June 2024

Pulling towards justice

An Inter-Congregation Yarning Circle led by proud Ngiyampaa artist Sarah Richards was a space that fostered a rich sharing with renewed, ongoing and burgeoning friendships, writes Sister Anne McGuire RSM.

I generally take careful note of the Acknowledgement of Country at the beginning of meetings, rituals and other gatherings. Increasingly, I have heard or seen the words “through tangible acts of justice …” included in the wording and wondered about our capacity for justice, following the heart-breaking outcome of the 2023 Referendum on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.

Then I remembered the quote from Martin Luther King Jnr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” These words offer hope and suggest that progress towards freedom and justice is inevitable.

In my reflecting and reading I came across a speech by US Congresswoman Shontel Brown in which she notes:

“The arc of the moral universe … does not bend towards justice on its own – no, it only does so because people pull it towards justice. It is an active exercise, not a passive one”[1]

In 2023 at Dubbo, Gamilaraay woman Anne Dennis worked in the Yarning Circle[2] on the historical and moral “case” for the upcoming Referendum. As a group, we came to understand that it offered enormous hope to First Australians, that in a true spirit of justice, their voices might be heard in conversations about themselves with national leaders.

From its inception, it seemed that the vast majority of voting Australians saw the Referendum as an “active exercise” on behalf of justice. Large numbers of people gathered for kitchen table conversations and there was a palpable groundswell of goodwill.

Our Yarning Circle became, for me, a microcosm of how we might be willing to be educated into some of the hidden truths of Australian history.

Artwork by Sarah Richards of Marrawuy Journeys. Image supplied by the Sisters of St Joseph.

The Inter-Congregation Yarning Circle convened again on the weekend of 17-18 May this year. Led by proud Ngiyampaa artist Sarah Richards from Marrawuy Journeys. Once again, our group of Indigenous women from around rural NSW and supportive friends refreshed and renewed our bonds.

We hoped to find some rest and healing following the failure of the Referendum and to regroup around the continuing task of “bending the arc of the moral universe … pulling it towards justice!”

As in the story of Pentecost celebrated in the church that same weekend, many of the emotions and feelings of fear and anxiety; confusion, anger and hopelessness were laid bare.

Through gentle nudging, we were invited to reflect on our feelings and our hopes through the medium of paint on canvas. It seemed evident that the Spirit moved amongst us through tears, laughter, water, paint, hair dryers, sponges and brushes – and the grace of humility!

Unlike the ‘upper room’ where the disciples were gathered in fear, Anderledy Lodge at Mary MacKillop Place in North Sydney offered a space of solace. This fostered a rich sharing with renewed, ongoing and burgeoning friendships cradled gently in the invaluable gift of time. All this fostered a climate of genuine and intentional ‘communion’ which unfolded amongst us, culminating in the shared Eucharist on Saturday evening.

‘Invitation to Hope’ by Sr Anne McGuire RSM. Image supplied by the Sisters of St Joseph.

Calling on the rich vein of Catholic Social Teaching we wanted to be informed by those who had the lived experience and knowledge of the consequences of the prevailing views of our unfinished and one-sided national story.

It appears that naked political expediency, deliberately sown seeds of confusion and racially charged misinformation proved very effective in strangling the important and nuanced conversations so sorely needed across our lands.

We, as a nation, were unable to take the time to listen deeply; to summon the courage and the will to step forward with pride, love and affection for First Australians.

The scars that have emerged following the referendum are deeply embedded in Indigenous communities around the country. The national ‘ignorance’ of this ‘generous offer’ from Indigenous people has stymied our desire to walk together as a nation in truth-telling and justice.

It has added to the pile on of victim blaming, which seems to be a feature of our social system here in Australia. In our creative activity, it was evident that the hurt and sense of another abandonment was palpable.

And yet, as so many have noted, there remains an indomitable spirit of warmth, love and nurture for one another. Painted images of sadness leading to new possibilities; of past wounds sensing healing; of deep abiding faith in being held in the embrace of family and country.

One of the participants noted “we are on trial for hope” (Acts 26:6). Bending “the arc of the moral universe” is a conscious act of hope which is grounded in right relationships and truth. Together we will continue to pull it, inexorably, towards justice!


(1] Brown, Shontel. The arc of the moral universe will bend toward justice—but only if we pull it | Representative Shontel Brown (house.gov) January 17, 2022 In The News

[2] The Yarning Circle is a group of indigenous women who gather with representatives of the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St Joseph, Christian Brothers and Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

Anne McGuire

Sister Anne McGuire is a Sister of Mercy of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea. She is based in Sydney and is committed to right relationships with Indigenous people and the lands they share with us.

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