Delma's big wide sigh of pain


Delma Joy Young

When Delma Joy Young prayed she poured her heart out. Her heart was as wide as the pain and anguish that lies deep inside her and our world. On Sunday nights at St Canice's, King's Cross, Christians, Jews and Muslims used to gather to offer hospitality to street people: cheese on toast, hot tea and coffee, cakes. 

Before we began serving, we used to sit outside with the street people to pray. I have been schooled to pray in the Christian way, others in the Muslim and Jewish way. Delma's prayer lifted us to another place. She was untamed and fierce and all the pain and suffering in her and around us and in our world came tumbling out. If God is, as Rowan Williams has said, the 'sigh of compassion' at the heart of our world, then Delma is the big, wide sigh of pain that God responds to.

On 27 June we farewelled Delma in a service at the Wayside Chapel. She was 48. There were hundreds of her friends there, the chapel was packed, people were outside, on the footpath. Her mother and foster mother were in the front seat, her brothers and sisters and their families, her partners and children. Her mother was a 'Cootamundra girl', taken when she was eight, together with all her siblings.

Ricky, her brother, had taken his life some years before. Nathanial, her son, could not get permission from the prison authorities to be there: 'Will you visit him when you are in Bathurst? Tell him you were here. We are worried about him.'

Mostly the service was people getting up to speak. 'Love' was the word most used. There is not much else in life for the people there, not much they have left except one another and love. It was flowing, as were the tears. Sally looked up from her knitting and said as I passed her on my way in: 'There are too many deaths.' I remembered the words of my friend, Greg Thompson, when he was Bishop of Darwin: 'Aboriginals here don't have leaders. They die too young.' 

Once when I was the priest at St Canice's, Delma was distraught. She was walking up and down the middle of Roslyn Street, wailing. People were leaning out of their windows, calling out for someone to do something. Delma kept on wailing, cars swerved to avoid her. She sat down on the steps of an apartment building and I sat next to her.

I put my arms over her shoulders: 'It's all-right Delma, its okay.' She turned and looked at me: 'Don't tell me it's all-right. It's not all-right. My grandmother is being buried today.' I understood. It wasn't just for her grandmother, it was for all the wrongs, all the anguish, the suffering, the pain, the separation from her family, land, culture, her children.

All the neglect, the well-meaning hypocrisy, the disempowerment, the silencing. All her self-recrimination, anger, fear, struggle. It was pouring out and I was not comfortable. I thought perhaps if I could get her to the presbytery she would settle down. Instead she went into the bathroom, sat on the floor and wailed all the louder. What was I to do? I couldn't stay with her.

She could keep this up all day and I had things to do. I couldn't leave her there. She would disturb Elizabeth and others in the office. I called an ambulance. As she was carted out, she looked up from the stretcher: 'You betrayed me.' 

I have often thought of that day. When those Aboriginal tent embassy activists in Canberra attacked Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, I understood their anger, even as I was disturbed by it. I had Delma carted off to hospital and sedated. If I had been in the desert, with no one else around to worry about and nothing to do, maybe I could have heard her grief. Allowed it. Let it have its day and natural span. I had her grief anaesthetised. If we let it all come out there would be a real shake up and righting of wrongs. Is that what prayer is, letting it all come out?

Delma never held that day against me. In her deep way, she understood I was the one who needed her compassion, her love. She gave it in spades. I was a father to her and she poured out her life and trust to me. To many. We all remembered her hugs. Her spirit was so big and wide and strong, so given to us. All of us in that chapel know she is still alive.

I am glad she has been released from her suffering. Gilbert, the father of her two children, pointed to his heart: 'She lives there.' Her extended aboriginal family sang and danced her from the chapel. Those beautiful young people, those haunting sounds; the whip lash sounding conclusion. They were proud and together. I am remembering it all, Delma's last word to us, to me.

Steve SinnSteve Sinn SJ is the long time former parish priest of St Canice's, King's Cross, and now works in retreat ministry in rural NSW.

Topic tags: Steve Sinn, Wayside Chapel, Delma Joy Young, King's Cross, NAIDOC, indigenous culture, death



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Existing comments

A heart-rending and sensitive tribute to a beautiful soul. As usual, when my own words are too difficult to find it's poetry which speaks for me and these words from Les Murray's "An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow" spring to mind: "and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more/refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,"

Pam | 08 July 2014  

Steve, in memory of you, and so many others like Delma, I give thanks for 'the sigh of compassion'. Bill

Bill Lawton | 09 July 2014  

A beautiful and sensitive remembering of an important life. Delma surely touched the lives of many during her 48 years. This will now continue with your sharing her story, Steve. I hope you can tell her story again in the wider media. Surely these people are our evangelisers.

Anne | 09 July 2014  

We need a few more clerics like Fr Sinn!

Joan Thomas | 09 July 2014  

Steve, Thanks for much to reflect upon. Sadly there are hundreds, if not more Delma's 'out there'. Would that we could bring Delma and others 'in here'. As part of something bigger than themselves but as part of ourselves.

Julian C | 11 July 2014  

I feel Delma is our shadow side, our vulnerability and our shared shame for all we haven't been for our first people.

Jeanie | 14 July 2014  

This is what we (Catholics) apologetically have done, in Ireland (with our residential schools), In South and Central America and in Canada (with our residential schools) in North America. And we are doing this now in Africa and Asia. This is the way The Church has done it's evangilization for many hundreds of years. We absorb pagan cultures and make them our own. Some among us believe our Catholic culture is the only Christian Kingdom on the planet and therefor the only way to heaven. "Outside The Catholic Church there is no salvation". So this in-CULT-u ration is our way of showing, "respect for the dignity of every human life.".

Marlene | 23 July 2014  

A beautiful and heart-wrenching story. Delma's story shows through, as does your distress at the impossible situation you faced - we all face every day in one way or another.

Cynthia | 03 August 2014  

will miss you my old friend and will always love you xo !!

Leroy | 26 June 2015  


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