This week I was privileged to represent the Coptic Church at a conference in Canberra called the National Civic Society Dialogue. The general idea is to bring together representatives from a variety of “Civic” organisations – not government, and not businesses – organisations that represent “the people”. So, there were a number of people representing religious groups through the National Council of Churches in Australia (including yours truly), as well as people from charities, unions, envirnmental organisations – that kind of thing.
This two day dialogue was the follow up to the first meeting held about the same time last year. The purpose of it is to discuss what kind of society we want Australia to be, and how can we, the “civic” part of society, help to make it so. Last year’s meeting was a huge talkfest: lots of ideas and comments, but with very little to show for it by the end in terms of concrete actions.
This year, the organisers seem to have got the message, and there were a lot more workshops with small groups working to develop very clear and practical outcomes. I was on the “Fair and Equitable Society” workshop, where I heard some remarkable stories of disadvantaged members of our society, and got a glimpse of the kind of things that can be done to help them.
Before I go on to look at this issue, I should just remark that Peter Garrett came in to give the keynote speech on the second morning, and he struck me as being unusual for a number of reasons. Firstly, he is taller and skinnier in real life than he looks on the telly (if that’s at all possible!). Secondly, he is a remarkably relaxed public speaker. He lounged around the podium in Old Parliament House in front of 80 strangers as if it were his living room. And thirdly, he did not use political doublespeak. He is one of the very few politicians I know who will give a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to a question, and, believe it or not, I actualy heard him admit that he did not know the answers to some questions, but would try to find out. WOW!
Back to disadvantage. One of the surprising things I learned was that the largest conentration of Aboriginal people in Australia is not at Uluru or Cape York. It is not even in Redfern. It is, wait for it … Mt Druitt NSW! And the stories I heard made me want to cry. Apparently, one of our local primary schools has a 60% suspension rate among its students – its Year 1 students. That’s not a typing error. I’m talking about six year olds. Of course, there is a very high proportion of indigenous children among that 60%. Sadly, they are caught in vicous cycle. They have a very poor home situation. They come to school unable and unmotivated to concentrate because of their difficult home circumstances. They do badly at school, they find themselves often in trouble, and they generally will find school so rotten an experience that they will opt out as soon as they can. with little education and a reputation for being ‘naughty’, they cannot get a good job. They grow up to be poor, unhealthy and aimless. Eventually they have children and they cannot give them a good environment at home, and the cycle starts all over again. Very, very, sad. And it’s all been happening right on our doorstep for years, and we never knew about it (at least, I didn’t!)
But there is a happy ending to this story. I met a remarkable lady in canberra who works for a group called the Chain Reaction Foundation. They have a programme running at this particularly troubled school called “The Enablers Program” (sorry about the American spelling of Program – their choice, not mine!) In a nutshell, they run a special playground for these troubled kids while they are suspended, which they attend together with their parents. While they are there, their trained volunteers and counsellors work with them to change their attitude, their hopelessness and their poor self-image. They try to show them that learning can be fun. They try to to find out their strengths and encourage them to make use of them. It seems to be working remarkably well, and a number of really tough cases have turned right around.
This Foundation is willing to train volunteers. The course runs for 24 hours, either squashed into three full days, or done over 12 weeks at say, two hours, one evening every week. I wonder how many of our congregation would be willing to take on the challenge? What a GREAT service! I am hoping to get this lady to pop into our church one day soon and give us a talk about the work her organisation does.
I couldn’t help thinking, “Here we are looking for the poor to serve in Egypt and Sudan and Africa and Asia, while all the while, the poor have been collapsed at our very doorstep without us ever suspecting it!
But I wonder how our congregation would take this service? Would they accept it if an Aboriginal family came to Church? Would they stare at them and make them feel uncomfortable? Or would they patronise them and treat them as inferior? I wonder…
Perhaps, before we get really serious about getting involved, we should do a bit of education for our own people first?
What do you think…