Listen: Uniting Church minister Rev Radhika Sukumar-White explains why she joined a peaceful protest in Malcolm Turnbull’s office. Above: Police look on as Radhika and friends share communion. All images: Love Makes A Way, Facebook.
One of the Christian leaders in yesterday’s prayer vigil protest on the floor of Malcolm Turnbull’s office, could have been stuck on Nauru herself if she’d been born in a different generation.
Reverend Radhika Sukumar-White, an ordained minister from West Epping Uniting Church, is a Sri Lankan Tamil Australian. Her parents migrated here in the 1970s when the Sri Lankan civil war was brewing.
Had they stayed in their homeland much longer, they would most likely have been victims or war, or become refugees. To think that in today’s climate this could have led her parents to Nauru Detention Centre, where asylum seekers are currently suffering and self-harming, is tragic in Radhika’s mind.
“I feel a real kinship to the people of Sri Lanka, and [it’s] a horrifying fact that if their story had happened a generation later…my story could have been in Nauru,” she said. “That could have been my situation.
“Luckily, they had a country that welcomed them and gave them opportunities to study and that’s why my family is who we are today. And that is a real matter of injustice for me. Why should those who were born at a different time fall under such different circumstances to my own?”
Five-Hour Protest Brought Together Four Denominations
Radhika was one of seven ministers from the Uniting, Anglican, Catholic, and Baptist churches, who sat for five hours in Prime Minister Turnbull’s electorate office foyer on Monday.
They were protesting against the government’s asylum seeker policy, and the refugee detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Police warned that if they wouldn’t leave they would arrest them; in the end they were escorted out of the office by the police at closing time.
The vigil was organised by the Christian-based justice organisation Love Makes A Way, which invited several ministers and church leaders to stage the protest. The aim was to highlight the plight of asylum seekers, in light of the recently-leaked ‘Nauru Files’ exposing thousands of cases of abuse and self-harm.
Radhika said that after being approached, she “felt like she couldn’t say no.”
Called to Stand With Those who are Oppressed
“The issue was so important to me that I couldn’t not take part,” she said. “It was a matter of injustice for me. And as a Christian and a minister I believe all people are created in the image of God, and we should treat all people with respect and compassion and acceptance. I believe that’s what God calls us to do.
“As a Uniting Church minister, part of my vows and ordination, just seven months ago, was to stand alongside those who are oppressed and to work for justice and peace.”
“What struck me the most was not just the physical violence and the sexual assaults, but the hopelessness…”
With her fellow protesters Radhika prayed, sang hymns, joined in communion, and read out some of the shocking cases from the Nauru files.
“The thing that struck me the most was the sense of these asylum seekers that there was no hope for them,” she said. “There was one story of a pregnant woman who had not eaten for three days, and when asked by a save the Children case worked why that was, she said ‘nobody cares, there’s no point’.
“That’s what struck me the most. Not just the physical violence and the sexual assaults, but the real hopelessness of these people who are in indefinite detention.”
Anxious in the Presence of Police
On a personal level Radhika said the experience of protesting for five hours in a place where they were clearly not wanted, was tense.
“I’m not going to lie, it was a heavy experience,” she said. “It was anxiety raising and the police presence was not a comfortable sensation.
“It was actually quite a sacred event. I felt that God was really present as we did this vigil together.”
“But I felt very supported by those around me. I think the fact that the whole time we engaged in prayer and singing of hymns and communion together and read from scriptures, it was actually quite a sacred event. I felt that God was really present as we did this vigil together.
“The seven of us who otherwise would’ve been basically strangers became somehow bonded, because of this experience of praying without ceasing for these people who are so vulnerable.”
Capturing the Public’s Attention
Radhika believes the protest has had an impact, judging by the media coverage and social media responses.
“Each of the seven of us came into this action with our own stories and backgrounds and those stories have I believe affected people,” she said. “The more actions like this happen, the more this issue becomes too big to ignore. I live in hope that this has made a change.”