"If freedom is all you have known, then you have never known freedom."

Before the Federal election, Darwin’s Bishop Eugene Hurley wrote to now PM Tony Abbott about his experience of visiting detention centres in his diocese. He recalls speaking about freedom, and the response of one individual who said, “Father, if freedom is all you have known, then you have never known freedom.”

"If freedom is all you have known, then you have never known freedom."

Bishop Eugene is one of many Australians who, anguished by the policies espoused by both major political parties, has spoken of compassion and acted accordingly.


Two local Sisters have initiated a creative response and they invite all who feel similarly to join them in bearing silent witness, as one of their banners states, “Waiting in hope with asylum seekers”.  


Dominican Sister Jenny Gerathy and Josephite Sister Annie Laurie conceived the idea of inviting people to gather quietly at Queens Wharf, Newcastle, on Thursday afternoons. As Jenny says, “We may feel speechless in the face of our leaders, and we may have been challenged when it came to casting a vote, but we are not speechless before our God.


“We didn’t want to rally and enter into arguments. We wanted to do something peaceful, something that would encourage others to think for themselves, and hopefully bring a peaceful outcome for asylum seekers.”


Why Queens Wharf? “It’s been the place of so many ‘welcomes’ to our city. How many of our ancestors arrived here from foreign shores, and were given a warm welcome and a new home? In turn they built our city,” says Jenny.


Annie explains how the prayer vigil arose: “Conversation over a birthday cake, celebrating the gift of life, and rejoicing in our capacity to live in freedom with friends and family, enjoying the riches of the earth – all this gave us the impetus to do something.


“We were discussing a news story about a Congolese woman who had gone to Brisbane to meet her dead sister’s five children. The grief she experienced at the airport was overwhelming, as the reality of the deaths of both parents of these children sank in. We decided we had to do something and any number of letters to Parliamentarians and newspapers seemed to be falling on deaf ears.”


This unorthodox approach to advocacy seems to be striking a chord with locals – and not-so- locals. Promoter of Charism in Dominican Schools and former Maitlander, Marg O’Shea, has travelled from Sydney on a number of occasions, simply to stand in silent witness.


“I’ve been involved in many forms of political protest – the anti-Vietnam Movement, the great Palm Sunday rallies during the Cold War....since both sides of politics have taken such a hard-hearted approach to asylum seekers, I have almost been ashamed to be Australian. I thought a vigil at the wharf was a very Dominican way of responding to a situation that is full of myth and spin: Contemplation and Action. I have made a commitment to myself to be there as many Thursdays as work permits.”


David Whitson of Hamilton Wesley Uniting Church adds a poignant note to the gathering by bringing a small boat he has crafted. It’s filled with figures representing asylum seekers and refugees. Beside them stands a cross, and a sign, “Boat for sale”.


David’s commitment to refugees and asylum seekers harks back to 1999: “I was invited to perform my magic show for some refugee children from Kosovar who were staying at the Singleton Army Base. The joy and wonder on the children's faces worked some magic on me. It reminded me that children are children. They especially enjoyed the rabbit trick. I was told later that many of the children had lost their pets. It was one aspect of being a refugee that I had never thought about. 


"Now I’m involved with the Refugee Action Network Newcastle. I hope that by joining this silent vigil some more positivity may arise around the welfare of asylum seekers."


One woman who identified herself as belonging to Adamstown Uniting Church said, “We wanted to do something and didn’t know what to do. Thank you for doing this and letting us join you.”


Annie recalled, “A teenage boy on a scooter was obviously fascinated and kept riding among us reading our placards; one week an elderly man on his bike also rode among us and said, “Terrific”. A young woman and her children on bikes signalled their approval. Perhaps we have made some ferry passengers feel uncomfortable – that is not our intention – we would just like them to think more about their attitude towards asylum seekers. Several people have expressed their dissatisfaction. That is their choice.”


When asked how they would respond to someone who said, ‘What does it all achieve?’ Annie explains, “We want to make a non-violent response. All the discussion in the world hasn’t made a difference; neither have countless letters to the editor. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Psalm 34). When we consider the efforts they make to seek freedom, we realise asylum seekers are people of hope. We are inspired by their stance.”


Not everyone who is committed to the cause can be at Queens Wharf on Thursday afternoon, so Jenny and Annie have some practical suggestions for at-home participation. “Our elderly community of Sisters in Maitland is unable to join us at the Wharf each week; however, they spend the time in silence as a community at home,” said Jenny.


You could:

  • Consider lighting a candle at home, sitting in the silence, praying if that is your choice.
  • If you have a family, perhaps you could spend a few minutes in silence together before the evening meal, mindful of those who do not enjoy the freedom we have.
  • Continue to educate yourself about what is happening.
  • If you believe we should welcome asylum seekers to our shores please don’t remain silent when you hear others making negative remarks. Calmly invite them to reconsider their stance.

Jenny recalls, “Our founding Sisters from Ireland arrived at this wharf and set about educating the youth of the Maitland region. Might we consider the wealth of gifted personhood asylum seekers might bring to our community, as our ancestors have done before us?”


Read Bishop Eugene’s letter in full or take a look at “10 essential facts about asylum seekers”. 


You are welcome to join the group at Queens Wharf on Thursdays until Christmas 4.30-5.30pm (daylight saving 5.00-6.00pm), for as long, or as short, as you can.

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