Several weeks ago, Sr Meredith Evans rsm got a phone call. It was the 19-year-old son of her friend, to tell her that ‘Frances’ * mother had died. Frances was distraught. Could Sister Meredith come to see her? The two women had met eight years ago, when Frances was freed from a detention centre and seeking asylum. Meredith had been accompanying such people as a Sister of Mercy at the Inverbrackie Detention Centre. After they were released into the community, Meredith, along with many others, formed a Circle of Friends to continue to accompany them as they resettled.
This was not the first tragedy that Frances had shared with Meredith. Her Tamil family had escaped the Sri Lankan war to shelter in India, later proceeding by boat to Australia. Her husband traveled in the first boat, which never arrived. Although Frances brought her three sons safely to shore, it took a long time for his drowning to sink in. Meredith walked with her in the slow, slow process of acknowledging her ongoing pain and encouraging her to move forward with her life. Eventually, the relationship gained in trust and confidence. Through housing dilemmas, parenting challenges and cultural festivals, Meredith provided support and they came to regard each other as friends.
Now Frances’s mother, who had lived most of her adult life as a refugee in India, had died as well. Following the call, Meredith visited as soon as possible. As Frances talked and cried, Meredith started to think. She wondered if the Circle of Friends could offer an opportunity for Frances to reflect on her mother’s life, give thanks to God and remember the gifts that she had given her family. Meredith knew that they had been brought up Catholic, and might appreciate a prayer with a Sister, although Frances now attended a welcoming evangelical church. Frances agreed and they did some planning. She decided that the best, and safest, place for the prayer would be that very lounge they sat in.
So the next Saturday at 4pm, about 10 people formed a small supportive community. Meredith came with a few others from the Circle of Friends. Frances, her sons, and a woman from her church completed the congregation. Meredith had anticipated a table with a photo of Frances’s mother, but she had not expected the abundance of flowers with which it was decorated.
Meredith lit a candle and introduced the prayer as a time for celebrating and giving thanks for Frances’s mother. She explained that the flame reminded them of the paschal candle, and the light of Jesus bringing peace and joy into our lives. Following a simple service sheet, they shared a Tamil Christian hymn, and a bible reading that Frances had chosen in both English and Tamil. Then she shared something about her mother’s life. Meredith then provided a small candle for each participant to light, while giving thanks for someone they wanted to remember with love. This took some time, as griefs rose to the surface and were shared by all. Finally, a friend read a poem and they finished with an Indian song with the theme (translated) “Give us light, O God”. After this, Frances invited them all to stay for the chicken curry and rice she had prepared.
Reflecting back, Meredith said that this prayer had touched all of them. Built on relationships, they had developed a deep connection from which the ritual sprang. After years of fragility, this was a safe space that was intimate enough for those present to feel comfortable with each other. And so it became truly meaningful. They were there with Frances, but Frances was also there with them. They were all in the business of grieving, for someone or another, and it felt good to share the time together.
Meredith has been walking alongside people who are seeking refuge for a long time now. She finds that they don’t fit easily into our civic or even church structures. Although Meredith has had very big jobs in the church and the Mercy order in the past, this is where she now finds life. “I find God afresh in the life experiences of people who are very vulnerable and traumatised by their experiences of leaving their country of origin. I am constantly amazed at their resilience and courage. It is not hard for me to discover a God of love, mercy and compassion in all these exchanges. They bring it out of me, and hopefully I bring it out in them.”
* Frances is not her real name.