March 2013

A simple ministry of presence and hospitality

A year in ministry at Santa Teresa, near Alice Springs, has been a steep learning curve for Good Samaritan Sister Anita Brennan.

BY Debra Vermeer

A year in ministry at Santa Teresa, near Alice Springs, has been a steep learning curve for Good Samaritan Sister Anita Brennan, and one thing she has learnt is that while “we can’t fix everything”, a simple ministry of presence and hospitality plays a key role in the life of the Aboriginal community.

“One of the important learnings that I have had is how significant the land is for the Aboriginal people; the heritage of their ancestors; their source of bush food and medicine and their sacred places,” she says.

“Also, while I may offer some hospitality here, I am firstly a visitor in a very different culture.”

Anita grew up in the inner western Sydney suburb of Dulwich Hill, with her parents, an older sister, and two younger brothers. She was educated in secondary school by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at St Brigid’s Marrickville, and from that experience says she felt a strong call to join the Congregation. When she entered the novitiate 53 years ago, at almost 18, she never dreamed where it would eventually take her – from  teaching, leadership positions in schools and the Congregation, to study opportunities in Chicago, Israel and Canada, a counselling ministry, and now to outback Australia to live in an Aboriginal community.

“I’ve loved every bit of it,” she says. “And so here I am at Santa Teresa and it’s a steep learning curve, a very steep learning curve. I would see my ministry at the moment as being a ministry of hospitality, a ministry of presence to people, and also a ministry of spiritual companioning.”

The ministry of hospitality is evident when The Good Oil calls for a chat and finds Anita busy preparing a weekly dinner for 12 people, together with Sister Liz Wiemers, who has been at Santa Teresa since 2009.

“We have about five local women coming. We’ve got two people who came here as lay missionaries over 40 years ago and two Divine Word Missionary priests, and Liz and myself,” she says.

“Every Thursday evening we have dinner here and they all come. It’s a form of connection for them, to be able to talk about things, to get together. And it’s also good for us.”

Earlier in the morning, Anita was at the Community Care Centre, helping the women of the community to organise their bingo morning.

“Again, that’s a very simple presence thing. I wasn’t doing anything extraordinary down there, just organising their bingo for them, which they really enjoy. These were the older women, so a bingo morning gets them out of their houses. They come to the centre and they are given morning tea and they enjoy the bingo and then they’re given lunch and are taken home.”

Anita says she is trying to learn the local Eastern Arrernte language, but it is hard going, because it is so different to English and other languages.

“It’s very difficult because it’s an oral language and if I learn a language I’m used to seeing it in print, so that you can sort of work it out. But this is very different and the sound is very different.”

Another thing Anita says she has learnt at Santa Teresa is that “you don’t ask a lot of questions to the Aboriginal people and you usually don’t make any sort of personal comments”.

She recalls one time when an Aboriginal woman in the community had been wearing a beanie for an extended period. “When she took it off, I commented on how lovely her hair was,” she says. “I soon learnt that it was the wrong thing to say. What I hadn’t connected was that in sorry time, if the deceased person is a very close relative, the women cut their hair.  She was wearing the beanie because her head was cold.”

On another occasion, Anita was baffled by a ritual that was carried out in the community when the much-loved school Principal, Greg Crowe was killed in a car accident while in Darwin.

“The ritual celebration of that here is ‘finishing up ceremony’. This involves smoking and sweeping. At the school each person had a branch and we followed the person with the smoke and we swept all the ground and all the places where he would’ve trod,” she says. “And my initial feeling was that it was like sweeping him away. So I spoke to Liz about it and she said, no, it’s not about sweeping him away, it’s about freeing his spirit, letting him go. The ceremony covered the entire school property.

“So these are some of the things I’ve learned. But more importantly I am learning just to listen, observe and wait, so that I grow in understanding.”

Anita says her time in Santa Teresa is also teaching her a lot about the spirituality of letting go.

“At this stage in my life I just feel that letting go of a lot of things is really important,” she says. “And I think there’s a freedom that comes with that. When you’re a long time in a place you get attached to many things and many people. It’s not that I don’t like friends, I do, and I’ve got good friends, but I think there comes a time when you have to be a bit freer and a bit ready to be open to what God wants.

“So to me, it’s a bit about letting go, being open. It’s as simple as that, I think.”

Anita is also aware that the Good Sams’ current ministry of presence and hospitality in Aboriginal communities like Santa Teresa draws on a rich heritage within the Congregation, which dates right back to their founder, Archbishop John Bede Polding.

“I see that this was so much at the heart of Polding,” she says. “He spent so much time and energy trying to tell Australians of his time that this land belonged to the Aboriginal people and it’s something that I feel very strongly about too. And it’s still an issue that the country is dealing with – giving back the land to these people. And giving them back their independence to be on it and live in it the way they want to.

“The people of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) – is a population of around 500 to 600 people. With several government interventions in recent years they’ve lost a lot of the control of their lives and their community and I just think that as a Congregation, our presence in this community is so important; I see it as an expression of reconciliation.

“We can’t fix everything – but being here with the Arrerente People is something that’s really important in terms of the Gospel and the Good Samaritan spirit.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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