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NAIDOC Week homily

Frank Brennan |  02 July 2017

NAIDOC Sunday, Reconciliation Church, La Perouse, 2 July 2017

The National Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) invites us to commence NAIDOC Week 2017 with a Eucharist focused on the theme, 'Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me'. NATSICC tell us that this theme from today's gospel 'resonates strongly with our people' and that 'it is a reminder to keep an open mind and heart to not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but to all who are marginalised including refugees, the disabled and impoverished.' We come this NAIDOC week remembering the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, and the 25th anniversary of the High Court's Mabo decision.

Kelly has welcomed us to country. Brock Tutt on the didgeridoo has led us into church on this crisp clear winter morning at La Perouse braving the elements, bare chested, and sounding the call to worship. Kim Hill has commissioned me to lead the prayers, placing the stole upon me in your name. John Allen our acolyte has welcomed us, blending the waters from various places of significance in our land, together with the blessed water from Lourdes.

John's description of the waters reminds me of the first meeting of the Aborigines on Stradbroke Island with Matthew Flinders and his fellow sailors. There is a plaque on the Straddie coastline at Timbin-ba commemorating that first recorded meeting between Aborigines and whites on the island. Matthew Flinders was sailing past in 1803. He and his sailors were short of water. The Aboriginal traditional owners not only invited them ashore. They joyfully showed them where to find fresh water and farewelled them on their way. Water has always been a sign of blessing for us; it has long been the balm of reconciliation. May today's water blessing sustain us all as we try to close the gap having said 'Sorry' and wondering how best to move forward, together.

Forty years after Flinders came ashore on Straddie, the Passionist Fathers came to the island and established the first Catholic Mission amongst Aborigines. Twenty years after that, the David McIver, a migrant ship, arrived in Hervey Bay just to the north carrying 404 immigrants, there having been only one death at sea but also 9 births on the 107-day voyage from Liverpool in England. My great great grandmother Annie Doyle was on board with her five children, including my great grandfather Martin. Annie was an Irish widow. I suspect she was unable to stay on her farmland in Kilkenny once her husband died. And under the law as it was, there was no way she could have inherited any land. She had to look further afield. Except for the US Civil War, I daresay she would have headed for somewhere like Boston where many indigent Irish had previously gone following the Great Famine seeking a new life. It must have been a very bold decision to set out for the other side of the world alone, and with five children in tow. No doubt, the availability of land grants in the new colony of Queensland would have been an incentive for going all that extra distance.

Hervey Bay is a very expansive but shallow bay sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by the majestic Fraser Island. On 6 July 1863, the crew of the David McIver spent the day searching for a channel until it was anchored in 4 fathoms of water. Some of the crew then got into a small boat and made for the shore at Urangan. They came ashore and found two Aborigines. I presume they were males. Those two Aboriginal men then without protest accompanied the crew in the boat and showed them the way to Captain Jeffrey's Admiralty Survey Camp. The David McIver was only the second migrant ship ever to come into Hervey Bay and here were two Aborigines happy to extend a helping hand to complete strangers who must have looked very strange indeed. One Aboriginal was then commissioned to send word to Maryborough 40 kilometres away. That Aboriginal walked and ran all through the night to bring word of these new arrivals. A pilot was then dispatched. Within 2 days, a steamer named Queensland arrived, towed the David McIver to White Cliff on Fraser Island, and then received the disembarking passengers to transport them up the Mary River to the port of Maryborough where they arrived on 9 July 1863. I know nothing more about those Aborigines who played their part in the safe arrival and settlement of my forebears. I happily acknowledge my family's debt to them even 154 years later. I recall those words of Jesus in today's gospel: 'Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me'.

Thinking about water, journeying, and welcoming on this 25th anniversary of the High Court's Mabo decision, I also call to mind the late Fr David Passi who passed away very recently. After the Mabo decision I travelled to the Torres Strait and met David Passi together with James Rice, the two successful litigants in the case. When we were returning by boat to the mainland from the island of Mer in the Murray Islands, the waters of the Torres Strait were exceedingly calm. As the sun glistened on the water, Father David Passi, the Anglican pastor of Mer, stood at the back of the speed boat pointing at a small island close to the shore, declaring, 'That's Possession Island.' David smiled broadly as he explained this was the place where James Cook came ashore after his epic voyage up the Australian eastern coastline in 1770, raising his King's flag and claiming possession in His Majesty's name of all he had sailed passed. David chuckled, 'Cook had his back to the Torres Strait when he claimed possession.'

Next day at Bamaga on the tip of Cape York, David explained the significance of the Mabo decision to a meeting of his fellow Anglican clergy. His people believe that in ancient times a figure named Malo set down the law for relations between islanders regarding their lands and waters. All islanders speak of the myth of Malo-Bomai. Malo and his maternal uncle made a long sea journey from West New Guinea across to Mer in the east. These mythical heroes, with Malo resembling an octopus, brought the eight peoples or clans into one, 'strengthening them with the qualities of a diversity of sea creatures, so giving the power to match the sea and make long journeys across Malo, the deep seas, for canoes and for battle.' In this part of Australia, the indigenous people define themselves in relation to land, sea, each other and seasonal time or prevailing wind. Fr Passi, known also as Kebi Bala, explained Malo's law:

For thousands of years we have owned the land and Malo who was the Meriam centre of it made sure that members of the society were given land. They are our laws. We have Malo ra Gelar. It says that Malo keeps to his own place; Malo does not trespass in another man's property. Malo keeps his hands to himself. He does not touch what is not his. He does not permit his feet to carry him towards other men's property. His hands are not grasping. He holds them back. He does not wander from his path. He walks on tip-toe, silent and careful, leaving no signs to tell that this is the way he took.

Fr David explained that since colonisation there have been two laws, 'the white man's law and Malo's law'. Holding up one of his arms, Fr David us that Malo's law is respectful of people's history and connection with the land. But it is a weak law. Holding up his other arm, he told us that the white man's law is strong. It believes might is right. Bringing both arms together, he told us that those who believe in Malo's law have to convince those who practise the white man's law that Malo's law is right. Might alone is not right. Together the two laws can make the right moral law strong and enduring for everyone.

The Mabo decision provided an historic opportunity to put right those wrongs of the past which could be put right and to acknowledge those wrongs which forever stained our nation's identity. This was done without any threat to any other person's land rights or legitimate economic interests. The decision provided a unique opportunity for a negotiated settlement of the nation's longstanding land rights question with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders being at the government's negotiating table.

Just prior to the Mabo and constitutional referendum anniversaries this year, 250 of your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives gathered at Uluru in the centre of Australia to consider how you might best be recognised in the Australian Constitution which does not even mention you nor the history of your ancestors. They issued a statement from the heart at Uluru telling us all that your sovereignty is 'a spiritual notion'. They told us:

[The] ancestral tie between the land, or 'mother nature', and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.

I was curious about this statement because I knew that not many of your mob nowadays use terms like 'therefrom', 'thereto' and 'thither'. On inquiry, I found that this statement is an adapted quote from the submission put by Mr Bayona-Ba-Meya, Senior President of the Supreme Court of Zaire, who appeared on behalf of the Republic of Zaire in the International Court of Justice in 1975 dismissing 'the materialistic concept of terra nullius' substituting 'a spiritual notion'. Judge Fouad Ammoun, the Lebanese Vice-President of the International Court, quoted the submission in his judgment in the Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara. This part of Judge Ammoun's opinion was then quoted by a couple of the judges in the High Court Mabo decision. How extraordinary that your representatives gathered at Uluru, the inheritors of the longest living culture on earth, would quote a Lebanese Muslim judge quoting a lawyer from Zaire to express the depths of your spiritual relationship with this most ancient of lands. This is a profound lesson for those of us seeking an inclusive Australia where we 'keep an open mind and heart to not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but to all who are marginalised including refugees, the disabled and impoverished'. At Uluru, your representatives showed us all that we are able to share our diverse cultural and religious modes of expression to communicate the deepest yearnings of our hearts. Judge Ammoun observed in his judgment that the 'spirituality of the thinking of the representative of Zaire echoes the spirituality of the African Bantu revealed to us by Father Placide Tempels, a Belgian Franciscan, in his work Philosophie bantoue. The author sees therein a 'striking analogy' with 'that intense spiritual doctrine which quickens and nourishes souls within the Catholic Church'.'

In the coming days we all await the report of the Referendum Council which has been commissioned to 'advise the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on progress and next steps towards a successful referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution'. Let's hope that the Referendum Council follows the same principles which guided the 2012 Expert Panel on Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution, 'namely that each proposal must:

• contribute to a more unified and reconciled nation;

• be of benefit to and accord with the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

• be capable of being supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians from across the political and social spectrums; and

• be technically and legally sound.'

There is no point in proceeding with a referendum on a question which fails to win the approval of you, the First Australians. Neither is there any point in proceeding with a referendum which is unlikely to win the approval of the overwhelming majority of the voting public, regardless of when they or their ancestors first arrived in Australia. Given that you Indigenous Australians have spoken strongly through your representatives at Uluru in support of a First Nations Voice, it is now for the Referendum Council to recommend to government a timetable for constitutional change with maximum prospects of a 'Yes' vote. How do we best guarantee the establishment of such a First Nations Voice so that it is heard and listened to whenever laws and policies affecting your Indigenous heritage and aspirations are affected? Even if change to our Constitution remains some distance in the future, it is important for us all to commit ourselves to designing and implementing a First Nations Voice here and now.

Let's hope and pray that we can all work together on a proposal which can be strongly supported by the overwhelming majority of our fellow Australians. May the waters of blessing refresh us, and may the welcome we extend to each other here at the table of the Lord sustain us in the long march to justice and reconciliation in this Great South Land of the Holy Spirit. Let's remember that 'whoever receives a righteous person because they are righteous will receive a righteous person's reward'. Remembering those Aborigines who greeted Matthew Flinders in 1803 and those who greeted the crew of the David McIver in 1863, let's recall that 'whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple, amen I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.'


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.



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