Murri Ministry is now in its 21st year of helping Indigenous Catholics in Brisbane archdiocese. PAUL DOBBYN spoke to some of the key figures in the ministry
LATE last year, members of an Aboriginal family grieving over the death of a fimly member in custody met with Murri Ministry’s Ravina Waldren at Justice Place in Wooloongabba.
Around a large table, over cups of tea and cakes provided by the ministry, the family attempted to reach agreement about a burial place for their loved one.
Unfortunately, Ravina said such meetings which often involve mediation, have become a frequent part of the ministry’s calling.
“This constant work with grieving families was certainly not envisaged when the ministry was set up by the archdiocese through Centacare 20 years ago,” Ravina said.
“But because we’re working ecumenically, we’re involved in the burial of, on average, three local Aboriginal community members a week.
“This includes everything from the printing of funeral booklets through to the painting of the caskets of the deceased, sometimes within jail.
“I know of no other organisation in Brisbane which does this important work.”
Typically, meetings like this can be difficult – the Aboriginal way is to seek approval of extended family members to make such decisions, Ravina said.
“Should the deceased be buried ‘in country’ or is it more practical to bury them closer to home?”
In the case of the Aboriginal man who had died in custody at Woodford Correctional Centre of heart complications, the matter was even more complex.
“It was sad enough,” Ravina said “that the deceased aged 47 years had been in jail for over 30 years”
“He went into jail as a young boy of only 17 and spent the best part of that time in jail.
“What made the situation even sadder was the Department of Corrective Services indicated they would only pay for a so-called pauper’s funeral.
“This would involve the use of one of several designated funeral homes and cemeteries around Brisbane.
“The problem was many of his family wanted him to be buried back in country, in this case Cherbourg.
“If you look at it, he’d been in jail for about 30 years for an estimated cost of $1.2 million.
“What was another $8000 to have him buried where his family wanted?
“Also in that 30 years, he would have given a fair bit in community service as well.”
Ravina said lower Aboriginal life expectancy due to diseases such as diabetes and a much higher than average suicide rate, especially among the young, was responsible for the ministry’s increasing role as funeral arranger.
She said her involvement in such emotional events inevitably took a toll on her and fellow ministry workers – Josephite Sister Kay McPadden, Bernadette Jeffrey and Elder David Miller.
Also, because of the crucial nature of their work, Murri Ministry workers are always on call.
“You find once you’re working here that you don’t have much spare time,” Ravina said.
“It’s not only a 9 to 5 job, it’s ministry and that’s the difference.”
Sr Kay has a long relationship with the Aboriginal community stretching back to her work with the Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council in Inala in the late 1970s.
David is frequently seen presiding over the Welcome to Country ceremonies at Catholic events throughout the archdiocese.
Bernadette provides the administrative backbone to the ministry.
Brisbane priest Fr Gerry Hefferan has been chaplain to the ministry since its early days.
Many Elders from the Aboriginal community also come in as volunteers.
In their conversation with The Catholic Leader, Ravina and Sr Kay outlined some of Murri Ministry’s other activities.
Ravina described the ministry as “grassroots”.
“It provides pastoral and spiritual assistance, consistent with Aboriginal culture, tradition and insights within the community,” Sr Kay said.
“Murri Ministry is also involved in community liaison work which includes community / home visits and referrals.
“Other activities include awareness raising, empowering local communities, sacramental preparations, taking part in Murri celebrations and working towards reconciliation.”
A list of some of activities already carried out by the ministry to mind as Sr Kay spoke.
There was the ministry’s annual involvment in NAIDOC Week celebrations in Brisbane archdiocese and their visits to schools for such events as the anniversary of National Apology Day.
Then there were campaigns with Brisbane’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission to press for Government action to address on-going Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody.
One-off events also came to mind such as the ministry’s sponsorship of young Aboriginal man Marlon Riley to dance before Pope Benedict in Rome at the canonisation of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
Also the food drops to those impacted by the disastrous 2011 floods including the nine Aboriginal families forced to live under one roof at Goodna.
Now into its 21st year, the ministry is focused futurewards.
On May 27, an immersion day to Cherbourg for All Hallows’ students will give them an in-depth experience of this community.
The students will be taken to the Ration Shed, the community’s history centre.
They’ll learn how the Aboriginal people lined up to receive flour, sugar and cheap meat cuts called “flaps” at the shed.
The students will also have a chance to talk to locals and get first hand information on Aboriginal history.
Sr Kay is involved in a history project to record the lives of Aboriginal Catholics in the Cherbourg and Stradbroke Island communities.
Given life expectancy for Aboriginal males is around 54 and about 65 for women, she spoke of “a real sense of urgency” in completing the project.
“(ACU) Academic Dr Stefano Girola is helping me,” she said.
“The project comprises writings, film and photos. The theme is how faith has been carried on.
“Cherbourg’s little chapel or church, St Peter Claver, was 50 years old last November.
“But before that Aboriginal Catholics were already active in the community. For example, certain older woman were allowed to go into Murgon to Church for many years.”
Ravina and Sr Kay said the Church had come a long way in its relationship with Aboriginal people but there were opportunities to do much more in Brisbane archdiocese.
“We should have something identifiable as Aboriginal in the cathedral and precinct,” Ravina said. “For example, Beenleigh’s church has a garden of this kind.”
Ravina said she was astonished there was no mention of February’s National Apology Day anniversary when she went to Mass.
“I thought, Wow, this is amazing to overlook such an important event,” she said.
“To us it is very important to acknowledge this moment in history which is also so very much a part of Catholic history.” Sr Kay said “any sorry we say is so accepted”.
“People might say: Why keep saying it? … well we haven’t made proper restitution yet.
“In some cases, it can take a lifetime to restore a proper relationship with those we have offended.
“That’s why the Church’s work through Murri Ministry is so important.”
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