nearly tripling, is largely due to more people speaking out.  We know that a woman is killed in Australia by her male partner or ex-partner nearly every week.  The most common myths are that violence against women is caused by alcohol and drugs, a man’s violent upbringing, living in poverty, anger management problems or mental health problems but for violence against women to become a thing of the past we need to change the causes: gender inequality and rigid gender stereotypes.

This sculpture is called With and With Each Other by artist Tom Bills and it feels like a fitting place to stand to think about equality.

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Action
Let’s take hands and Pass the Peace – exchanging these words:

Say: Peace be with you…
Answer: And also with you.

How can we be doing this amongst our family, friends and neighbours? We need to know what safe touch looks and feels like through education and role modelling.

In making a circle with our arms we are symbolically acknowledging the widening ripples of the impacts of family violence on individuals self esteem, self-worth, physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing… The impacts on individuals, families, neighbours and communities… As we release our hands the circle opens, representing our commitment to breaking the cycles of violence.

Let’s walk with someone new, someone you don’t know or someone you don’t see as often as we move to the next station.

 

Site 3: Finding a place to call home

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We are standing outside Foley House. This is a facility run by the Salvation Army that provides accommodation and support for 46 residents – all of whom have been homeless, and all of whom are living with a disability.

Finding a place to call home is one of our most basic needs. For our Aboriginal friends the trauma of being removed from their homes is still very real and present. For asylum seekers dislocation comes at great cost and much grief.

But homelessness does not discriminate – our social dysfunction makes it a real possibility for anyone. The loss or casualisation of a job, the breakdown of a family, the rent increase from a landlord, the need to flee violence in the home, the disintegration of health, the history of abuse or neglect that is relived on a daily basis, the self-medication through drugs or alcohol: these are all social realities that can thrust any of us into homelessness.

There were 762 people who were homeless in the electorate of Footscray on Census night in 2011. Things are getting worse: this figure is 29 per cent more than in 2006. Across Victoria, there are 22,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night.

Even this is just the tip of the iceberg. A skewed housing market benefits some greatly but places unbearable pressure on those at the bottom end. The injustice is often felt most strongly for those enduring the uncertainty of the private rental market. We live in a community where houses are seen as investments, rather than homes in which to live and thrive.

Action
Walk with a stone in your shoe as we move to our next location; as a reminder of the constant pain and anxiety faced by those who are struggling to find a place to call home. Are you facing this anxiety yourself? Give your stone to a friend to hold.

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Site 4: Room for all

Sometimes coming to Centrelink can feel like our own crucifixion; Our dependence on a system for which we detest; An experience of isolation and abandonment, judgements from ourselves and others about how we do and don’t fit in; About whether we are enough. A painful waiting that only allows you to survive – and gives no kind word, no compassion, and no understanding of who you really are.

Inequality and poverty in Australia are growing. There are now about 2.9 million people living in poverty, including 731,300 kids.  Centrelink will never be enough (not that that is new to anyone). It is like a well from which we draw water, and in Australia, it seems to be an increasing drought not only of money, but of healthy soil, and healthy people; people whose lives are rich in compassion, joy, generosity and the types of kindness that sows grace amongst the powers.

Today we remember that Christ became that spring when he called us into his family as he called John into his both spiritually and literally. He seeded in us the knowledge that we are duty bound to honour our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters in faith. To know that our own growth and ability to live is intrinsically caught up in family; a family that transcends bloodlines, a family that invites us to make bigger our sense of home, that calls us to dig our own wells.

Action
Place a dollar (provided) on the note at the foot of Centrelink:

For our debts and for their debts, we cannot pay.
Christ is enough.
Power remember Mercy;
Remember where we grow.
Remember those who hold us.
Remember those who raise us.
Remember those who crush us.
Woman here lives your son. Son here lives your mother.
Remember your way home. Remember Me.

 

Site 5: Seeking refuge and finding welcome

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Footscray is a community that generation after generation of migrant has made home. These days it is a multicultural hub with service providers such as the ASRC and community groups such as the Welcome West Wagon working alongside smaller community groups and individuals as well as movements such as Love Makes a Way to create welcome for people seeking asylum & refugees. People come to Australia with the hope of a better life but they are often left in limbo for many years.

A friend of ours, Maria, is an East Timorese woman who through a combination of civil war in her homeland, loss of family members and marriage breakdown has found herself stateless and alone with her young son in a foreign country. Under the terms of her temporary protection visa, she has limited work rights and little way to support herself and her son. She is reliant on friends and community agencies such as the Red Cross and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre for accommodation, legal advocacy and food. At the present time she’s been in limbo for over five years, with little idea of when a decision may be handed down by the minister for immigration. She may be granted permanent residency and begin the process of building a life here, or she may be forced to leave. She prays every day for a permanent home in Australia. She lives generously in our community household, lovingly raising her son and extending friendship and help to others.

We acknowledge the perseverance of those seeking asylum and the commitment of all those who go out of their way to create a sense of welcome to refugees and those seeking asylum.

Action
With this chalk we leave our mark and remember that in this multicultural neighbourhood, we are mixed together: rich and poor; Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Italian, Scottish, indigenous; students, workers and non-workers; believers, agnostics and atheists; children and adults of all ages. We acknowledge the tensions and divisions that often exist between us.

We celebrate the diversity we see around us, and how it reflects the beauty of God. We leave our symbol of welcome to be reminded that we are created for connection; for family, for friendship, for shared work, for love. We leave our mark to remember that we need each other and that we are stronger.

 

Site 6: There is a place for you

IMG_5096On a Friday night in November of 2016, three LGBT+ people were assaulted in Footscray after being chased by three men. Security did not step in to stop the attack, and the three LGBT+ had to wait for 25 minutes before deciding to walk to the police station because no patrol car showed up. When the victims reported that the assault was a hate-crime against transgender and queer people, those details were not included by police officers. Like so many others in history, the hatred against these people for their diversity was ignored. The identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people has been ignored and persecuted in Australia.

When I was attending church, I was also asked not to raise my own questions, my doubts, my insecurities and my suffering as a gay person of faith. I was told, in person, that I was broken, and that my capacity for love was corrupted. After an act of honesty, the leadership of the church wanted me to silently accept that I would only be embraced in that faith community if I lived by standards which violated my own conscience and divine design.

We reflect on Jesus’ words to remember that ignorance, fear, and pride often stand in the way of our choice to extend Godly hospitality to our LGBT+ neighbour. In our own lack of love we fail to love our neighbour as we would ourselves. We reflect on the ways that we have excluded and silenced our LGBT+ neighbours, like the authorities attempted to silence the gospel. We reflect on the way that LGBT+ have been forsaken, like Jesus himself was on the cross.

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Action
We now stand in silent prayer for 30 seconds to honour the suffering of LGBT+ people who were forsaken.

Together we pray aloud, ‘Help us, Lord of all, to no longer forsake our LGBT+ neighbour’.

Place the rainbow crucifix with a prayer on the wall of the police station as a sign of the visibility of LGBT+ suffering.

 

Site 7: Earth out of Balance

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We all rely on the earth and its natural systems for life itself.

Its resources sustain us and grow us, yet our actions and failure to be good custodians continues to push things out of balance.  Taking more than we need, prioritising short term gain over long term sustainable thinking – we are seeing mountains and rivers be given legal identity so that they can be given a voice to speak in their own best interests.

Human activity is altering the climate, changing rainfall patterns, reducing water availability, and increasing the frequency of severe weather events such as bushfires and storms such as cyclone Debbie and Cook, we acknowledge those yet rebuilding and recovering in the wake of these storms.

To emphasise this imbalance, sea levels are predicted to rise by at least 600mm by 2070… that’s within most of our lifetimes.  At projected levels, this change in sea level will widen the Maribyrnong River, flood lower lying areas, and begin to change the face of our locality. A sea level rise of just 1m would threaten the surrounding homes and businesses and displace thousands. It would flood all of the city’s major cargo shipping docks and surrounding cargo storage areas, many of which are in our neighbourhood.

The call to be “custodians of creation” is a critical one, which drags us from the crushing weight of a global disaster to a place of restoration, respect and gratitude.

Action
Look around for something that doesn’t belong in this place; perhaps some rubbish or some weeds. Carry it with you as we start to travel to the next site, until you find a spot better suited for your rubbish to be placed.

Reflect on the ways your actions may keep creation out of balance.

Consider your role as a custodian.

Plan some simple steps to begin the healing process.

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Photo credit: Maya Stark

Closure

Creator Spirit
Help us to uncover our hidden stories
Suffering God
Help our tears to flow for the pain
Reconciling Spirit
Heal our shame and our wounds, and call us into action.
Remember that justice is coming; God’s reign is coming

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Acknowledgements and Story

Aunty Doreen Wandin renamed Spencer St station to Southern Cross because they were able to see stars at the homestead in Coranderrk. Aunty Joy Wandin named Wurundjeri Way… We identify this constellation with “home”, and commit to the journey of finding and following the way home under these stars.

Uncle Wanta Jampijimpa has preached on the correlation of the stars of the Southern Cross to the wounds on Jesus’ body… We acknowledge the terrible and complex legacy of the church as colonisers in this place and give deep thanks for elders wisdom and grace in leading us to deeper truth and understanding the Creator Spirit who has always been here in this place.

Bill Wylie Kellerman, co-author of “Resistance and Public Liturgy”, role models and teaches us that liturgy implicates. Undertaking activism on high holidays gives layers of meaning to the action. He said: “We believe God has already intervened, breaking in to break out on behalf of human kind.  We recognise the authority of God [as bigger/beyond figureheads of power], we believe this is the meaning of the resurrection and we have come to say so”…  What does it mean for us – in this time, this place, this context – to be mindful of and respond well to matters of justice from a framework of hope as people of all faiths and none?

The Indigenous Hospitality House (IHH) community who shared their resource with us based on the work of Dr Norman Habel, the author of “Reconciliation: Searching for Australia’s Soul” which outlines the model for combining storytelling to action as a means for right relationship between people and with the land… We seek to participate in a process of learning, repentance and healing in our land.

 

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To explain: from the Latin ‘ex-planare’, to flatten, spread out, make level. A great bulldozer will push the mountains inside the abysses and everything will be become a luminous plain under midday sun.

To explicate: from the Latin ‘explicarte’, a verb derived from ‘plicare’ which means ‘to fold’. To explicate: To eliminate all folds where darkness abides; to spread the text out, so that light will illuminate the whole surface.

A good teacher is a luminous creature.  Whenever he gets darkness disappears.  He even carries candles in his pockets, which he lights whenever he finds a dark corner on his text: footnotes…

I became sure that I was no longer a good teacher when, instead of turning the lights on, I preferred to turn them off… and I feel sorry when the sun dispels it because my imagination together with elves and leprechauns, is deprived of the mist-eerie atmosphere without which it cannot breathe.

And I also love the darkness which abides inside the deep and lovely woods of Frost’s poetry, and the light which fractures through unquiet waters in Eliot’s poems, and the eerie atmosphere of the gothic cathedral, which reminds me of the entrails of the great fish inside the sea: a sunken cathedral… my whole Being reverberates, and I know that it belongs to the darkness of the woods, to the depth of the sea, to the mystery of the cathedral… If lights are turned on I am homeless…

I keep asking myself as to the reasons which led me astray and which force me to march in the opposite directions. But reasons I find none. Only suspicions…

I suspect that I do not want to decipher the mystery.  I want questions and not answers.  I want the sea and not the harbour.

p.8-9, The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet

N.B. this story contains offensive language and swear words


 

The streets of Melbourne speak.  Buskers busk, beggars beg and people hand out pieces of paper offering good deals on diamonds, discounted burgers or advocating for autonomy of Tibet – everyone has something to say. Mostly we veer round them, but not me.  I have started a new job working with a Christian community development organisation supporting the homeless in Melbourne CBD – these people out on the street are my neighbours, my friends, and I am going to help them and I will make a difference in their lives.

Speak Melbourne, I am listening.

I hop on the 57 tram at Collins St. As it is standing room only, I loiter near the rear door and sitting side-on to me is a man holding a bottle in a paper bag already quite drunk.  He looks old but probably isn’t. A face weathered by life’s experiences and dirt. He clears people to the other end of the tram by being, loudly, verbally offensive to everyone around us.

To the Indian couple opposite chatting softly, “Can’t you speak English? Speak English! F-ing come to our country, you can speak our f-ing language.”

To the Chinese woman beside him, “I can speak your language, sushi! Chopsticks! Kamakaze! Karate!”

To a young Middle Eastern girl, “You’re quite pretty… how much would it cost to buy you? That’s what you do where you come from, right?”

Everyone on the tram pretends to ignore him and looks away – whatever you do, don’t make eye contact with the crazy guy. I felt angry, and ashamed, worried that all these people might think that by staying silent we agree as I find I look away too.  Eventually, a young white guy halfway up the tram calls out, “Keep your peace mate, no one wants to hear what you have to say.”

Crazy Guy stands quickly, “You trying to be a f-ing hero? Showing off for your girlfriend?  None of your f-ing business.”

He has pulled a broken bottle out of his bag and is waving it threateningly. Collectively everyone on the tram holds their breath, still not sure where to look.  Eventually Crazy Guy sits back down again but the ‘hero’ turns to say something to the guy behind him and he’s up again throwing candles at him from his bag shouting, “Shut up! I’m going to burn your f-ing eyes out you c-!”

All of this over a surreal twenty minute ride. I arrive at my stop in North Melbourne and hop off, relieved, so very relieved, the Crazy Guy does not.  I have done nothing, said nothing, and feel upset and guilty.  “Aren’t I meant to know how to do this?”

I ask a colleague Gin the next day, “What I could have done differently?”

“What was his name?”

“Uh, I didn’t exactly introduce myself….” my tone quavering somewhere between sarcasm and incredulity.

“…next time, try and find out what his name is, it really helps to connect with people if you know their name.”

Oo0oO

 

Some weeks later I am hosting dinner at my place unwinding with others from work. The share house I’m in doesn’t have much of a backyard and we have improvised with fish and chips in the middle of the 5-way roundabout where Haines, Dryburgh and Shiel Sts intersect.  It’s a beautiful Melbourne summer evening and we jockey for the minimal shade offered by the three yet-young eucalypts as summer light fades into dusk.  We’ve been there a while when a man crosses the road to ask us, “You got anything to eat?” and we share what we have.

He hangs with us a bit under the darkening sky, asks if we’re Aboriginal, if we’re sitting here because the land is significant to us, and asks my friends Christop and Mehrin when they are getting married, “I can just tell…” though they were only dating then.

Gin asks “What’s your name?”

“Gordy.”

“Where are you staying?”

He points to the flats across the road.

Crazy Tram guy is my neighbour, and now I know his name.

I wait till Gordy leaves to tell the others the connection.  My workmates have been helping me process the experience I had on the tram and it’s almost hard to credit this could be the same person. Calm, softly spoken, clean-shaven, friendly, interesting and interested in who we are.

Gordy is my neighbour, and now I know his name.

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Oo0oO

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I go to the 10th Annual Homeless Memorial. Once a year a motley community gathers to remember those ‘streeties’ or ‘parkies’ who have passed away. You can get hot soup, a hot dog, and warm clothes are available to take away but it is about more than that. It offers an opportunity to reflect on those people with whom we create connections, those with whom we feel ‘at home’, regardless of any material shelter. We remember those who now, or have in the past, offered light or warmth to our lives. Voice is given to the pain of separation from parents, siblings, children, society. Voice is given to the pain of decisions that cannot be unmade, things which cannot be unsaid and knowledge that we cannot go back – only forward. A humble gratitude is offered to ‘the people from the organisations represented here’, supported with warm applause from the crowd in and around the marquee.

We sing. Songs we all know the words to, or hum, or make up. There are no song sheets. You  don’t have to have learned to read to belong here. Our hands are free to cradle lit candles and sprigs of rosemary.

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you don’t let show
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on


They say we stand for nothing and
There’s no way we ever could
Now we see everything that’s going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don’t have the means
To rise above and beat it
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change
It’s hard to beat the system
When we’re standing at a distance
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change


We hold a minute’s silence, and it is deep and rich and full.

There are names unspoken…tears unshed…and hope unlooked for. We only need to look around to know we are not alone in this grief. We only need to look around to have more than our hunger fed, our coldness clothed… instead we know the truth.

 

We are not strangers to one another as we thought when we arrived.

 

And a last a cappella chorus rings out…

 

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see

 

Oo0oO

Another pleasant Melbourne evening, my housemate Freya and I are walking her gentle dog Nala to the oval for a play. We have an Ultra Grip Ball Launcher and even with both of us humans to the one of her we know well who will get tired of the game first.

We meet up with Gordy as we cross the road, he is heading home as we head out: “What kind of dog is that? Bitch looks like a dingo.  I’ve killed two dogs with my bare hands, they were coming at me and I just grabbed their front legs and ripped ‘em apart.”

Once he’s gone I try and explain how I don’t think he’s a risk to our pet but I think I make a bad job of it and there’s heightened awareness and extra company on walks in the weeks that follow.  I know enough to know now that Gordy was pretty level tonight.  Eyes clear and cleaned up, he must be in a good place.  He’s just making conversation.  Speaking his truth.  Why do we think about what we need to do to protect our dog and not think about what happened to Gordy that he’s in a situation somehow where he’s defending himself, his life, with his bare hands?

I used to look for the right answers once.  Now I look for the right questions.

Oo0oO

A stranger stops my friend Lyn and I, as we are walking down Swanston Street, to ask an inane question.   She and I do lunch now and then to catch up since I dropped off the corporate ladder. I say something harsh and unkind about him once he leaves. Gormless.

My friend smiles and says, “Sometimes you are very Christian, and sometimes you are so not.”  My smile twists and becomes wry, “No. I’m a Christian all the time,” I say, “…sometimes I’m better at it than others.”

I used to think that helping the poor would make me holy somehow. But I am as holy, and as human, as I have ever been.  Riding that 57 tram home later that day, I see Gordy again. He stands up to let a lady sit down and, when other women get on board, chastises other guys into giving up their seats too.  He flirts with a few girls and makes general conversation, “Hot ain’t it? Where you goin’?”

He says hello to me and I reply “Hi, Gordy, how are you?”

Confused, he answers “I don’t know you, I don’t know you”

I explain about meeting a few times, a long time ago and far apart but he just repeats, again and again, “I don’t know you”.  I get off at the stop after ours, cut home through the park, following the path that winds back and forth instead of cutting across the grass directly like I usually would.  It’s slower. I hold Gordy in my mind. I hold scared Gordy in my mind and slowly make my way home, hoping he’s made it ok to his.

Oo0oO

 

[Five years later…]

I am making my way to Coles to pick up some ingredients for dinner on the way home from work when I see Gordy sitting on the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth St with the cutest puppy sleeping on a blanket at his feet.  My momentum carries me past before my brain catches up and my spirit stirs.  I hesitate, and go back.  “Hey Gordy, I’m just heading into the Coles here, have you eaten? Can I pick up anything for you or the puppy?”

He says, “Nothing for me” proudly, “but some biscuits for the puppy would be great.”

I head in and dither over what to buy: puppy vs. adult food, large dog vs. small dog food, how big a bag if Gordy has to carry it around vs not being generous.  I finally get clear and head to the corner and… I can’t see them… oh.

My mind starts running, Gordy had sort of flinched when I used his name.  He never remembers me.  Maybe he felt suspicious of my motives, paranoid?  I check all directions from the intersection, check out the tram stops hoping to catch sight of him.  Damn it.  I just spent $15 on dog food I don’t have a use for.  Should I leave it here at the corner in case he comes back?  Did I take too long?  Did he assume I wasn’t coming back? Sigh.  The reasons for stopping in the first place were right.  It doesn’t matter that he isn’t here.

But it does.

I am disappointed by the ‘squandered’ generosity that goes unappreciated.

Oh well, Ray and Ben’s dogs will have a litter of puppies soon – it will be used eventually…

I cross to Flinders St Station and wait on the platform for the train. Last I know he lived in North Melbourne – I’m heading to Footscray where I live now – same line so I’m still scanning the platforms hoping to catch sight of him. Nothing. No sign. I find an empty seat on the train when it pulls up and slump down in the keep-to-myself-don’t-talk-to-me mode I generally assume on public transport.  The train moves off, the doors at the back of the carriage open and I idly muse on what it is people are looking for when they move down through the train while it’s moving when there are free seats everywhere? As I stare blankly at the dark tunnel walls slipping past.  The group, two guys and a girl, sit down across the aisle from me, and… beside me.  One of them is Gordy.

I very casually say, “Oh, could you pass this over for me?’

I see the surprise. Surprise I see them? That I will talk to them? That I will recognise Gordy without his hand out?  That I actually came through with the dog biscuits? Gordy moves to sit next to me with the puppy so ‘he’ (the puppy) can thank me, he is soft and adorable.  We chat all the way to Footscray, one of his mates eats the Snickers I threw in. Gordy says “I’ll definitely remember you this time.” I have my doubts and sitting together, sharing together, it feels entirely unimportant.  Though I have hope.

I’m still not holy.  Gordy isn’t a hero in this story, nor am I. We’re pretty much still the people we were at the start.  Still living.  I have learned that I can’t wait on the world to change. I have to start with myself.  Our conversation falls into silence, and it is deep and rich and full.

I don’t need Gordy to remember my name; that might be too hard or asking too much.  What I want him to remember is being reached out to, the mutuality of our exchanges. Equal parts in the same whole… it humbles and humiliates me.  I hope he feels looked for, I hope he feels found – as I have been.

The streets of Melbourne speak.  Buskers busk, beggars beg and people hand out pieces of paper offering good deals on diamonds, discounted burgers or advocating for autonomy of Tibet – everyone has something to say. Mostly we veer round them, but not me.  I’m in a different job these days, these are still my neighbours though and my friends – I know better now.  We help each other sometimes and our lives are different, better, for the knowing of each other. Listen Melbourne, I am speaking…

“What’s your name?”

 

 

Talitha Fraser


 

I wrote this piece a short story entry for the inaugural Brotherhood of St Lawrence Hope Prize “to encourage writing that transcends stereotypes of ‘the poor’ and reflects the resilience we know that people show in the face of poverty and testing times”. I didn’t win or anything so I can share my piece here – the years that I worked with the homeless community (largely through Seeds and Urban Seed) in Melbourne were transformative and it feels good to have an opportunity/ excuse to reflect on and share some learnings from that time. Thanks to Katherine, Susan and Sally for handholding me through the writing and editing process – this is noticeably tighter than my usual work thanks to you!

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God our creator, provider, and carer,

You are the best and fairest;

We are committed to searching out and living the way that you want us to.

Help us not to worry about the future,

and to share what we have with others.

Forgive us when we destroy life

and teach us to create life instead.

Give us courage to choose to

forgive those who hurt us.

Be with us in our time of need

and help us not to give up.

Our safety and life is in you.

Amen