Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Christmas Island chaplaincy: a light in the darkness

Christmas Island is a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean, yet it will seem vast compared to some of the tight spaces Rev Christine Senini worked in. And she won’t have to sleep in a bunk bed.

Christine wasn’t actively looking for a new placement, having recently finished a six-year term with the Australian Navy. However, the role of Christmas Island chaplain seems to have been created just for her. She brings with her a unique mix of skills and experiences, including time working in congregational ministry and as a Navy chaplain. Her arrival on Christmas Island with her husband, Luke, earlier this month was the answer to almost two years of prayer and planning by the Uniting Church in Australia and the Anglican Diocese of Perth. In February 2010 the Uniting Church President Rev Alistair Macrae and the Anglican Archbishop of Perth, the Most Reverend Roger Herft, visited Christmas Island to look into the needs of people in the detention centre. The Jesuit Refugee Service, along with the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth, have had a commitment to providing chaplaincy services on Christmas Island for some time, and currently have Sr Joan Kelleher, a Sister of Mercy, placed there. However, it was clear that the need was great, and the Anglican and Uniting Churches agreed to work together to recruit and fund another chaplain. For 6 months, Christine will provide humanitarian chaplaincy on the remote Island, which currently houses around 1,500 detained asylum seekers, 1,200 residents, and fly-in, fly-out detention centre staff. It’s a huge challenge, but one Christine is looking forward to.
“There are a lot of dark places in the world. And if people are going to be in those dark places, don’t we want the light of Christ to be there in some way?” she asks.
“Chaplaincy is one of the ways we can be there. It doesn’t mean we have all the answers, or suddenly the darkness will all become light, but we’re able to say, ‘We’re here with you in the suffering or the joy or whatever this experience this is, and let us be here together.’
“I want to be able to say, God is here too, in these circumstances, in a real, tangible way. Let’s discover what that is and how that is.”
The detention centre, as well as Christmas Island generally, is multi-cultural and multi-faith. She anticipates that part of her role will be to advocate on behalf of people of other faiths to ensure they can express their spirituality the way they need to, and to work ecumenically and with the Muslim Imams who visit regularly.  
“My view is, I’m a Christian and I don’t ever run away from that, but I don’t impose that either,” she says. “I respect that other people see or think of God differently”.
“If I was in a country where Christianity was a minority or had issues, I’d hope someone would be able to resource me, and if during that process some of us change our opinions — well it’s a two way thing, we learn and grow.”
As far as the detainees are concerned, Christine is aware she is only one person, but says chaplaincy can be an important step on a journey.
“People may only see me as a chaplain who cares about them, but hopefully when they get their visas, then they’ll know there will be other people who care about them.”
Rosemary Hudson Miller, the Uniting Church in WA’s associate general secretary (justice and mission) has the dual responsibility of refugee advocacy and chaplaincy oversight on behalf of the Synod. She spent two days with Christine in Perth, briefing her about the situation on Christmas Island and arranging for meetings with key Perth support people, including previous Port Hedland immigration detention centre chaplain, Rev Bev Fabb. Rosemary said it was a great joy and relief to deliver Christine and her husband Luke to the airport, but, “this is only the beginning,” she said. “The challenge is to sustain the ministry, by supporting Christine, and the chaplains who follow her.”

Please support this important work and show care for those in Christmas Island by helping to send a Chaplain to Christmas Island.  Read more here.