HER grandmother, a cattle property and a bishop all played key roles in Sr Liz Wiemers’ life-changing journey to the heart of Australia.
“My greatest mentor in life was my grandmother, and she used to say, ‘Never be the person who walks by on the other side of the road …’,” Sr Liz said as she explained why the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict were a “good fit” for her when she chose religious life as a young woman.
Her grandmother was echoing the message from Jesus’ parable about the Samaritan who helped the man robbed and half-dead on the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:25-37).
Sr Liz reckons her grandmother was a Good Samaritan, too, “in her own way”.
“Yes … ‘Never be the person who walks by on the other side of the road …’ And that always stuck with me,” she said.
As a young Liz trying to find her path in life she had plenty of time to reflect on advice like that while she was a jillaroo on the Queensland-NSW border.
She counts that as one of the important times in her life, “a real watershed time for me in my relationship with God”.
Lots of quiet time in the saddle for reflection helped her deepen that relationship.
“I think that’s when I would say my relationship with God moved from probably what I was taught to a more personal relationship,” she said.
“I grew up in a Catholic family … I guess as I grew up I was taught a lot of things ‘about’ God.
“The big difference was that it was no longer ‘about’ God, but this relationship ‘with’ God.”
She then swapped the wide-open plains of a cattle property for the classroom, another step towards religious life.
“I was working in Brisbane and some of our students came from a low socio-economic background, and I found that my values and the things that mattered most to me were the things that seemed to be underpinning the Good Samaritans (sisters) and as I explored them I came to realise that there was a very nice fit,” Sr Liz said.
“I think that’s what it was, it was the values of the Good Samaritans and their spirituality that really suited me.”
She’s taught at high schools in Queensland and in Wollongong, NSW, including at St Teresa’s College, Abergowrie, a secondary boys’ boarding school where 97 per cent of the students are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Sr Liz has spent more than 40 years in ministry among Indigenous people, including almost 12 years at Santa Teresa, near Alice Springs.
Her affinity for ministry among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people started when she was growing up in Atherton, a small town inland from Cairns in Far North Queensland.
“Growing up in Atherton we had a few Aboriginal people, I played with Aboriginal kids … (so) I probably never saw the difference … They were just people …,” she said.
“On the other hand, my parents had a business … (and) sometimes Aboriginal people would be brought in from a nearby mission … and I suppose I used to be really affected or saddened that these people would sign with their thumb print, that the person from the mission would decide what they were going to have.
“Little things like that, as a kid growing up, really stayed with me.
“But the big shift for me was when I went to work at Abergowrie, and initially I went there as the school counsellor, and I remembered saying to the grandmother of one of the young men, ‘I feel somewhat inadequate because I’m a white person working with Aboriginal young men …’
“And her answer was, ‘If you don’t, who’s going to …’
“So that was both consolation and the challenge.
“It meant that I had to really get out of my own skin and do the best I could.”
It was the late Bishop Michael Putney, then Bishop of Townsville, who was later to influence Sr Liz.
She was with a group of Good Samaritan Sisters when Bishop Putney on a visit threw out a challenge about ministering among Aboriginal people in the centre of Australia.
“He said, ‘I don’t understand that people travel to the heart of Australia, and yet they never get to the heart of it …’,” Sr Liz said.
“And he said something like, ‘You Good Sams should do this’.
“It was probably a few years after that, that I was invited to come to Santa Teresa.
“A person I knew was leaving, … it was at the time when the Northern Territory Emergency Response had just come in – the Intervention – and her concern was that whoever came in her place had some background with Aboriginal people and some capacity to be appropriately with them.
“When she put it to me, what was ringing in my ears were the words of Michael Putney.”
Sr Liz had to say “yes”, and almost 12 years on she couldn’t be happier, and she said it was the Eastern Arrernte people of Santa Teresa that had kept her there.
Everyone in the town of 500 people is Catholic, and she continues there as a parish assistant.
She also facilitates about 20 visiting immersion groups each year, and co-ordinates the spirituality centre and parish accommodation.
“There are wonderful experiences but sometimes there are challenges, and I always know that if I’m having a challenging time I just have to be with the local people and I’m fine,” Sr Liz said.
“They’re a very hospitable, caring people and … I’ve been privileged to be taught their culture and their language, and I regard it as a very sacred privilege.”
Sr Liz’s time in Aboriginal ministry has taught her that one of the keys to reconciliation in Australia is “learning to live with difference”.
“I think the first challenge for us as non-Indigenous Australians is to question our capacity to live with difference,” she said.
“We marginalise difference all the time. We marginalised the Italians, the Greeks, the Japanese …
“We can’t live with difference, and it’s not just difference by ethnicity; it’s difference by abilities and all those kinds of things.
“So we struggle to live with Aboriginal people because they’re different from us.
“To me, that’s the fundamental thing, ‘Can I live with people who are different? Or do I have to impose the way I think, my values on people who are different and expect them to adopt them?
“’Can we live side by side with somebody who does things differently?’
“For me, that draws on my Benedictine Good Samaritan spirituality as well.
“(With) the Good Samaritan – the fellow on the side of the road was different and the Good Samaritan was different and he shouldn’t have stopped … but he did.
“That’s a great model for living with difference. The others were too busy, or didn’t want to contaminate themselves, didn’t want to get dirty.
“So we can have all the programs that we like but until we can live with difference and not expect everybody to be the same as I am then we’ll always struggle with it.”
Sr Liz said she’d learnt a thing or two about that at Santa Teresa “because I have to live with difference every day”.
It’s her Good Samaritan choice.