Glenn Loughrey, Glen Iris

“A typical day as a priest or a typical day as an indigenous priest? Or a typical day as a person who is finding their identity within both priestly vocation and the fact that they’re indigenous as well? It’s a big set of questions.”

An audio clip from this interview with Glenn:

Perhaps you could start by giving me a sense of what a normal day, a typical day, is like for you?

A typical day as a priest or a typical day as an indigenous priest? Or a typical day as a person who is finding their identity within both priestly vocation and the fact that they’re indigenous as well? It’s a big set of questions. I often say to people I’m a priest because that’s the whitest thing I could do. There’s a sense in which I’m coming late to my Aboriginality. Although that has been a part of who I am all my life and others have always known it and seen it, it was a secret within our family. It wasn’t until I was much older, in my 40s heading towards my 50s, that I started to get a real understanding of who we were as a family and who I was as a person. Although going back, there were lots of hints given by friends who referred to me always as Young Black Fellow or Young Darkie, because my father was Black Fellow or Darkie. I thought that was because we were sunburnt. It was a process of working through that and coming to grips with that. And part of what my father used to always say was a good person was a white man; he referred to a good person as a white man: “That man’s a white man, he’s a person you can trust.” I grew up with the idea of white and black as being diametrically opposite and not the same thing. In many ways, it doesn’t surprise that I ended up being an Anglican priest because that’s probably the whitest thing a black person could do if they’re going to be accepted in society.

Perhaps in answer to your first response, could you situate the listener in the practical things that you’re doing on a typical day. And then I’ll ask you a little bit more about what’s going on inside.

Well, the practical task here is simply, I come across, I open the door in the church (St Oswald’s Anglican Church, Glen Iris), and we may or may not have some form of liturgy early in the morning. And then my tasks involve basically just spending time with people, talking to people that come and go around the parish. Ensuring that the things that need to be done get done: there’s the ministry, there’s ritual and liturgy; they vary during the day depending what day it is. And then there’s pastoral care; that breaks in and it could end up being going to visit somebody in hospital, organising a funeral, sitting down with somebody about a baptism. Sitting with somebody who just got bad news and then preparing sermons for Sunday. They take up most of my day, most days of the week and it’s a very disjointed workday because people come at various times and what you had planned usually gets… It’s probably good for an Aboriginal because I can just put it off to mañana, it will be done tomorrow. But it is that kind of life … you never quite know, when you sit down to have dinner … your phone can ring. It’s really quite regular, quite constant, but at the same time irregular, in the sense that things happen and break in. That’s sort of a typical day and a typical week. The other thing that I do in a typical day is I spend two hours a day in the art room painting. That’s the other side and it’s part of what I do here because I do exhibitions in here and much of that money goes back into the parish. Or some of that money goes back into the parish, some of it’s part of this process as well. And yes, we do a lot here in terms of social justice, we do a lot here in terms of looking at a progressive or more liberal view of theology. We’re moving away from things like sin and we don’t use those kind of terms that much in this space, so it’s very much about an open and inclusive place. We do a lot of work in the indigenous field and we’re involved in a whole range of those kinds of activities.

Well you’d begun to go into those other areas that you flagged, which were what a typical day might be like for an indigenous priest or someone exploring their identity. Are there things that come to mind about those aspects of yourself that inform the typical day. There’s art obviously, but…

Art’s one of the things. The other things are some of the things that I learnt growing up as an Aboriginal, as a young person, and those were things like learning to listen. My father had a statement that says if you walk your country – he was a farmer – if you walk your country, your country will tell you what it needs and you can respond to that. I try and do that in much the same way here. That informs how I spend time with people. I try to be available, a listener picking up the information, gaining a relationship with people to help them to develop themselves and not so much to impose upon them a direction or a purpose. Although I’m sure I do that in some ways, but I try to be open to the possibilities that are within the place. And all that comes from my background … a lot of that stuff informs what I do. And then yes, it’s the art and a lot of reading. I do a fair bit of reading about a more evolutionary way of looking at theology and relationships so that we do move fairly much away from God as a punisher. And get away from the guilt thing that’s still very heavily … involved in much of institutional religion. So that’s where my discovery of myself has informed the direction here very heavily.

Where might it help the reader to start speaking about this experience of your indigenous background, and how you came to, or began to come to it?

Growing up, I was conscious that my father was always referred to as Black Fellow or Darkie. In one conversation, a school friend – we’d had an argument – referred to me as the son of a drunken bush black. Another parent had said that you can be friends with him, but just remember where he comes from. I was aware of this fairly negative viewpoint of who I was as a person, but I wasn’t sure what that was all about. Because none of my family would talk about it because my grandfather made my uncle promise that nobody in the family would talk about grandmother’s background. And it goes back a long way. All the Aboriginal people from there were moved out in 1900 because of two brothers, Jimmy and Joe Governor, who were the protagonists in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. And in some way we are connected to them. My suspicion is that they are some way related to my grandmother and she was left behind when the rest of the Aboriginal people were moved out. And then she stayed behind with her family and then she married my grandfather. But I never knew any of that story and that only came out later. But I was looking at some photographs one day, ten or so years ago, of my daughter’s christening and my grandmother was holding my daughter. And I just went: This is so obvious. My grandmother is Aboriginal. How come I haven’t seen this before? And then I started to do research to discover that and to start to think through why I am like I am, why my father was like he was and where all the violence and everything that we lived through as a family came from. Because of my father, he was a very heavy drinker and there was a lot of violence and we lived with that for a long time. And I was starting to get the gist of where that all came from.

And it wasn’t just necessarily about him; it was this intergenerational trauma that went back much further than him. And, there’s many experiences of him trying to be white and not quite making it, which was the story of Jimmy Governor; he wanted to be white and couldn’t be. And my father lived sort of in this in-between kind of world where he couldn’t be black because he didn’t have the history and he couldn’t be white because society in the 50s and 60s never allowed him to be. Even though he married a landowner’s daughter and all of that, and even though his sisters married my mother’s brothers and they were okay, but it was a different thing for the man. He struggled. So it was all of that process of starting to come to grips with that and then starting to doing some research and thinking it through, thinking through why I feel the way I do about spiritual issues and how connected I am to the ground, the dirt, the soil as a country. Although I wouldn’t have ever at that time talked about it in those terms. And, because I’d always tried to be, you know… I went and did university studies, I wrote, I was thinking if I became… got my Master’s and all the rest of it everybody would applaud you, but it never seemed to work and there was always something missing.

And since coming down here to Melbourne in the last two years and into this parish, I’ve started to paint in a very indigenous style that I’ve developed myself and that has begun to help me address a huge amount of things about my identity. Because in writing and contemplation and in drawing and contemplation and art, I’ve been able to process a lot of who I am and do drawings that speak about my country. I’ve done a painting called A Self-portrait of a Wiradjuri Man, which is a reclaiming of the country in which I was born. I painted a painting from memory of the key sacred sites where my mother and father was born, where my grandmother was born, the towns. And I painted it all from memory, in an indigenous biogeographical style. Because all that country now has been dug up as a coal mine, it’s all gone, so you can’t go back and walk over it. I painted that and then I went and got a photograph and put [them alongside each other and thought], “Wow, that’s exactly, that’s the photograph, the aerial photograph I’ve got.” It was that connection and that’s become a really important part of that process of reconnecting to who I am as an indigenous person. And here, for many people in this parish, they’d never met somebody who was indigenous before. Or if they had, it was sort of a very stereotypical relationship or image and wasn’t somebody who’s on equal level with them. Although they wouldn’t say that, but that’s how it was. And it’s been a journey here for us as a parish and me as a person, developing my identity and then working through what that means for them in this parish. Putting in a garden in the back which is a reconciliation garden, we do Reconciliation Week here now. We have a social justice group that deals predominantly with indigenous issues; we’re having Miriam Rose Ungunmerr from Daly River come down in June. We’ve started to develop that and I’ve become fairly heavily involved in promoting and talking about indigenous issues.

It’s been a very powerful journey, but it’s a long way to go and there’s a lot of things that come into question. Do you remain an Anglican priest, do you stay within this very white world or do you start to look at another way of being? And that doesn’t mean I want to go back and sit under a tree, but it might mean I want to go somewhere and spend a lot of time painting and working on my art. I’ve got art going into Burrinja up at Upwey in June for an exhibition and gradually I’m starting to get out there and that kind of process. And I think that will be where I will go as things go forward. I’m not sure because my Aboriginality has changed the way I see my faith; it’s changed the way I see God; it’s changed the way I see the Christian message. It’s changed all of that and that’s happened very quickly. And it may be that churches, the church itself, will find it difficult to have me because I’ll have messages and say things that probably aren’t as traditional or spiritual or comfortable.

May I go back to an earlier stage, this time before you were really aware or more conscious of your identity? This decision that you made to become a priest, ‘the whitest thing you could do’, before you were fully aware or growing in awareness. Do you have a sense of how your indigenous heritage was shaping you and shaped your relationships in that time before the last ten years?

Looking back I would say that, because of who I was and where I came from many of the opportunities and doors in the local area where I grew up simply weren’t available to me. I went back a few months ago and I went to do a funeral for my mother’s best friend who died. And a man who’s known me since I was a baby came up to me, and I’m 61 and he’s obviously in his 80s and he said to me you’re… And I’d done the funeral and my name was on the order of service and everything was there, and he said you’re Black Fellow’s young fellow aren’t you? You’re Young Black Fellow and never mentioned my name for the ten minutes of the conversation we had. And that was, when I looked back, the attitude people had towards me and my family as I was growing up.

I had opportunities to do things and I may have even gotten a chance to do them occasionally. But often they seemed to be taken away because people would find reasons not to have you back again. And I found that I was on the outside; we lived in the poorest part of town. My friend’s father was a businessman in town, and I’d go and stay at his place, but I always felt like this was a nice thing, but you never got further than just being that. And we’re still friends but in his house I always felt like I was not right, not really there. And that seemed to be the case in so many other ways in my growing up. And I think that it did influence me because somewhere in that I picked up a lot of the anger and the frustration of my father. I picked up the fact that it didn’t matter who I went to see about getting help with what was happening in our house, nobody was really interested. I went and saw somebody one night and told them what was going on because something really drastic had just occurred. And they just put me in a car and took me home and dropped me outside the house. You had this sense that nobody was going to do anything about anything. I guess back then, our Aboriginality as a family had influenced how I grew up and subconsciously affected my understanding of myself. And I became a person who always wanted to do the right thing, always wanted to help people, always wanted to… I was looking for affirmation, looking for people to say you’re okay, you’re all right, you’re good enough. And I never really felt good enough.

How did you come to be a priest?

I’d been a Salvation Army officer when I was younger; that’s where I met my wife. Then we had some tragedy. Because doctors made mistakes Gaye lost a number of pregnancies because they gave her the wrong drugs. Then when our daughter was born Gaye spent most of the nine months in Sydney Hospital and they both nearly died on a number of occasions. I, at the end of that, got moved to Brisbane. I worked on the street with street kids and then had a bit of a falling out with the Salvation Army about how we were doing that. I just walked out and I really became a drunk for the next 13 years. And I woke up in a hotel one day with not a stick of furniture standing and two broken ribs and had no idea how I got there. And then I went off to AA and got sober and started to go back to church.

I had started to go back to church before that and it was the local Anglican Church and the priest there was very supportive and helped both Gaye and I through a whole lot of stuff. And as a result somebody that had known me when I was a Salvation Army officer, was now a bishop in Brisbane came and said to me, “Why don’t you get ordained?” That’s how the process started the second time. And I don’t think I ever consciously thought about it as, “This is the whitest thing I’d do”, because even then I wasn’t really aware of my Aboriginality. It wasn’t until after I’d done it. All I’m saying is that I think in my psyche, that was where it was coming from at the time.

I became a priest, I became a deacon and then went off and spent three or four years working in the Navy running a drop-in welfare centre for junior sailors in Sydney and going to see them on ships and doing all the macho stuff at mid-50s. Because my father was very macho, he always said you had to be more man than everybody else; if they could drink five pints you had to drink ten. If they could do whatever you had to do more because it was part of that whole thing. I went off and did that stuff and it was great, I loved it. And then this other guy that was a priest at the place that I went to when things went to custard was now a bishop and he got me to go on and be ordained in Grafton. And then I went and worked as a school chaplain, and then I ended up down here. And all that’s been very important, but I’m not sure whether it’s a permanent process or whether I’ll always be a priest, whether I’ll always be in the church? I’m not sure where that’s taking me or what’s going on and it’s been a very circuitry process.

A couple of times you’ve talked about the impact that this Aboriginality had, maybe unconsciously. This sort of sense of if only I do this, that might be enough. I suppose that this might be an example of how that part of you has shaped your relationships with other people. Is there more that you’d like to say about that?

I think that’s very much a part of it and it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve been here and working with my supervisor, that I’ve begun to work through some of that and realising that I am enough and that I am okay. And I am who I am and it’s all right to be that person and I don’t have to spend my entire time waiting for it to all go to custard, waiting for things to fall apart, waiting for me to not be good enough and for people to go, “Look we’re going to get rid of you and get somebody else”. And I’ve spent all my life thinking in that terminology.

Being a very workaholic person, if I do more and I’m indispensable I’ll be okay. I’m not there now, I’ve moved a long way from that, as I’ve started to come to grips with who I am and being comfortable with it and having people recognise me for that and include me in that. One of the things about being down here is that indigenous communities and indigenous activists, and even in the art community, people are going, “You’re good enough, this is great”. I rang an artist studio and said I think I should come and do some lessons. And he said I’ll come out and have a look at your art and he said, “I will just destroy you if you come and do it, you are… This is…”. And when he started talking about my art it was like listening to somebody talking about Van Gogh and you going, “This man’s talking about my art as if this is really, really, really good stuff and as if I’m a really good artist, and maybe I am.” When I first came with my art, I would sell it for $200, and then I realised that was not right. I did that once and somebody said, “Well we like your art, but we hang it on the wall the other way because it looks better that way”. Suddenly now I charge $1500, $2000 for my art and people pay it. And suddenly realising I am okay. And the same with my Aboriginality: I get asked to go and speak at events about who I am and where I’d come from. And people are accepting of that and saying, “That’s okay, you’re okay, you have something to say, we recognise you.” Melbourne has been really powerful in that process and was saying, “You are who you are, we’re not going to argue with you, we’re not going to question you; we’re not going to pull you down.” And Melbourne and this parish here have been really vital in helping me to move from that place where I was before where I was never good enough.

You’ve already touched on some of what I want to ask about, but I’m wondering about how that process has affected the way you interact with people here in this parish, the way you minister?

I think I do so in a more authentic and honest way, in that I don’t try and pacify or fix or make people feel good or try and solve things anymore. You know, if I say something or do something and somebody finds it difficult to deal with, I don’t go watering it down. I have the confidence in myself to be able to say, “Look, I’m sorry, but this is the way it is and this is where we’re going to go, this is how it’s going to work.” And I don’t have to defend myself anymore because I’ve moved and I’m finding that I’m okay at saying to people “No”, or maybe, “We can do it this way” or, “Sorry, but that’s not right, you need to rethink what you just said or how you just acted.” It’s given me a lot more confidence and a lot more assuredness about myself. I can stand and look in the mirror and say, “You’re doing okay and you do have the capacity…”.

I think what I would translate it from, was that when I was in other places and even in the school before I came here, I always felt like I was a ten-year-old kid amongst the teachers; the teachers were all adults and I was a ten-year-old kid. I always felt that I wasn’t really equal, wasn’t on the same level. And I’ve always felt like a little boy in the whole group. And there was a Salvation Army officer many years ago – he used to always refer to me as boy – and we didn’t get along obviously. But I think I’ve had that in my psyche for many, many years, that attitude that I’m not the equal of the people that I’m amongst. Now I don’t have that. Now I see myself as extremely equal and I have the right to say these things and I have the right to be able to talk about them. And I have the right to say to people, “No, we don’t behave like that, you don’t act like that, you don’t do this and in a church”. And churches generally are nice places; everybody’s nice to one another, even if they don’t necessarily like each other; they’re always nice. Because somehow nice and being Christian are equal in people’s minds. A lot of things happen in places that should’ve been dealt with a long time ago, but because people are nice they never get dealt with.

And part of what has happened here is that I had to deal with some things and I’ve had to say to people, “You may have spoken to people like that before, but you don’t do it now; it’s not happening”. And I can do that now; I couldn’t do that before. Even when I ran my own business I was always at the whims and wishes of others. I couldn’t go, “No”. Part of the whole journey into who I am has been this regaining of place, regaining of belonging. Not so much to a culture, but belonging to myself as a real person. And that’s been the gift of this parish to me and the gift of Melbourne and the gift of art.

And the fact that I’m 61 years of age and I’m having a major exhibition and I’m an emerging artist is extremely exciting. I’ll actually be 62 when it happens. I would never have had the confidence in that and I got that. A teacher one day looked at some drawings I did because I was going to do a book of poetry with some drawings. And she said I like your lines, you should paint. And I said I’ve never painted in my life, how do I do that? And she said get a big piece of canvas and fill it with paint and see what happens. So we started. And that started in 2012 and that process has been what’s… And now I’m sort of thinking, I’ve never had a lesson, haven’t got a degree and yet I have the confidence in myself to be able to go and create things that other people will spend money to buy, or will look at and wax lyrical about in terms where I probably don’t have an idea what they’re talking about really, but they’re seeing things different to where I am.

You also touched on other things that have been changed. You talked about how this process is affecting how you think about faith and God.

It has changed how my understanding of all of that is. I guess I’ve moved a long way from being a fairly evangelical type of Christian who was all about Jesus dying on the cross for people’s sins and Jesus died for me and God had to send Jesus to put right the sinful nature of human beings. I don’t believe in that anymore; I don’t see that that is what it’s all about. I think it’s become a part of my Aboriginality that was connecting me back to a very primal basis of faith, which is all of life is one, we’re all deeply connected to the source of all being. And that we’re on a journey to wholeness, not to fix up something that we broke, but to get to something we’ve never had before for the very first time. That if our world is an ever-expanding and ever-creating existence, it’s moving and shifting. And the points of light are moving further and further away from us, which is what science and evolution tells us, then God is an ever-creating God. So, nothing’s finished, everything’s moving and we have to do much of what indigenous people talk about, of sitting and deeply embracing this whole process that’s taking us to a place. And we don’t have to do anything; we’re not trying to fix things or put ourselves back into a relationship with God. We’re in a relationship with God, that’s just part of how we’re made. It’s okay. We are enough.

And we just have to sit and we just have to be with it and we have to try and take that sense of being enough into our relationships with others. We’re not having a relationship for our own benefit, we’re having a relationship for their benefit and for the benefit of the future of our world. We have conversation; it’s not about winning arguments, but about finding ways to progress us to wholeness, to unity, to oneness. And God and Jesus, the whole Easter story is this wonderful story of a man who was so in tune with all of that that he never stepped away from the consequences of that, of being in tune. And that this sense of a cosmic outcome that when Jesus dies, and in the minds of those who were there, returns and however that was done. However they saw that and they wrote about it and they experienced that that became the ongoing cosmic creation, he became a cosmic Christ. The Christ for all of the cosmos, the Christ that was there at the beginning and will be there at the end, whatever that will look like and wherever he takes us to. My Aboriginality has shifted me from very much a western, sacrificial theology to a very open, organic, inclusive process, comfortably at ease with evolution, comfortably at ease with the fact that I’m just a part of this ongoing wholing of the world. And, to me I think wholing is a wonderful word, because it shifts us away from all the parts. I did a t-shirt for National Reconciliation Week last year that says reconciliation is not black or white. You know, reconciliation isn’t about black story or white story, it’s about the wholing of us as people and we need to think about this. I grew up with trees. I love trees. I didn’t like goannas, but I understand the primal urge of goannas because of the tribal totem. This very earthy place to be is important for me.

Now you may have answered this next question to your full satisfaction, but there might be something else. If someone saw you in the street who didn’t know you, what is something that they would be surprised to know about you?

Well, I think first of all lots of people look at me and go… They’re surprised that I’m Aboriginal, that I’m indigenous because I don’t look it. And people still judge you by your colour and don’t understand that this is a much bigger issue than that. That’s probably first thing that they would know.

Well, they probably would be surprised that I’m a mime artist and studied at the Marcel Marceau School of Mime. Is this true? It’s true. When did that happen? When I was 50 I got an email one morning from the Marcel Marceau School of Mime saying there’s a space open, would you like to come? Because I’d sent an email a year or two before saying whenever there was a space for an overweight, out of shape Australian mime, I’d love to come. They sent me an email and said, “Yes, we’ll give you a scholarship to come, it’s only for two or three weeks”. And I said, “Yes, I’d love to go”. I hopped on a plane the first time; I’d never been outside of Australia, never been on an overseas flight, had no French language. I landed in France, stayed at the youth hostel, which was a disaster. They found me a place, a walk up near the Place de la Republique near where the school was at the time. And I just went there and landed in this place, completely like a fish out of water. But it was wonderful, and I was the oldest; everybody else was all trim and terrific. And that was an important part of that whole process because the lecturer said to me – who was a Bulgarian and spoke 5 different languages – he said to me it doesn’t matter about your age or your shape, it’s what you do with it all, it’s how comfortable you are with it. I don’t do much now. I spent three weeks there and it was just awesome. I did that; nobody would ever imagine that.

Read more from Glenn Loughrey at his blog, Red Shoes Walking, and see his art here.

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