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  • Social Justice Commission

Come and See

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Recently I was invited to join a group visiting the Ration Shed Museum in Cherbourg. The group’s purpose was to come and see something of the story of the Cherbourg Reserve and learn of the harsh realities experienced by its Aboriginal inmates. This visit to this museum was in the hope that we who shared the experience will add our voices in telling the truth of this raw and painful history of the First Nations peoples in Queensland.

Cherbourg, like other Aboriginal reserves in Queensland, was created because of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act in 1897. This Act sought to control the movement, labour, children and personal property of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders. First Nations peoples from all over Queensland were taken by force from their Country and put in reserves while their lands was taken from them. A superintendent had the power to micromanage their lives and could punish at will. The most feared punishment was to be sent to another reserve and never see family and friends again. This happened many times.

Along the wall of the Ration Shed Museum is a time line with headings like invasion, dispossession, protection, living under the Act, the dormitory system, assimilation and more. Under these headings was a description of what happened and the impacts upon those resident at Cherbourg. The museum tells the story from their perspective and from their experiences. For this reason it was important to come and see.

Jesus invited those who wanted to know where he lived to come and see. In a story in the first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus takes the first disciples to the place he was staying and they stayed with him the rest of the day. Through their choice to come and see, Andrew was able to see Jesus in a new light.

Jesus continues to invite us to come and see. Matthew, at the end of chapter 25, tells a parable about the final judgment. He has followers asking questions.

“When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?"

And Jesus has the king replying

“in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did it to me”.

Through the experience of being alongside the least of our sisters and brothers, Jesus calls the disciples to see them in a new light.

The first disciples were invited to come and see Jesus in the flesh. We are invited to come and see Jesus in the places where he can be experienced today. Our Catholic tradition has emphasized prayer, scripture and receiving Eucharist as privileged ways of experiencing Jesus. Alongside these ways, Matthew 25 teaches us that in responding to the needs of the least in our midst we respond to Jesus.

I responded to an invitation to come and see something of the experiences of First Nations peoples forced to live in Cherbourg. This invitation was not about making me or any of the group feel guilty because of the past. Its hope was that we grow in empathy for those who suffered this injustice. Its hope is that we also grow in courage to share what we have learnt so that a different future is possible.

It is only when we risk responding to the invitation to come and see do we see that First Nations peoples were treated as less than human and this lessened our humanity as well. To come and see, means to come with an openness to grow in empathy and to deepen our sense of what it means to be Christian. To come and see, helps us understand the real needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and how we can walk alongside them in their seeking justice.

The Queensland Government is beginning a treaty process with First Nations peoples. This will only be successful if we deliberately seek opportunities to come and see the reality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences. We need to understand history better and we need to be part of the truth telling that is required so that justice is possible.

To come and see places like the Ration Shed Museum is an opportunity for growth in faith and love. I am grateful that I was invited to come and see and I am also grateful for the warm welcome of Uncle Eric Law. I encourage you all also to respond to the Ration Shed Museum’s invitation to come and see.

Dr David Tutty

First published in Horizon Magazine, February, 2021

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