It’s an unusual religious community.
Slightly north of Canberra city is the house. It’s not a convent nor is it an apartment block. To most it would look like an ordinary home.
Yet, it’s an interreligious community, and much has happened within its walls.
Asylum seekers have heard the outcome of their cases there. They have learned of their imminent deportation to danger. Others have suffered mental illness as a result of traumatic journeys by sea and having fled persecution.
Hazaras from Afghanistan, Iranians and Sri Lankans have sat around the table, brought together by the well-spoken, passionate, feisty and welcoming Sister Jane Keogh.
Sister Jane will be one of the keynote speakers at the Australian Catholic Communications Congress beginning 4 May 2015 at the Rydges Hotel in North Sydney. She will open up the Congress with a presentation on the theme: “What is our voice?”
“I really love the theme of the Congress, because for me, that scripture ‘out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks’ is really what I have tried to do in my life; to listen to that voice and speak for justice.”
Sister Jane entered the Brigidine order at age 16 after completing her high-schooling at Merici College (a Catholic girls school) and has never regretted it.
She is one of the youngest members of the 70-strong community, but confesses that her life is a little different to some of the older members.
“When I wake up in the morning I have this drive, I think somehow it’s because I’ve been so brought up on the Gospels, on the story of Jesus.”
“What’s stayed with me is that whole sense of a need for all of us to create a better world for children, for people’s grandchildren.”
Sister Jane’s background is in education and she spent 26 years teaching in Catholic schools around Australia.
She is passionate about education, and speaks of the importance of giving a good religious education.
“I found that it was important not just to teach children things, but to help them to grow and have confidence and poise, to become good citizens of the world. We tried to integrate their faith growth with the religion that we taught them. We wanted them to grow as a whole person.”
After 26 years of teaching, Sister Jane travelled to the United States to do a Master’s degree in “teaching people how to care”.
Sister Jane finds that her passion is so strong that sometimes she wonders why others don’t feel the same righteous anger that she does about how people are treated.
It was this passion that led her to what has become a vocation over the last fourteen years.
“I was so appalled at Australia’s response after the Tampa incident. I didn’t know any refugees, I didn’t know any Muslims. I’d never mixed in with people like that.”
“I just went to try and help them have their voices heard, and I didn’t dream that I would find that I would believe that, or discover that they had real stories. So only by living with them and watching them over the years have I come to know and understand people who’ve had such a different background from me.”
“When you get close to people like this, I don’t think any of us can turn away. More of us need to sit beside asylum seekers, and the poor. You can’t help it after that, you have to respond.”
“My passion has been strengthened because I’ve come to know many marginalised people. I’ve lived with drug addicts I’ve lived with people who’ve never been loved, who’ve never been cared for, who’ve never had a chance in life.”
Last year, after fourteen years of active campaigning and advocacy on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers, Sister Jane became involved in a movement of church people called #lovemakesaway.
It was through this movement that she experienced a conversion within a conversion.
She openly admits that in her early days of refugee advocacy, she had criticised sharply politicians for their cruelty, and that she was at first slightly sceptical of the non-violent, prayerful activism of #lovemakesaway.
#Lovemakesaway became a successful social-media campaign, as people of faith came together and staged prayerful, non-violent protests in the offices of federal politicians.
Sister Jane was arrested in Canberra as she and colleagues sat and prayed in the office of a Canberra Senator.
“I saw what they were doing, and because my own commitment to the Gospels is very strong, I found an affinity with them. So we trained, we went along. You couldn’t be involved unless you had that Christian commitment.”
“The movement of #lovemakesaway has since expanded into other areas such as climate change, you might have heard that they raised money to donate 12 solar panels to Kirribilli house, but the government has refused them,” she said.
Sister Jane begins her day with meditation, and admits that sometimes she is more of a talker than a listener.
“Religion’s not just something for Church on Sunday. Jesus was out there with people, he was with people all the time.”
“He was with the poor and the marginalised. He stood up for what he believed in, even though he knew it would take him to the cross, and he did that with a dignity and with faith.”
The Australian Catholic Communications Congress is open for registrations at www.catholic.org.au/accc. Anyone interested in media and communications or a related field is welcome to attend.