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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 77


Senator STEPHENS (Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector and Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Prime Minister for Social Inclusion) (7:50 PM) —This evening I would like to reflect on an important event in the parliamentary calendar, and that is the National Prayer Breakfast and, in particular, the 22nd National Prayer Breakfast, which was held yesterday morning in the Great Hall.

What started as a small group of parliamentarians in 1986, under the leadership of Dr Harry Edwards, the former federal member for Berowra, has grown through the efforts of many members and senators to the success of this week’s event, where more than 500 people gathered to pray for the nation. National prayer breakfasts are held in many countries and even in state parliaments around Australia. The recent prayer breakfast in Perth attracted almost 800 people and, in the New South Wales parliament, the turnout is usually several hundred as well. The breakfasts have bipartisan support and this year more than 40 senators and members attended, including you, Mr Acting Deputy President Moore, as well as former Senator Chapman and Bruce Baird, a former member in the other place. The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Turnbull, each read from scriptures and made remarks about the importance of prayerful intercession.

This year the parliamentary reflection was given by Mr Warren Truss, Leader of the Nationals, and it was not lost on those attending that the leaders of our three major political parties were united in seeking prayer support for the work of the government and the parliament.

Parliamentarians were joined by religious leaders, members of the diplomatic corps, members of the defence forces, senior public servants, leaders of non-government organisations and many men and women of faith who came to express prayerful support for the nation. We had international visitors as well: the Governor of Oro Province in Papua New Guinea, Mr Suckling Tamanabae, and his wife; Dr Charles Murigande, the Minister for Cabinet Affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister of Rwanda; and Mr Kim Young Jin and Mr Heon Il Chang of the Korean National Assembly, who brought with them the prayers and support of the Korean National Prayer Breakfast.

The annual Prayer Breakfast provides an opportunity for parliamentarians to recognise that, in spite of all the things that divide us, we must find common ground in order to build community and our nation. In some ways this will take a miracle—a power that is far beyond each one of us. In the world of leadership there are very few occasions when we take the time to stop, to recognise the limits of our own power, but this was one such occasion. The Prayer Breakfast also provides an opportunity for those who attend to acknowledge that leadership is both a privilege and a responsibility—that many of the problems we face cannot simply be resolved by policy and that we need God’s help to forge a nation.

Regardless of whether or not we ascribe to any particular religious tradition, as Warren Truss reflected, the total order, beauty and harmony of Australia have all the hallmarks of a greater being who is responsible for and totally in control of it. As I said yesterday, I will never again look upon a koala in repose without being reminded of the importance of contemplative prayer.

Professor Stephen Hawking, in his essay entitled ‘Origin of the Universe’, concluded with these words:

Although science may solve the problem of how the universe began, it can not answer the question: why does the universe bother to exist? Maybe only God can answer that.

As insignificant as the earth appears in the size of the universe, it has a uniqueness that is not readily apparent in any other parts of the cosmos, and that of course is the existence of life—in fact, the millions of different life forms, dominated by the human species. Although the biological growth of plants and animals is controlled by the laws of nature, what animates us as human beings is our spirit that underpins our values.

We as a Christian nation believe that a strong spiritual base and faith are essential for real happiness. In times of deep trouble and stress, human beings need to call on a well of deeper understanding and support than perhaps is available in the increasingly secular and material environment of today. There has been much public comment since the global economic meltdown that our society as a whole needs to reinvest in its spiritual and ethical values, that behind the pace, complexity and problems of modern life lie fundamental questions concerning our innermost beliefs and values and that the answers to our concerns may in large part lie within our spirit. As Warren Truss reminded us, society, including the churches, indeed needs to work harder to re-establish the fundamentals of our spiritual base and to reach into communities, especially in the tough times. Leo Tolstoy said:

One of the most vulgar of all prejudices is that of the clever, who believe that one can live without faith. If you feel that you no longer have faith, you should know that you are in the most dangerous situation in which a man can find himself on earth.

It is customary each year to have an important guest speaker for the Prayer Breakfast. Bono, for example, addressed the Washington Prayer Breakfast two years ago and said:

The one thing we can all agree on, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both of their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.

This year we were very privileged to have as guest speaker Mama Maggie Gobran, an extraordinary woman working against the odds to be a faithful servant of God. She has committed her life to the poorest of the poor in Cairo. She works daily against the odds, inspiring others to also be faithful servants of God. There are hundreds of thousands of poor who live in the squalid shanty towns of Cairo and Mama Maggie acts as a mother to them all. She says of her work:

We can do no great things—only small things with great love.

She is a woman of tremendous strength, yet she is as frail and gentle as a breeze, gliding through life and inspiring others. She has gathered around her an army, now numbering almost 1,500 helpers, and has inspired them to work with her, taking small, practical steps to help alleviate the grinding poverty of some 30,000 families living in Cairo’s slums. Her simple strategy is visitation, daily visitation, so her workers are trained to give advice and support to struggling families, to bring the good news of the Bible and to use the Bible as an instrument of change in their lives. She does it unashamedly.

Mama Maggie has a special love for children and told us all that it is through the children, the next generations, that we are able to shine the light of God’s love on the world. She is an angel of mercy. She goes from place to place, stretching out her hands and touching people. As I said, her work is very practical. The children have no education, so she has established schools. They have few possessions and limited clothing, so she has established vocational training and workshops manufacturing clothing and shoes. She knows that children live in cramped conditions—one-room shanties—and they need space away from that grinding and relentless poverty to play and be children, so she has established camps.

Mama Maggie is a Coptic Christian who is living her faith. Her organisation, Stephen’s Children, recalls the suffering of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. The youngest daughter of a wealthy family in Cairo’s Coptic Orthodox community, Maggie joined an Easter outreach with others from her community, and Catholic and Protestant churches, distributing food and clothing to the poor in the shanty towns. That was the turning point in her life. She now specialises in training people to work with Cairo’s outcast communities and encourages university graduates to invest a year of their lives in practical service under her guidance. Mama Maggie’s story was profoundly moving. Some in the audience were in tears. Many were touched to provide donations and support for her organisation and many more committed to visiting her in Cairo.

The National Prayer Breakfast is a major organisational feat. The choir this year was Wayfarers Australia, under the direction of Judith Clingan AM and accompanied by Anna Johnston. They were inspirational. My thanks to all who made this year’s breakfast a reality. Thanks to the organising team, led by Jock Cameron and his volunteers. Thanks for the generosity of spirit of the security staff, the catering staff, the audiovisual team and the willing helpers in my office and in Paul Neville’s office.

There are those who promote the absolute separation of church and state. I am pleased that ours is a nation of tolerance and diversity and that our leaders are prepared to speak publicly and confidently of their spiritual journey and personal morality. Let it ever be thus.