I am not here to make a political statement. Though drug related deaths are a public tragedy that grieves us all, and I strongly believe that the only thing that should grieve us more is that we are not tyring all approaches and treatments available to us in the face of preventable suffering and death.
It should be a matter of deep public concern that we cannot overcome our apathy, and governments cannot find the courage, to risk trialing something new. It is not right that the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform need to battle to get just a snap-shot for this issue on the news once each year. We must re-claim space for this issue in the public and the political domain. It is not something to be ashamed of. Governments can act swiftly and spend up big on the perceived threat of terrorism. How we long for the day when they will act swiftly and spend up big on the immediate risk of preventable deaths from unintentional over-doses, from toxic mixtures of drugs, from shared needles, because we do not have a supervised place to help people cope with and, hopefully, overcome their addiction.
Nor, despite the fact that I am a Christian Minister, am here to make a statement about the church; although I want you to know that I am very proud of the Uniting Church’s operation of the supervised injecting facility in King’s Cross. Very pleased that we have been involved in that ground breaking trial, and that we continue to serve those in need by providing a place where lives are saved. Saved, not only because it is safer to inject in a supervised room than in a alley-way, or a park; saved not only because it seems so important (and so self-evident) to view addicts as human beings in need of health services rather than criminals in need of corrective services; but saved, also, by bringing addicts into an environment where they receive respect, are offered dignity, and from that platform of support, have an opportunity to seek guidance that may help them overcome their addiction.
Despite the fact that the new leader of the opposition in NSW has chosen to make the closure of the King’s Cross facility one of his priorities, I feel confident that the Uniting Church’s commitment to the operation of the supervised injecting room will remain resolute.
How we deal with those addicted to illicit drugs should not be looked upon with the question, “Which policy, at the next election, might win us votes”. It should rather be, “Which policy on this matter will save us lives”. It needs to be said that the Church, sadly, is far from blameless, for it is often the very conservative Christian voice that responds loudest of all when support for an end to this approach is called for. I confess before you that we have much work to do ourselves.
So, I am not here to make a political statement, or to speak about the church – though I have taken some liberties in those directions. What I am in fact here to do is to make a statement about hope. And by hope I don’t mean a fairy-tale, which ignores the reality of life; but a persistent, determined hope, that looks at both the good and the bad of life – as you have had to do – and still wants to say, in the words of Desmond Tutu:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
[and] life is stronger than death.
Bishop Tutu knows that we cannot be free of the evil, the hate, the darkness, and the death. But he also knows that the goodness, the love, the light, and the life are stronger than them all. How he must have had that hope tested – and yet he still holds to it firmly.
We are here because, in one way or another, we have been touched by the devastation of drug-dependence and the sometimes overwhelming suffering it brings. Perhaps we are people who have known, in our inner being, the incalculable pain of losing someone we love – a daughter or a son, a sister or brother, a granddaughter or grandson, a cousin, a friend. Or we may be among those who are here to support others, as they try to see light for themselves at the end of that tunnel.
For me personally, I am here because I have a conscience. My conscience leads me to know that we all must take responsibility for a society in which lives are lost to drug addiction. It is tempting to say, “But the world is thus, there is nothing you can do about it”. Yet the conscience responds, “No. Thus have we made the world, and we are the ones who can change it”.
Despite our coming to this ceremony with different perspectives and experiences, we form something of a coalition of conscience; and that is where the hope is found. By our determination to do what we can to see that our community embraces the need for drug law reform, and our determination to stand with those who have suffered through the death of a loved one, or who suffer each day with the fear of that possibility, the evil, the hate, the darkness, and the death to which Bishop Tutu refers can be overcome by the goodness, the love, the light, and the life, which are stronger than them all. Those strengths are found in people…people like you and me, when we have the courage to listen to our conscience. Let us commit ourselves to be counted among them for more than just this one day in the year.
For those of you who have come because you are grieving, please do not make this the only occasion when you seek a community of support. If this is the first occasion, do not make it the last. You have brothers and sister here who are ready to help, as best we can. We all know the simple truth of the statement: Strength is found in numbers. Grief and sadness, when shared, are made more easy to carry. They will remain; they do not go away. But they are made lighter when others are standing along side you.
Knowing that a special part of this ceremony involves placing flowers around this tree, I turned to that wonderful person of the Spirit, Michael Leunig, and his book “The Prayer Tree”.
In the introduction to this book of prayers he writes:
A person kneels to contemplate a tree and to reflect upon the troubles and joys of life. It is difficult to accept that life is difficult; that love is not easy and that doubt and struggle, suffering and failure, are inevitable for each and every one of us….Nature requires, however, that we form a relationship between our joy and our despair, that they not remain hidden or divided from one another. For these are the feelings which must cross-pollinate and inform each other in order that the soul be enlivened and strong.
As we remember, with love, those who have lost their lives to illicit drugs, we stand before this tree and contemplate both the troubles and the joys of life.
I pray that you will be able to know that the lives we remember today knew not only trouble, but also joy; and that this is therefore not only a time of sadness but also of thankfulness. More than that, it is also a time of hope – for their lives remain joined to yours, and their memory can inspire you to make a difference to the world in which we live.
Peter Walker (Rev)
7 November 2005