YOUNG Brisbane Catholic Erin Kennedy took a year off teaching and headed for Paris looking for a new direction in life and found much more than she could have expected.
Out of the blue came love.
Having worked hard for eight years to establish her career as a teacher, Erin felt it was time to take stock.
She loved teaching but she also had a passion for art and for social justice, and she wanted to explore how all that fitted together.
From a young age, Erin had wanted to be a teacher.
“But from my earliest memory I wanted to be an artist,” she said.
“I think that’s something I let go a little bit because it didn’t seem important enough.”
Social justice was also taking a higher priority and she didn’t see a place for art.
But after teaching for eight years at Our Lady’s College, Annerley, she wanted to see how she could bring art back into her life, and where better to do than in Paris?
One thing she didn’t figure on was Paris also being the City of Love.
After a while, family connections back in Brisbane told her about another young Brisbane Catholic, Devett O’Brien, who was also living there.
“They said, ‘You should catch up’,” Erin said.
They had never met in Brisbane, but they eventually did catch up in Paris and hit it off.
That was in 2012 and they were married back home a few months ago.
As it turns out they both have a passion for social justice, and it is a wonder their paths had not crossed in Brisbane, long before Paris.
Their eyes were again on Paris recently on the eve of the United Nations conference there on climate change.
They joined hundreds of thousands of people around the world on the People’s Climate March demanding that world leaders take action on the issue.
Asked why as a Catholic she felt it was important for her to go on the Climate March, Erin said, “I wish that was a question we didn’t have to ask”.
“I wish all Catholics were there without question come Saturday (the day of the march),” she said.
“And there’ll be people of all faiths or no faith background there of course.
“But I think what’s so exciting about Pope Francis’ latest encyclical (Laudato Si’ – On Care for our Common Home) is that people of no particular religious persuasion are picking it up and saying ‘This is amazing; this is powerful’.
“And it’s being discussed in secular circles and in environmental activist groups that are saying, ‘Listen to this guy. We need to be taking notice of this’.
“So I think, as a Catholic, as a Christian, there’s no question that we should be defending God’s creation.
“And not just defending it – which sounds like we’re coming up against an attack, which in some ways we are, from ourselves – but celebrating and respecting and putting the creation which we are a part of – (I guess we have a way of thinking about Creation as the birds and the trees, and we’re very separate to that) – but (it’s about) the inter-connectedness.”
Erin’s grounding in faith and social justice goes back to her childhood.
Growing up as the eldest of five children for Jock and Katherine Kennedy in St Joseph’s Parish, Corinda – now part of the Corinda-Graceville parish – she attended St Joseph’s Primary School and then Brigidine College, Indooroopilly.
“From when I was really little, even at primary school, I was very interested in social justice and hearing about Vinnies at school and at church and what they were up to and on about,” Erin said.
“That just resonated very strongly with me.
“So from primary school I was into Vinnies, doing little stalls.
“We had little stalls in Grade 2 to raise money.”
From Vinnies cake stalls in Year 2, to being a St Vincent de Paul Society conference member in high school, to volunteering with Edmund Rice Camps for children from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds, Erin’s commitment to living social justice kept deepening.
Having a heart for social justice became a matter of being “disturbed” by injustice.
That was made clear for Erin during a volunteering stint with the Edmund Rice network in India during her university days.
“I spent about a month in India with some of the Christian Brothers, but also volunteers from all around the world who work or volunteer for various Edmund Rice networks,” she said.
“Apart from just being in a place where the poverty is so extreme, which is going to cause you to question all sorts of things and stick very powerfully with you, we were also talking a lot about what it is that we do in our own parts of the world.
“When we’re in Brisbane and we might not have the streets of Calcutta in our face with that poverty, why is that still important, and how do we address injustice in our own parts of the world?
“But being in a place where it’s so in your face, it meant that we were much more conscious of the impact of poverty.”
And that consciousness brings Erin back to the Pope’s message on the environment and being “disturbed” by injustice.
She is reminded of one of the first things the Edmund Rice volunteers talked about when she was in India.
“We talked about (the quote) ‘Disturb us, oh Lord’,” she said.
“I guess it was that sense of calling us out of our comfort zone which is what Christ really does call us to do – to leave what’s around us, you know, ‘drop the plough and go’ … which might not be something we can practically do every moment of our lives in every way.
“We all have commitments and things but, whatever we do, we should have a commitment to the world that we live in, that nourishes us and that hopefully generations will continue to enjoy.”
Erin remembers being in India and realising how difficult it was to breathe, because of pollution.
“There’s not really a question about should we do anything, it’s (a matter of) ‘What do we need to do?’,” she said of that experience.
“There were some little kids from one of the Edmund Rice schools who were touring us around the city and had taken us to a few of the various sites, and halfway through the day one of them was just sitting there and looking quite unwell and I said, ‘Are you okay?’
“He said, ‘Oh, it’s the pollution’.
“And it was just that this is the place where he lives every day, and since he’s been born he’s been breathing this air.
“And I was finding it difficult after having been there for only a couple of weeks, where you are coughing up black soot and you’re washing it off you, and that’s your daily reality.
“We weren’t meant to live like this.”
Now she’s caring about such things with the man she met in Paris.
“Devett and I, we’re connected through a passion for justice because that’s what took him to Paris (to work for the International Young Christian Students movement) and that’s what took me to have a bit of a retreat and a discernment period over there,” Erin said.
She’s a freelance artist and relief teacher motivated by faith and social justice, and he’s a community organiser for Queensland Community Alliance, and they are living simply as they possibly can.
By Peter Bugden