The people behind the SSH
The South Sydney Herald (SSH) is published each month by the South Sydney Uniting Church (SSUC) with the support of a band of volunteer contributors and distributors. Why does this small church publish a community paper and how does it contribute to the work of the congregation? After all, with the exception of the regular faith column, there is nothing obviously religious about the articles.
Dorothy McRae-McMahon is a minister-in-association at the church and the features editor. “When we began the paper around a decade ago, we felt that the mainstream media almost always presented bad news about our area, particularly Redfern,” she explained. “We wanted to tell the stories of what we saw as a marvelous and diverse community, rich with lives of creativity and survival. We also wanted to encourage deeper discussions on concerns and issues around us, as against sensationalism and spin.”
Local Waterloo resident and chair of the church council, Heather Robinson, echoes the desire to “tell good stories about the area”. She says the paper is “about building a community and involvement with people”. The mainstream media tend to see the problems on the streets of South Sydney. “We look at people in our community with the eyes of Christ,” Heather says, “We see the worth and value of people.”
This “storytelling” is a valuable part of the work of the church, says news editor, elder, and long-term Redfern resident, Lyn Turnbull. “Jesus was a storyteller,” she says, “he used parables all the time. An ability to tell stories that are relevant to the community that the church is working in is a really valid way of engaging. We give a voice to the marginalised. In this gentrifying area, there will be losers unless people speak up.”
Fundamentally, the paper is about hope and the values of the Sermon on the Mount, which recognises the peacemakers and the poor. “It’s not a rose-tinted glasses view of the area,” says parish minister and managing editor, Andrew Collis, “but hope is really important. The paper’s role is to link up readers with their local leaders and help make information and resources accessible.”
He cites the many stories the paper has published about “tireless Aboriginal and other leaders in various organisations in South Sydney”, such as, Shane Phillips from the Tribal Warrior Association, which offers training and mentoring to young people, and NSW Police Superintendent Luke Freudenstein, the current Local Area Commander, who works imaginatively to build positive relationships with local people.
“Shane Phillips was instrumental in setting up family days on The Block and Luke Freudenstein trains with young people in the gym,” Andrew Collis explains. “As the local Uniting Church minister, I get to be part of that and to help communicate the good news.”
Assistant editor and Sydney University student, Kate Williamson, also values the opportunity to tell stories about the “creative and positive things local people are doing”. In a recent issue, Kate interviewed Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer with Redfern Police, Lesley Townsend, about her 15 years working to improve local relationships and the progress she sees.
Publishing the SSH builds relationships because people value the media coverage the paper provides, as well as the opportunity to raise the profile of important issues. The church has collaborated on public events with Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) to recognise their Forget-Me-Knot Blue Ribbon Days. “A couple of years ago, the then NSW Premier, Kristina Keneally, untied a blue ribbon we had wrapped around the church to symbolise the hope of healing and the photo was on the front page of the SSH,” Heather Robinson remembers. “Last year the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, came to Redfern Park, along with people from many local organisations, to show support for adults abused as children by symbolically untangling the knot of child abuse.”
In 2012 the paper marked ANZAC Day with a front-page photograph of marchers in Redfern, including a picture of visiting young Aboriginal dancers from the Central Coast. The “Coloured Digger March”, as the local community calls it, recognises the contribution of Aboriginal servicemen and women. “We were able to send copies of the front page to the young dancers,” Andrew Collis says, “and they were thrilled.”
Striking photographs have been a feature of the SSH for many years, especially the work of the late Ali Blogg who worked tirelessly to capture the heart and spirit of the South Sydney community in her photographs. Sadly, Ali died in April this year and her work for the paper is deeply missed.
Assistant editor, Esther Butcher, another key person in the voluntary team, shares the commitment to powerful photography. “A good photograph gives the story a visual punch to get readers engaged,” Esther explains. “On the day the Aboriginal Housing Company got its first approval to redevelop The Block, the cover photograph captured a moment in history and symbolised hope for future generations. It shows Aboriginal leader, Mick Mundine, with his hands on his young nephew’s shoulders, flanked by Premier Kristina Keneally and local member Tanya Plibersek.”
When one of the founders of the paper, activist and elder, Trevor Davies, died suddenly last year, the Pitt Street Uniting Church was packed with hundreds of mourners for his funeral. A few days earlier, about 80 people gathered in the afternoon on the pavement outside Trevor’s favourite coffee shop, the Tripod Café on Abercrombie Street in Chippendale. The hearse with Trevor’s body was parked there too.
Andrew Collis and Dorothy McRae-McMahon led a simple meeting with a microphone. Everyone was invited to share memories of Trevor. Many people, who were unwilling or unlikely to enter a church, had the opportunity to experience a connection with faith and a ritual that offered comfort at a difficult time. Similarly at Christmas, the Tripod Café was packed with contributors and distributors of the SSH. Andrew Collis was the MC for a dinner that celebrated the achievements of the local community.
The fundamental theology that underpins the paper is about God’s love for the world and loving your neighbour. “To put it simply, the church’s mission is to tune in and take part in that love,” Andrew says.
In the 1930s in New York, Catholic-convert Dorothy Day and others founded the Catholic Worker newspaper and Houses of Hospitality for the homeless. This example is part of the inspiration for this local church in Waterloo to publish a community paper. The SSUC collaborates with the Cana Communities, started by Sister Anne Jordan and Father Brian Stoney, to offer accommodation and support to homeless men at the church each Wednesday night.
“All this means we are a church which is both challenged and encouraged, as we try to live out our faith in loving our neighbours,” says Dorothy McRae-McMahon.