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News from the first day of the international health commission meeting

Date: 06/08/2018

MELBOURNE: It’s a cold morning, and the mercury hasn’t yet hit today’s high of just 13 degrees. But the chill isn’t bothering the growing crowd of people gathered on a small grass area at the Catholic Leadership Centre in East Melbourne.

Smoke billows from a portable fire pit and the smell of burning gum leaves fills the air while the sound of a didgeridoo plays softly in the background. It’s an historic moment. The Aboriginal Land, Fire and Water Blessing marks the beginning of Cabrini’s inaugural International Health Commission Meeting.

Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Coordinator Sherry Balcombe explains to the group of delegates, from as far away as Africa and Central America, how the blessing acknowledges the land, brings everyone together and helps look to the future. The soil she holds is from Lake Mungo; Sherry says it represents the footprints of ancestors from more than 50,000 years. “Our country is our mother; and in a sense our country is us,” she says.

The fire represents the calling of people together, cooking, warmth and light. It symbolises ceremonies and storytelling, and bringing people together. The water is life-giving, refreshing and cleansing. Sherry asks delegates to step forward and transfer containers of water from their homeland into a sacred bowl to symbolise everyone coming together as one. Once the meeting is finished everyone will be given a small container of the combined water to take back to their country.

Following prayers in Spanish and English (the two languages of the meeting), the delegates are addressed by Nicole Rose, the development consultant to the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who outlines the meeting’s objectives before introducing General Superior Sister Barbara Staley MSC.

Sister Barbara speaks to delegates about how the meeting was almost four years in the making, and how the focus is for Cabrini to be where the most need is. “This is a chance for us to rub shoulders and be brothers and sisters with each other,” Sister Barbara says.

Cabrini Health Chief Executive Dr Michael Walsh echoes Sister Barbara’s comments. He says his passion for international health is still very much alive and the International Health Commission Meeting is a chance for health professionals from across the world to come together and discuss how they can all help each other. “It’s an opportunity for us to think about how we will plan for the future,” Dr Walsh says. He discusses global health trends, the impact of new technology, funding and environmental changes.

The afternoon is spent listening to delegates from Argentina, Guatemala, Swaziland, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea and Australia present updates on their health missions. It is a snapshot of each country’s history, healthcare system, initiatives and challenges, forming the base of the rest of the three-day meeting and provides a background for each delegate.

Nicole sums up the first day, and the reason for this meeting as a whole, with an apt African proverb: “If you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together.”