Cathedral art display a reconciling act and a pathway forward

'Reconciliation is about taking something which is broken and bringing it back together ...': the Revd Shannon Smith.

The Revd Helen Dwyer, Reconciliation Liaison Officer for the Diocese of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier and former premier Mr Jeff Kennett.

PHOTO: Kit Haselden Photography

By Mark Brolly

June 6 2016Indigenous Australians, including Anglican clergy, joined Archbishop Philip Freier and former Victorian Premier Mr Jeff Kennett at St Paul’s Cathedral on 3 June to celebrate National Reconciliation Week with a service of prayer and the launch of an exhibition of artworks by Indigenous prisoners and former inmates.

The celebration began with Choral Evensong, at which members of the Indigenous community were prominent participants, and concluded with the opening in the Cathedral’s new Transept Gallery of the exhibition Our Stories, eight paintings from The Torch’s Indigenous Arts in Prison and Community program. The Torch is a program supporting Indigenous artists who are, or recently have been, incarcerated in Victoria.

Mr Kennett chairs The Torch’s board of directors, a non-partisan body which includes Ms Catherine Andrews, wife of Victoria’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews, and Ms Georgina Downer, a lawyer and diplomat and the daughter of former Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

Mr Alex Kerr, son of Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Di Kerr, gave the Welcome to Country to open Evensong and noted that St Paul’s Cathedral had a very special place in his mother’s heart. He also read the First Lesson from the Book of Exodus, chapter three, verses 7-12.

The Revd Helen Dwyer, Reconciliation Liaison Officer for the Diocese of Melbourne (who grew up in Mildura and discovered in her 20s that she is a Ngarrindjeri woman, whose country is Hindmarsh Island and the Coorong in South Australia, near the mouth of the Murray River), read the Second Lesson from St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, chapter five, verses 16-21.

The preacher was the Revd Shannon Smith, a Wiradjuri woman from NSW and Priest-in-Charge of St Christopher’s Bentleigh East, who held up a letter of exemption from the Government, also known as a “dog tag”, sent to her uncle Richard Edwards on 12 February 1958 releasing him from the provisions of the NSW Aborigines Protection Act and Regulations.

The letter, from the NSW Superintendent of Aborigines Welfare, Mr M.H. Saxby, says in part: “On behalf of the Board, I desire to congratulate you upon having qualified, by your general character and standard of living, for the issue of a Certificate of Exemption. To this I would add my personal congratulations.

“The Certificate remains in force permanently, subject to your continued good standards of citizenship.”

Ms Smith said: “This exemption certificate has left me speechless for a number of years. It also saddens me to the core of my heart…  In fact, I am appalled. For when this exemption certificate was issued, Richard Edwards was still being classified as flora and fauna. Tonight, Richard Edwards has two nieces and two grand-nieces sitting here among you.  Richard Edwards is my mother’s older brother.

“Reconciliation is about taking something which is broken and bringing it back together. It is about building better relations between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider Australian population for the benefit of all people who now reside on this beautiful piece of land that we so proudly call home. When I look at the word reconciliation the word ‘conciliation’ really pops out at me. The word conciliation means the action of stopping someone from being angry. And after the way our people have been treated in the past I suspect we still have some very, very angry people out there today. Because I can tell you tonight that even though I was not born until 14 years after my uncle was issued a letter of exemption that I am very angry that he along with thousands of others were treated this way. Why did my uncle have to wait for a white man in Sydney to send him a letter to give him permission to go sit in a pub with his mates? I don’t understand this and I may never.”

Referring to the First Lesson, Ms Smith said: “Tonight I want to give thanks to God and for the modern day Moses of our world today. They took on a Nation and took on the task of leading their people out of a world of despair and oppression.  I guess it is our decision now if we want to make the journey back to the Promised Land or have we become so comfortable being the oppressed that it is just easier for us to remained exiled?

“It has not been an easy journey to make it to where we are today. It has been a more than difficult journey for our people to make. But it is a journey that we have had to make together as a Nation. Like the great exile out of Egypt, this is part of our history. We can’t deny it.

“Our people still continue the struggle today but they are survivors. The struggles we face today are the hurts from the past. Some are able to move forward while others aren’t as fortunate. Some of our struggles are new but I am sure that as a Nation we will and can move forward together to help our people overcome these new struggles. Indigenous Youth suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and institutional racism are just at the forefront.

“In our second reading this evening we heard Paul say that at one time people thought that Jesus was just a bloke; now they know he's really God… Just as people discovered that Jesus was way more than they believed him to be, so we are challenged to see one another differently. We must discover previously unnoticed riches in one another. We must look at one another and see Jesus.”

At the exhibition launch, Mr Kennett said The Torch program aimed to give “pride and self-confidence” to Indigenous Victorians in prison and after their release.

On the wider issue of recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, he said: “Never before in our history have the opportunities for Recognition in the Constitution been better.”

But he said non-Indigenous Australians did not celebrate the continent’s First Peoples as they should and failed to recognise the numbers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders entering the professions.

“Reconciliation will never be achieved for some – I understand that – but recognition and opportunities can be secured more quickly than we like to think,” Mr Kennett said.

Archbishop Freier said the exhibition was a wonderful way to see what people could do, despite their struggles, “when they get the opportunity to use their creativity in a redemptive way”.

Dr Freier said some might regard Welcome to Country as a “secular piety”, but it was important to be mindful of how the Welcome was received. A full reception of Welcome to Country, understanding the fundamental importance of Country to Indigenous Australian identity, “calls us to a different way of being”.

*The Our Stories exhibition will be on display in the St Paul’s Cathedral Transept Gallery until 10 July and the artworks are for sale. Post-release program participants receive the full sale value directly, while proceeds from artwork sales for participating artists still in prison are held in trust by Corrections Victoria until the artists are released.