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From the outside looking in and from the inside looking out

Reflections on my association with Uniya

Patty Fawkner sgs

Kings Cross, 25 May 2007

Good evening. Like all of us I am both sad and glad to be here with you tonight. Just as at any good wake, where you share the stories, I would like to share some reflections and impressions about Uniya, both from the outside looking in and from the inside looking out.

I’m not sure when I first became aware of Uniya, most probably as early as 1991 when I returned to Sydney after a seven-year stint in Victoria. My first impression was that this was an innovative and an exciting venture for the Church in Australia. Here was a Jesuit voice for justice in a period of the Church’s life when many religious congregations were rediscovering that a commitment to the gospel was a commitment to justice and intrinsic to the Christian life. Uniya, I knew from afar, was no Mickey Mouse organisation eager to jump on some leftist Church bandwagon. I had the impression of an organisation with an authoritative voice, undergirded by substantive and reliable research.

My first visit to the Uniya Office didn’t occur until 7 or 8 years later when, as a would-be reporter for ACLRI, I was editing a quarterly magazine called Australian Religious. This publication, like many good Church initiatives was launched, shone for a period of time, then fell back to earth, never to be heard of again. In this magazine we always did a feature on a religious in the public eye. Yes, I have to admit, that this publication too, was into the cult of celebrity! I had interviewed Paul Collins when he was still with the MSCs about his running battle with Joseph Ratzinger. I had interviewed Patricia Pak Poy on her monumental landmines work.

And now I wanted to interview Frank Brennan. I had been working for ACLRI when Frank was advisor both to the Australian Bishops and Religious on native title issues, but I don’t think we had met. I did know that Frank was working in most controversial and complex time when fears, feelings and insults were running high. Paul Keating’s famous “meddling priest” epithet was perhaps the kindest comment of all!

So one day in either 1998 or 1999 I turn up to the Uniya Office to interview Frank. I remember a pretty dingy affair – the office, not Frank – (beige and brown come to mind), the large orange Uniya painting, and Frank the only sign of human habitation. So, another impression I had about Uniya, was that like its namesake Uniya Station at Daly River in the Northern Territory, which was subject to seasonal flooding, Uniya Kings Cross had also known its ebb and flow in terms of staffing, influence and output.

My next encounter came after a sabbatical period in 2000 and 2001. I returned to Australia eager to find work in the area of adult education and adult faith formation. The Sydney church had changed while I was away. We had a new archbishop, and a former place of employment, the Catholic Adult Education Centre, was now heavily influenced by Opus Dei. I looked around to see whom I thought was making a positive contribution, who was making a difference to the Church that I wanted to be part of. Perhaps I’d been away too long but I could only think of two organisations, Uniya being one of them. And by luck it had just reopened having been mothballed while Frank took up duties for JRS in East Timor.

Just before I made my move to contact Mark Raper, the then Director, I attended the 2002 Uniya Lenten Seminar at St. Aloysius on the refugee crisis. It was an absolutely thrilling evening – hundreds there and Frank and Mark speaking with authority and compassion. Any of you who were there that evening would remember a petite teenage girl from Bankstown challenging the speakers not to stay within the safe confines of Sydney’s East but to come out West where refugees was really a hot topic and where feelings about Tampa and children overboard were still running high. So Uniya did. It responded to the challenge and took its faith that does justice message out west. As a “Westie” myself, I was very encouraged by that and came to see another dimension of Uniya – that of responsiveness to the issues and people of the day.

I sent my CV to Mark, indicating my interest in adult education and an interview was set up. Uniya had had a makeover. Dull beige and dismal brown had given way to light, open and welcoming offices, under the deft hand of Helen Pudig.

I had no intention, nor desire to be director, but for a variety of circumstances that is what happened. So some impressions from the inside looking out, and I have to say that my impressions of the 3 years I worked at Uniya were strongly coloured by my association with Frank, even though he only worked under the Uniya banner for another 18 months. I learnt about the Uniya way from Frank. I’m aware that there is a long pre-history that I have only caught glimpses of, and important stories that still need to be told.

I had the impression, perhaps not only of Uniya, but more generally of the Jesuits, of a group committed to mutuality, to partnership and a genuine openness to work with women. Working in the field of social justice, the temptation is to go off half-cocked, to take the self-righteous moral high ground, to become even violent in one’s rhetoric by playing the blame game, to resort to motherhood statements, or to be enmeshed in ideology. This was not the Uniya way. The Uniya way, as enfleshed by Frank, was always to play the issue rather than the person, to underpin advocacy with solid research, and to speak from personal experience and relationship with those with whom and on behalf of whom you were advocating. You had to walk the talk. Frank Brennan did that, I know Peter Hosking and Mark Raper did that, and I know that Mark Byrne has continued with that in his fine work with the indigenous community and the people of East Timor.

The Uniya message was always undergirded by the message of the gospel of fullness of life for all, especially for those made poor. But it never retreated into Church speak, or into political theory speak. Uniya never spoke down to people, but it did make complex issues accessible. The Uniya way was not to berate or debate, but to respectfully dialogue.

I always felt that it was important that Uniya be Sydney-based. I think for the Jesuits with the huge enterprise of JSS in Melbourne, it was important to have a Sydney focus on social issues. It was wonderful that it was based at the Cross, where the people of the Cross keep you grounded and real. Uniya could never have survived without the support, the loyalty, and indeed the love of the St Canice’s community – Steve, Elizabeth, everyone. This community really enriched the three short years I was director.

Other impressions? Wonderful young interns and research students who brought youth and vigour to the organisation in exchange for a leg up with their professional career. I didn’t know her, but people like Liz O’Neill, for example.

I have memories of wonderful seminar series, occasional papers, research papers, our intimate Friday Eucharist, the inevitable threat of rain up on the roof with our Christmas parties, where there was always room for all, supporters and street people alike.

All my memories were not rosey. I recall shaky financial realities and Uniya, under my leadership, struggling for direction in Frank’s absence and no Jesuit to replace him

Now I’m back on the outside looking in and I have the impression, rather the feeling, of how tragic it would be if there were no Uniya legacy; if we were to allow the Uniya way to die. It seems to me that within our Church where there should be a multiplicity of voices, because of stretched resources, the diverse voices that are the sign of an adult, vibrant church are dying or mooted, if not overtly being silenced. Where else do we have a church-based organisation encouraging forums about the things that really matter to those made poor or marginalised? Where do we have the exchange of ideas in the public arena? I know that Frank will continue to write and advocate. I thank God for that. I thank God for him and thank God that he’s on the road to recovery.

I suppose I’d like to ask the Jesuits, to encourage, even challenge the Jesuits, to not let the seminar series, which became the flag ship of the Uniya enterprise, die. Perhaps they could be run under the banner of the Loyola Institute or JRS…….

But then again, sometimes the most prophetic thing to do is to let go and to walk away, to let something finish its natural life-cycle after it’s given its best shot.

It is with a sad heart that we gather to acknowledge the contribution of those who have been part of the Uniya story. My thoughts are particularly with the incumbents – Mary Bryant and Mark Byrne.

I have made lasting friendships within Uniya and within the Jesuit family in the short time I was privileged to be Director. I will always be grateful that Uniya has been part of my life.

My last impression is that Uniya was never about Uniya. It was never about the Jesuits. It was never about issues or ideology. Uniya was about people, about those disadvantaged or made poor by injustice. The organisation might close but I pray that the Uniya spirit may live on.

 

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