Love of Culture, Love of Life

Our Mum is from New Zealand. Her father’s family is from Wales, her mother’s family is from Ireland. Both were born in Otago, New Zealand. Our Dad is of Aboriginal (Waanji-Garawa/Kaureg) and Torres Strait Islander heritage (Bam Le’ – Kulkulgul). Dad was born in Yidinji/Gimoy/Wallamara country (Cairns). Our parents have called Ngunnawal Country home for the past 16 years.

This is how Benny and Mary Hodges’ children describe their ancestry. Shana, Lellai, Alicia and Reggie have grown up in a home that, while not perfect, is rich in culture and love.

Mary and Benny met in Cairns in the 80’s. Mary was en route to England when she, at the suggestion of a friend, stopped in Cairns for a short break. It was on this break that Mary, a trained nurse from Auckland, fell in love with Benny, a football player from Cairns. Mary never made it to England! The two discovered that they shared common interests, including their very Catholic upbringing. Benny was educated at St Joseph’s Convent School and then for high school he ‘wandered across the paddock’ to St Augustine’s Marist College. Mary having also attended Catholic schools, remembers a childhood of celebrating all the Catholic feast days, praying the rosary and parish life. Their wedding in Cairns was held at Our Lady Help of Christians with Fr Miah McSweeney officiating. The reception was celebrated with their closest 700 family and friends in the local school hall – food had to be served over three sittings! Babies followed and life was, for the most part, good. The Hodges’ family left Cairns for Canberra in 1999 so that Benny could take up a new position with ATSIC and for greater educational support for Reggie who has an intellectual disability and autism.

Life changed. The three girls went off to the local government school and Reggie flourished with the specialist teaching he received. This education and the dedication of his family gave Reggie a level of independence that might at one time have seemed unimaginable. These were busy years for Benny and Mary. And somewhere in this busyness, and for no intentional reason, they stopped going to Mass.

However, two years ago something happened. For the preceding ten years, Benny and Mary would regularly drive past their local Catholic Church, St Thomas Aquinas. Each time they passed by, Benny would say that they really should go back to Mass. But there was always an excuse – sport, work, shopping, cleaning, ‘stuff’. They just couldn’t seem to get out of the habit of ‘not going’. Easter Sunday approached and Benny told his family that enough was enough, to get out their good clothes and come to Mass with him. Benny and Mary have never stopped going since. Every Saturday night Benny irons his shirt so that he is ready for Sunday Mass. Why? Benny strongly believes it was a ‘Holy Spirit experience’. Whilst the other Mass goers were ‘nice enough’, it was something in the parish bulletin that caught Benny’s eye. As he looked at the front page he noticed that the simple sketch depicting the architecture of the church reminded him of the Islander drums that were often played by his Torres Strait Islander people. He quickly showed the picture to his wife and daughter who immediately had the same response. Benny recognised then and there that God does work in mysterious ways and that this was his calling for him to reconnect with his Catholic faith.

Benny’s kids went along to Mass for a while, but slowly stopped going. However, the family was introduced to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Ministry who celebrate Mass together once a month at St Benedict’s, Narrrabundah. Here, there is a strong emphasis on culture in the liturgy, especially through music and the use of rich symbolism. Mary says they rarely miss attending this Mass and even if Benny is away, she, a very white New Zealander feels she is completely part of the community. The kids love this Mass; they enjoy the intimacy of a small group, the hospitality, the music, the friendships and most importantly, the emphasis on and richness of culture.

Culture is intrinsic to this couple’s lives. Benny reminds me that culture is more than just nice paintings, dance and song. It is much deeper than this. Culture drives who we are, how we behave, our values, beliefs, attitudes and our spirituality. Benny talks of having a strong sense of cultural ‘wellbeing’ and when aspects of culture are out of balance then the ‘spirit weakens’ and that’s when problems start. There is a strong link between law/lore, country, spirituality and family, Benny explains. In the middle of these cultural aspects sits the human spirit, and when the connection to any of these aspects is broken, for example through family break-up or substance abuse, the balance is broken which in turns weakens the spirit. It is a culture of respect and love that moves Reggie’s sisters to promise their parents that he will always be cherished and cared for. It is through the practice of culture that Reggie has learnt respect for others, expressed by small gestures such as opening the door for guests and allowing others to go before him.

It’s around this point in our conversation that I ask Benny how he thinks we are going in the area of reconciliation. There is a long pause ….. Benny answers, “We still have a long way to go.” When I respond with a statement that implies an ongoing division between black and white he cuts me short. “You’re not listening”, he says. “WE still have a long way to go.” In Benny’s mind we are one, and we all have to come to the reconciliation table. Benny then leads me into a theological discussion that is profoundly simple, yet wise. It centres on forgiveness and how our spirit does not find peace until we truly understand that Jesus loved us so deeply that he died for our sins and rose that we might live. This is not some scriptural text that Benny stores in his head. Forgiveness is something Benny has received and given. He admits that there have been times when asking for, or offering, forgiveness has been incredibly hard. Harder still is when forgiveness is rejected or shunned. He looks at me and says, “Do you get what I mean?” Benny, Mary and I come to the end of our conversation. I ask him what could really make a difference in the relationship between the ‘First Nations People’ of our country and those who have migrated here? “Culture of course! When we take it upon ourselves to deeply understand, acknowledge, and respect each other’s culture, then we can walk the path towards true reconciliation.” Benny and Mary have made this their life’s work, and it is what makes this ordinary family, quite extraordinary

• The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Ministry meets on the 3rd Sunday of the month at 11am for Mass at St Benedict’s, Narrabundah.  For more information contact

• If your school or parish would like to know more about Aboriginal & Torres Straight Islander culture, please contact us and we will connect you with Benny. NAIDOC Week is 5 -12 July