Caring for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Brothers and Sisters
The Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM) provides pastoral support and care to Catholic Aboriginals living in greater Sydney. However, for those who attend it, it has become much more than this – it has become family. “Everyone says the same thing, you just feel you belong here,” said John, a parishioner of Reconciliation Church.
“I believe it is like a family … and you can see the expression of it when we get together. There is a joy, it is not lip service it is from the heart,” he said.
ACM is run from two sites, reflecting the two arms of its ministry – spiritual formation and social outreach. Reconciliation Church provides Sacraments, spiritual and cultural formation and a monthly Aboriginal Mass while Alexandria Office runs social programs, including support groups, food drives and other services responding to the needs of the community.
“We provide social and spiritual support in Aboriginal people living in the community living out their Catholic Faith,” said Lisa Buxton, Executive Director of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry.
“I really enjoy seeing the community come in and use [Alexandria Office],” she said. “It is a space where they can come and be able to speak to someone.”
One successful program run from the centre is the ‘women’s group’, which Lisa describes as a chance for women of the community to work on their “self-esteem, self-determination and being confident in who they are.”
“We have a lot of grandmothers raising their grandchildren and so it is a support network for them. We have a psychologist who is able to work with the ladies one-on-one if they need it. But, it is often enough just having someone there to talk to so that they don’t feel alone,” she said.
ACM works closely alongside other support groups, including the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, as well as the Aboriginal Women’s Centre. Alexandria Office is an interface between Indigenous Catholics and the wider Catholic and political community, and connects Aboriginal educators and speakers with schools and parishes.
Integrating a needed and vibrant social component to the faith programs offered at Reconciliation Church, the Church also includes Indigenous cultural elements in the Liturgy, which makes it unique in the state, and perhaps the country.
“It is the combination of living out our faith, but recognising we are unique to this country and have ways of expressing our faith that it is complementary to our Catholic tradition,” said Lisa.
Kelly, Ministry Coordinator of the ACM says the centre tries to bring forward what is best in Indigenous culture to give the community a sense of identity and belonging.
“We try to use a lot of Aboriginal prayers if we can, even Aboriginal music. And on special occasions we’ll have a didgeridoo player and dancers,” she said.
Adorning the walls of Reconciliation chapel are the Stations of the Cross designed by celebrated Indigenous artist, Richard Campbell, member of the Stolen Generation, which ties in Our Saviour’s journey to Golgotha with the artist’s own.
Speaking with her previous work with ACM’s Aboriginal youth group, Kelly noticed that many of the students who identified as Aboriginal “pulled back” when it came to embracing their culture.
“[We are interested about] working out why this is … and how they can identify who they are and where they are from and not be embarrassed about it. They should be proud,” she said.
While over the years they had a “strong youth presence” in recent times this has dropped. Kelly says that the centre is committed to growing this area again. They are also hoping to form a men’s group to run alongside the women’s wellness group.
Each month, the Reconciliation Church hosts an Aboriginal Mass, and before social distancing measures, it was reaching capacity, with up to 80 people travelling across Sydney – sometimes by hours on public transport – to attend.
While it runs the monthly Mass, Reconciliation Church is hoping to expand to more services into the future. There are also hopes for an Indigenous priest that will be able to culturally connect with the community.
Reflecting on the work of ACM, John says that it is best shown by ‘agape’, the Greek idea which expresses a love which is divine.
“Agape means ‘unconditional love’, meaning there are no ties to it. And that’s what this church is – come as you are,” he said.
ACM exists to provide a sense of prayer, community and support to Sydney’s Aboriginal Catholics.
“The old saying is that you don’t give people a handout, you give people a hand up and that’s what charitable works is all about, it is to empower people,” he said.