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The Day the Stones Cried

"If others keep silent, the stones will cry out." What story will the stones of Baxter tell future generations? Or do we not care any more?

This letter is the cri de coeur of an individual faith community. Members of the St Thomas More parish of Mount Eliza, in Victoria, went to Baxter to see conditions in the detention centre for themselves. What they saw so disturbed them, they wrote this letter to the responsible Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone. They have received no reply.

Mrs Amanda Vanstone
Minister For Immigration
Parliament House

Dear Minister

I understand that you were unimpressed by the demonstrations that took place at Baxter Detention Centre back at Easter time this year. I certainly appreciate your irritation.

Since then I have travelled with a group of eleven others on what we have called a "Pilgrimage to the Centre: a Journey of Hope." This pilgrimage had us visiting some shrines which are or will become icons in the spiritual, historical and social Australian story. We spent time at Lake Mungo, Port Augusta (which, significantly, promotes itself as the "Crossroads" of Australia) and Baxter. From there we travelled to Woomera which has offered a most significant word to the story of modern Australia. Our journey took us to Uluru which many see as not just the physical centre but the spiritual heart of our land.

We reflected that the most powerful agents of moral change have been those who insisted on non-violence as a way of life and respect for the freedom, dignity and equality of every person as a moral imperative. Our obvious models include Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

Now Baxter disturbed me enormously. We were able to appreciate a little of what happens there as we spoke with local residents who have a commitment of care to those who are detained. We stood on a site in town and prayed for those who are kept indefinitely at the facility we could see seven or eight kilometres in the distance. I am sure you are aware of the sparseness and forbidding nature of the environment. We chose to drive out to the Centre, knowing of course that although this is considered a detention centre and not a prison, we were forbidden any entry and any opportunity to say "welcome" or even "how are you going?" to the refugees and asylum seekers there.

So, Minister, we sat in our bus for ten minutes and simply regarded those terrible gates, the several rows of barbed fencing and the sadness of it all. There was only one person visible behind that fencing whom I took to be a staff member. But the invisible presence of the detainees was tangible.

And we listened to some music. Eric Bogle - himself an emigrant to this country - wrote a song called Shelter. It would be marvelous for you to hear the song itself, but perhaps you will not.

To the homeless and the hungry, may we always open doors. May the restless and the weary find safe harbour on our shores. May she always be our dreamtime place, our spirit's glad release. May she always be our shelter. May we always live in peace.

But something sad has happened to this country. We are no longer the welcoming people we always tried to be, but are suspicious and have been taught to be frightened. And for that we are poorer and less free ourselves. Back at Lake Mungo, the first "shrine" on our journey, Eddie Kneebone - an Aboriginal elder and a marvelous teacher - explained that the stones at that place told a story. He even helped us to begin to read that story in the stones... the story of the land, its people and our own story. I was reminded of the words of Jesus: "If others keep silent, the stones will cry out." What story will the stones of Baxter tell future generations? Or do we not care any more?

Indifference is so crippling of the human spirit. I found this quote from another tradition. "To the indifferent eye, nothing calls or awakens. Indifference is one of the hallmarks of our time. It is said that indifference is necessary for power; to hold control one has to be successfully indifferent to the needs and vulnerabilities of those under control. Thus, indifference calls for a greater commitment to non-vision. To ignore things demands incredible mental energy. Without even knowing it, indifference can place you beyond the frontiers of compassion, healing and love. When you become indifferent, you give all your power away. Your imagination becomes fixated in the limbo of cynicism and despair." (Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World: John O'Donohue)

Minister, I don't know what personal philosophy or spirituality determines your decision making... whether it is your commitment to gospel or other religious values or perhaps your political persuasion. Perhaps you, too, feel trapped. I just hope that all of us might reflect on what is good and beautiful and true about this land and its people, and commit ourselves to fostering all of that. The stones will be our witness.

After Baxter we continued our journey to "The Centre" of our country. There we were able to claim that "centre" as ours, the spirit that belongs to all of us... With the hope that we might share that spirit with all who enter our shores.

(Fr) Laurie Pearson
Parish Priest
St Thomas More Parish
Mount Eliza

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