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Wednesday, 04 April 2012 17:09

A ministry of presence on Palm Island

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“They were all Indigenous people on the ferry. They were so quiet and gentle. Nobody made an effort to talk to me, but I didn’t feel that I was out of place,” she recalls.

“But I think from that time, I felt I’m among these people.”

About a month after Lal’s arrival, she was joined by Good Samaritan Sister, Robyn Brady. At the invitation of Townsville Bishop, Michael Putney, and in response to a call from their congregation, both Lal and Robyn, age 73 and 69 respectively, volunteered to re-establish a Good Samaritan community on the Island following the departure of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.

For the Good Samaritan Sisters, Palm Island is not a new ministry experience. During the 1990s a number of sisters worked at St Michael’s Catholic School and in the community.

Lal and Robyn are parish pastoral associates. “[Our] ministry can best be described as a ministry of presence, supporting and working with the Aboriginal community in the parish and the wider community,” explains Robyn.

Sr Robyn Brady and Sr Lal Smith “A visiting priest… described it as a ministry of ‘pastoral loitering’!”

Palm Island, also known as Great Palm Island, or by the Aboriginal name Bwgcolman, is about 65 kilometres north-west of Townsville and has a resident population of about 2,000 people, almost entirely Indigenous.

“It’s the most beautiful place,” says Lal, “but then once you’ve been here a few weeks you begin to realise the suffering of the people.”

“Death is a big part of the place. So there’s that undercurrent of the physical beauty of the place and then there’s the sadness… of the people.”

According to Robyn, one only needs to read about the history of Palm Island to understand life on the Island now.

“It is a rather tragic history; a Government-run island where Indigenous people were relocated because of a minor infringement on the mainland. In other words, it was a penal settlement,” she explains.

“There were some very harsh superintendents who ruled with an iron fist. Women and men were separated; they were conscripted to do the menial tasks for the Government officials.”

As a result, around 49 different Aboriginal groups are present on the Island who collectively call themselves the Bwgcolman People. “So there’s no common Indigenous language,” explains Lal.
Robyn and Lal recently attended a community ceremony where a monument outlining the history of the Island was unveiled.

“It tells of the 1957 strike, which… they celebrate every year,” says Robyn.

“It is a sign that [the people] can stand up for their rights. The monument also talks about ‘The Magnificent Seven’ who fought for equal wages for Indigenous workers.”

Despite some hard-fought freedoms, Robyn and Lal say the local people continue to face many challenges.
Housing conditions are poor; there are limited employment opportunities and recreational activities for the overwhelmingly young population. While the Island is a ‘dry community’, alcohol and drug use continue to take a heavy toll.

Both women admit that working on Palm Island is far from easy. But they remain hopeful, compassionate and realistic. A sense of humour, they tell me, is also a must.

“It takes a daily inspiration to meet the challenges, and I think I get this from thinking that Jesus would be very happy in this place with the disadvantaged and marginalised people,” says Robyn.

“I have learnt that you throw away your watch and do some patient waiting. Life moves slowly. The joys are in being with people… grieving with them and delighting when small steps are taken”.

For Lal, being with the people is “a privilege”. “You say to yourself, well, we need to stand with them. The Church has been here a long time and we can’t just walk away.”

Each week Lal visits the Island’s drug and alcohol rehab centre. She finds it a “really positive experience”.

“It truly gives me energy because the people there are honest and true. They can say, ‘I’m an alcoholic and this is what my life’s about’,” she explains.

“They’re trying to deal with their alcoholism. You hope that that ripples out to the community somehow, and I’m sure it does.”

To try to connect with the community on a more regular basis, Robyn and Lal have submitted an application with the Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council to rent a small shop and have a Church presence in the main shopping area of the Island.

“It will not be a money-making venture, but an opportunity for the people to drop in and have a chat over a cup of tea,” explains Robyn.

“We haven’t any more plans as yet, as it could all fall through. But we could have some second-hand clothes for sale just to cover the cost of the tea, sugar, biscuits etc. It is more about being down where the people are, because they don’t just come up to the church.”

Lal and Robyn are very aware that their ministry on the Island will take time to develop. “We’ve got to let the people get to know us and take our time to get to know them,” says Lal.

“I think it’s just sinking in to us, it’ll be a long slow road… [But] it’ll be an interesting journey, I think.”

* Stephanie Thomas is editor of The Good Oil, the e-magazine of the Good Samaritan Sisters, where this story was first published. To read more stories about the Good Samaritan Sisters click here.