Last year, an incredible movement called for #KidsOffNauru. Last weekend, it happened!
I grew up surrounded by religion and eagerly soaked it up. Not your average child's experience in Australia these days. To me, a personal faith came first and was followed by 'being a good person' and 'helping others'. Looking toward heaven was more important than God's will 'on earth as it is in heaven'. Like most young people, the world revolved around myself and politics seemed far away and unimportant.
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As I got older, I found that not everyone had the same chances in life as I did. My parents were very keen to expose my siblings and I to life beyond our farm and small community. We travelled, we researched, we gave money and sponsored children. Still, I did not make the explicit connection between social inequalities and my faith. Justice was justice and faith was faith.
In my high school years I wanted to become more 'religious' and spoke to my parish priest. To my surprise, he suggested working with St Vinnies, which we hoped to set up at my school. I got involved with setting up Vinnies and then combining the Vinnies and Amnesty group to form 'Passion for Action'. Even so, I acted out of a sense of Christian duty and did not meet many physically needy people face-to-face.
As the years passed, I remained committed to (various) faith communities, and also to service and justice. These parts of my life were associated, though the same people did not necessarily appear in both circles. I also had few real encounters and friendships with those I served.
This began to change when I met and started to join the Sisters of Mercy in 2007. I found a community that were deeply faithful and deeply committed to justice and service at the same time. It all had to do with mercy. God has been merciful to us, so we are called to be merciful to others. Mercy, I had thought, was something soppy and gentle, but not in the actions of these Sisters. Because they knew they were loved by God, they went out of their way to stand up for others in need. They became fearless in the face of enmity and corruption, championing the causes of those children of God given a bad deal in life. I saw that it was not always easy and cost not less than everything, but in the face of the one in need they saw the face of Christ.
I remember well the defining time for me when these two fields – faith and justice – came together in such a real way. It was in 2012, when I spent 3 months volunteering as a pastoral worker at a immigration detention centre. We had a particularly religious role, but in a field that was necessarily political. Suddenly I had the opportunity to listen to people everyday who were distraught, broken and yet generous and dignified. I became friends with people who wanted to serve me even as they cried for their own justice.
I continued to work with people who had sought safety in Australia from war and persecution, both in detention and in the community. I heard stories of whole families being killed, living in perpetual exile, torture and surviving bomb blasts. One man I remember put me to shame. He had been successful in his country, owning a business and employing people. But he had to flee and found himself in detention where he was not able to do anything practical, or to help his family. So he served those around him. He had good English and acted as interpreter and secretary, also organising activities and raising morale. He discovered that his empty time of purposelessness was actually a precious opportunity. He prayed more, he studied his scriptures and he found peace in what was a very stressful situation.
This quiet Muslim friend taught me a lot about contemplation and action. The two can go together and, indeed, strengthen each other. In my times of working directly with people seeking asylum, my prayers are much easier and more heartfelt. And those prayers lead to action. I was with some friends praying with Jeremiah 1:4-10 when I felt God calling me towards a new pathway. This was one of truth-telling, of standing up for those unable to raise their voices, of active and direct prayer. In December 2014, I joined a group of Christians who symbolically sat in the office of Jamie Briggs MP and prayed for the children in detention. We were joined by others around Australia and I was supported and encouraged by my bishop, church community, family and the Sisters. While not everyone understood our motivations, or why it seemed so important, they knew that I did not take the action lightly. It was an issue that compelled me, as a parent is compelled to save their child at risk. It was a glimpse into the action of God who sent his Son to save our world out of love. Our group was arrested for the action and had the chance to raise the issue once again of children in detention.
Unfortunately, the issue has not gone away. Children are still in detention in Australia and Nauru. There are still thousands of people who have sought safety on our shores who are promised no permanent solution. There are millions of displaced people worldwide who cannot find security or peace. Speaking up and acting for these people is not simply an act of Christian duty, it is not just a commitment to justice and human rights. It is both of these, but it is something more. We are compelled by God's undeserved mercy for us to respond in mercy to the practical needs of others. As Jesus shared in his parable of the ungrateful slave: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” Mat 18:33
By Sister Elizabeth Young