An Odyssey through multicultural Australia
Review: ‘A Multicultural Odyssey’ A Memoir (almost) sans regrets by James Houston OAM.
From childhood reminiscences conjuring up a simpler era without becoming mired in nostalgia, to his incisive reflections on the current direction of Australian society, Jim Houston is forever the keen observer with an analytical mind and broad grasp of important issues. Even at the age of five his reasons for choosing Christian belief evinced a simplified grasp of the compelling logic of Pascal’s wager.
Bonded to the education system in his early working years, Jim’s language skills opened teaching stints in England and Germany. Returning to Australia in a public service role he wrote ground-breaking French textbooks in a stimulating team environment, saying ‘It was pure joy to have found a calling that fitted my soul so well.’
This phase of work was followed by a move to immigration which led to the most politically and socially enthralling part of Jim’s story. Jim describes the joy and heady optimism of the Whitlam years and the development of his own role as a speechwriter with the beneficial penchant for meeting deadlines. It is in this role that he wrote the pivotal speech defining Multiculturalism delivered by Al Grassby in Melbourne in August 1973.
Jim was ideally situated to write this, having travelled the country interviewing thousands of leaders of migrant organisations and churches in his department’s National Groups Survey quest to better understand the migrant experience from the inside. This was amid a policy shift from Assimilation to a search for a policy more respectful of the cultural distinctives people brought with them to Australia.
Another fascinating section of the book describes Jim’s encounters with aboriginal communities on his travels to Ceduna, Yalata mission and other rural areas to bring news of the Racial Discrimination Act and its implications to remoter regions of Australia. This is a disturbing expose of the reality of a practical apartheid in our own backyard late in the 20th century.
Just when you think the climax of this incredibly full and productive public servant’s life has been reached, Jim is led in a creative new direction. In Bishop David Penman Jim found a soul mate in terms of passionate advocacy for multiculturalism – properly and compassionately understood. However, he concludes that he was ‘before his time’ following the lack of response to his attempts to awaken the church to the multicultural context in which it is now ministering.
He heeded the call to ordination and from there embarked on a significant and challenging ministry in the place teasingly described to him by Bishop Penman as ‘the worst parish in the diocese.’ Dallas. With creativity, compassion and dependence on God, Jim and his long suffering and extremely capable wife Marjorie, grew an insular and aging parish into a thriving community hub and haven for people of widely divergent cultures and socio-economic circumstances. This was a practical outworking of his career pursuit and passion for the embrace by Australians of multiculturalism.
A particularly intriguing section of Jim’s book is his reflection upon the rise of the Charismatic movement which he experienced through the pioneering ministry of the O’Connor Methodist / Uniting Church during the family’s growing years in Canberra. Jim’s commitment to his faith and the integrity of his response to the move of the Spirit which he experienced in this vibrant and radical church community is nothing short of inspiring.
This book deserves a wide readership. Beautifully written, it is profound in the broad scope of the major political and social issues of the time that it covers from a uniquely personal insider’s perspective. I couldn’t put it down.
‘A Multicultural Odyssey’ A Memoir (almost) sans regrets is available now
Rev. Wayne Walters