On a wall in my office is a note written to me over 40 years ago by Cliff Lee, a proud Aboriginal man of the Stolen Generation.
When Cliff was a child they took him and gave him to another family, but it didn’t work out and he ended up a homeless, drunk on the streets of Sydney.
His note is written in the beautiful copperplate writing of the time. I look at it and love it the way I loved him.
At that time, I was working at the Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s Kings Cross. I was really caught up with the then equivalent of the Black Lives Matter movement. Charlie Perkins and Gary Foley were my friends, and I would speak with them on whatever podium was available.
There is a difference between a cause and the individual suffering of those that the cause grows from. Often, we can get so caught up with the politics of the cause, that its very reason for being gets lost.
I will never forget the sight of Charlie Perkins being sprawled over the bonnet of a police car after being targeted simply because he was Charlie Perkins. Charlie never lost his zeal although he got really down at times.
It’s Cliff who lives in my heart. Even today Cliff symbolises to me the great depths of Aboriginal culture and spirituality that we are, ever so slowly, beginning to recognize and own.
It’s hard for white entitled people to understand the feeling of being lost in your own country. Of seeing the sacred rocks, trees and animals ripped up in the name of progress.
Like I said, Cliff was a homeless Aboriginal non-entity on the streets of Sydney, yet he had a heart as big as the nation. We would often sit and talk, quite often in the gutter, as I recognised something really special in him that no amount of abuse and rejection could obliterate. Cliff would play up too and every now and then I would have to call the cops to get a sense of order. Yet he always forgave me for that.
Over the decades I have run numerous Aboriginal breakfast programs, health and education programs and it is amazing how often in just talking with Aboriginal people, the spirit of Cliff leaps out of them and confronts me.
I was in Darwin teaching literacy and we invested a lot of effort in a reluctant young student. We could recognise the potential in him. He did not like learning at all and made the job of teaching hard. Then one day he noticed the sign above the door to the room we were working in.
“Work”, he said, and then “Room” he said. He then realised the words went together and with a cheeky grin he said, “Workroom”. From that moment on reading became his goal. We had told him that if he learnt to read he could get a driver’s license and as his reading improved, he realised he could do much better than that.
When my marriage busted up, it was Cliff who sat with me, and sat and sat and sat. “I’m here to sit with you so you don’t have to feel alone”, he said. He would still be sitting there today if I needed him.
Unfortunately, Cliff died over thirty years ago. I was away studying in Theological College and didn’t find out. He is buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere and even if I found the one, the law says I cannot put a plaque on it.
So, there is nowhere else for me to mourn Cliff but in my heart and there is no way I can honour him and his people except by doing my utmost to have them sharing in all that life has to offer us.
Every NAIDOC day, except this one, we have held a ceremony in our church grounds. There is the singing, the digeridoos, the smoking ceremony and the clapping sticks. The bloody neighbours always complain about the noise, but I don’t care. These blow-ins need to learn they have entered into a land with a culture thousands of years old.
God bless you Cliff, may you rest easily in God’s arms and may the gum trees in heaven forever keep you safe.