Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting people in the Inverbrackie Detention Centre, Woodside, South Australia. I was there on invitation as a clergy member of a Protestant Church. My wife’s cousin is a co-ordinator of programs and activities in the Centre. So when the request came from some Christian detainees to meet with a pastor, she called me.
My first impression when I pulled into the car park was surprise at the amount of cars there. It was hard to get a park. I found out the reason why. There are so many staff and volunteers working in the Centre to meet needs its phenomenal.
I enjoyed my walk through, it certainly doesn’t look or feel like a Detention Centre. There’s no razor wire or high walls, it’s like a small suburb with housing spread along a street like any other suburb. The difference is, the ‘suburb’ is surrounded by a neighbourly fence and there is a check point in a little portable building at the entrance gate. I thought the Centre had a good feel about it. I am unable to go into detail but know my impression is positive and conditions are very good.
I am disappointed that the media did a big beat up of the Centre before it opened but there has been very little reported about the positive way in which the Centre is being run and the needs of the people are being met. I was fortunate to meet with the community program and activities team for a short time. It was exhausting just listening to the conversation. They are so busy not only organizing onsite activities for entertainment, learning and development but off site excursions to all kinds of cool sites and activities around Adelaide.
The main reason for my visit was to meet with detainees who nominated they were ‘Protestant – Christian’. I met Sister Meredith who co-ordinates religious programming. I admire her ecumenical and multi-faith approach. I found out that she had been running a Catholic mass on a Sunday afternoon but the Protestants wanted a Protestant minister to meet with them. This is understandable particularly when you are in a context where everything has changed and maybe being taken away from you, they search for something familiar to hang onto.
Our meeting was enlightening. It was only a small group and I was mainly there to listen to spiritual needs. I discovered that among the small group was a Muslim couple who were keen on getting involved with the Christian conversation and wanted a Christian bible. Sister Meredith shared with me that she would often get not only the small group of Christians (Catholic and Protestant) to catholic mass but a large group on Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims and Hindus participate in the worship and read prayers and readings, then when the Catholics come forward for the Eucharist the Muslims and Hindus come forward for a blessing. She thought this was unusual given there are worship meetings for Hindus and others for the large group of Muslims on site. But what they experience at the Christian meetings is unconditional acceptance. What a testimony, I wonder if that is why the Muslim couple are interested in more Christian meetings.
Talking with a group about spiritual matters through an interpreter was a challenge. I recognize that not only was there a language barrier but given the interpreter was not Christian there was a cultural barrier on top of the other cultural barrier given that we are from different countries and experience different expressions of the Christian faith. But given I have worked with Christian asylum seekers before we were able to communicate and appreciate some of the difference. I was able to pray with the Christians and the Muslims in the room together through the interpreter which was a challenge and an absolute privilege.
The request by the end of the meeting was for the Protestants to have a separate Christian gathering to the Catholics. Sister Meredith and I were able to work in some subtle ecumenical desires into the conversations such as explaining how in Australia Christians do a lot together. We appreciate the difference in worship style but encouraged unity (last week was Pentecost Sunday after all) We agreed that we will have 2 services on a Sunday afternoon. An open Christian service run by me and other protestant ministers I can gather at 3:30pm followed by a Christian (Catholic) service at 5pm. This way we would still be able to get Christians of different expressions talking with each other. This divide is not unique to Christians, the Muslims are experiencing the same denominational divides. Sister Meredith and I are doing our best to communicate the spirit of Australian culture, tolerance and unity in the short time we have with them in the Centre.
I now have a team of pastors joining me to run a Christian communion service working in partnership with Sister Meredith.