May 2011

A life-giving ministry in the desert

Good Samaritan Sister Liz Wiemers admits that living and working in a remote Aboriginal community can be tough at times, but overwhelmingly, it’s a rich and life-giving experience.

BY Stephanie Thomas

“I derive enormous life and energy from my ministry which nourishes me spiritually, humanly and professionally,” she says.

Since 2009, Liz has been in full-time ministry at Santa Teresa (Ltyentye Apurte), a remote Aboriginal Catholic community about 80 kilometres south-west of Alice Springs, and home to over 600 people. There she lives with fellow Good Samaritan Sister, Carol Tomlinson, who works as a Pastoral Associate.

Liz’s connection with the community began in 1999 when she started to make her annual retreats at Santa Teresa. It was from these experiences that her current ministry developed. “My coming to Santa Teresa was a clear call from the community and my ministry is a response to that call,” she explains.

For most of her life Liz has known and worked alongside Aboriginal people. Born and raised in North Queensland, she was educated at St Joseph’s Atherton, Mt St Bernard College Herberton and All Hallows’ School Brisbane, followed by tertiary studies at the Good Samaritan Teacher’s College and the Queensland University of Technology.

Before joining the Good Samaritan Sisters in 1987, Liz worked as a jillaroo and then in her family’s business. After some time with the Sisters of Mercy in North Queensland, she took on teaching and religious education positions at St Peter Claver College in Brisbane.

In her 24 years as a Good Samaritan Sister, Liz has worked as a school counsellor at St Mary’s College Wollongong, Lourdes Hill College Brisbane and St Mary’s and Mt Carmel in Charters Towers. She believes her time at St Teresa’s College Abergowrie – a secondary boys’ boarding school with a 97 per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student population – prepared her well for her current ministry.

Liz says life at Santa Teresa is “very hard”. Employment opportunities are few and housing conditions are poor. In recent years the situation has deteriorated because of “an unprecedented period of instability for people”. She refers to the implementation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (the Intervention) in 2008 and the abolition of community councils to make way for ‘super’ shires.

Liz does not question the initial purpose of the Intervention, but believes decisions have been made with little or no consultation and people’s power and decision-making capacities have been removed.

“While there have been some improvements under the Intervention, most people live in a climate of disempowerment, confusion and a loss of hope,” she says. “Thankfully faith, family, and culture are still strong; it is these that sustain the people.”

According to Liz, women at Santa Teresa have a central role in upholding family structures, culture and spirituality. “On women falls much of the onus for leadership. Older women are concerned that there is much for them to pass on to younger women and mothers,” she says.

As part of her very diverse role at Santa Teresa – which can include pastoral care and family support, faith development and liturgy activities, liaison with community and government service providers – Liz works closely with the women supporting various activities at the Spirituality Centre.

According to Meye Mulladad, a traditional healer (ngangkere) who has lived at Santa Teresa all her life, Liz is trusted by the community and seen as a ‘go to’ person. “Sister is very helpful here in the community. She gets around. People know her,” says Meye.

“I’m really moved when I think about how I get along with the people here,” responds Liz. “It moves me deeply… That sort of relationship is really precious.”

This strong relationship has been integral to the development of the Spirituality Centre which is not only a venue to support the spirituality and culture of the community, but a space that is perceived as safe and supportive. “They say they like the Centre because coming there gives them pride, encouragement, hope, optimism, care and understanding,” says Liz.

One particular activity at the Centre that has made a significant impact, particularly for the women, has been a cross and silk painting project. For Meye, this project gives women something to do in a supportive environment. “The ladies are enjoying [these activities]. Some ladies stay at home so we invited them to come and paint crosses and paint on silks. It’s better than sitting down at home doing nothing,” she explains. “They talk and support one another as they do the work.”

These cultural and religious artworks are then sold to people who visit Santa Teresa or to communities throughout Australia. In the future, Liz believes the project has the potential to provide some supplementary income for the women. Interestingly, the local health clinic says these activities have made “the most significant contributions to the health, mental and emotional well-being of people in the community”.

Fundamentally, Liz sees her role at Santa Teresa as one of stewardship – “of the people, their faith and all that is theirs”. She explains: “Stewardship is more than maintaining and protecting; it is also about nurturing, enabling, encouraging and developing the dignity and gifts and faith and property of others.”

She also feels a strong connection to the parable of the Good Samaritan and the ministry of Archbishop Polding, Australia’s first bishop who advocated strongly for Australia’s first peoples. “The Good Samaritan knew he could not fulfil all the needs of the wounded man. He was available to do what he was able and then had the capacity to put the man into the care of the inn-keeper,” says Liz.

“At Santa Teresa that means, first, being known by people and being trusted enough for them to say their needs, and then making an effort to know the people and resources in the community and beyond, and being able to connect people with others.”

So how can the average Australian be a better ‘neighbour’ to Indigenous people?

According to Liz, we need to put aside our prejudices and urban myths, have a desire to meet Indigenous people in their fullness, and be ready to embrace their differences without judgement.

“Indigenous people on their own will never influence government and government policy and composition. There are simply not enough of them. We do not have the answers; we don’t own a magic wand. We have to let go of any suggestion that we might,” says Liz.

“So consultation and listening and encouraging Indigenous people to speak are [essential]. Supporting Indigenous initiatives, learning and keeping Indigenous issues on the table of politicians are very practical ways of being neighbour.”

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