Honouring the Prophets: Patrick O’Connor – Prophet of Inclusion

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 24, Pentecost 2002

The sight of the large figure of former rugby prop Patrick O’Connor is a familiar one to Christchurch justice campaigners. For decades this beret-clad man has been part of most progressive movements that have sought to create a better deal for the marginalised. Patrick helped found and is currently the director of PEETO, the Pasefika Education and Employment Training Organisation. He was interviewed by our roving reporter.

I come from a family of six children raised as Catholic by my father, Kevin, a doctor, and my mother, Marie, an art teacher. The Catholic religion, indeed the Catholic Irish culture, has a lot to do with our background. My parents had a great influence over me and the other children over issues of fundamental justice towards other human beings, the family, neighbours, friends and so on. I remember my father constantly telling us, ‘be kind and charitable’. Those were the two phrases he kept saying, ‘be kind and charitable’. He always used the word charitable. He was a great person for sharing and a very kind man himself. My mother is a fine woman, totally non-judgmental about anyone in this world. The greatest gift she gave us was our freedom – our freedom to express ourselves, our attitudes, our dress. This was the great quality she gave us.

My consciousness about injustice developed early on. I went to a school which had all the social classes in it, from poor to rich. I had friends in both groups. I realised the inequalities of society because it was there right in front of me on a daily basis. I played with one family of 13 children who lived in a state house. How could they study for school certificate when there were four boys of all ages in a single bedroom? Here we were at home with a big bedroom to ourselves and lots of space. So we passed the exams but they didn’t, even though they had as much intellectual ability as us. There were lots of things like that that made me conscious of how society was structured.

The injustice of the Vietnam War had a big impact on me. So too did the All Black tours to South Africa. In 1972 I went to my first anti-apartheid meeting at Te Rangimarie Maori Centre when two former All Blacks, Ken Gray and Bob Burgess, addressed the meeting. That was a long time before the 1981 Springboks came. In 1974 I went to the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch and was very attracted to the African athletes especially the Kenyans. My family looked after the Botswanan team. I said to myself then that I’d be definitely be going to Africa some day. So that was the real beginning of my interest in Africa and Africans.

Later I did go to Africa and spent a few years there. This shaped my life dramatically, both personally and socially, placing all the issues before me – issues of poverty and apartheid and racism and colonialisation. Travel gave me great insights into attitudes, into myself. Later, I worked with refugees in London, trying to establish better conditions for them. That was a great experience.

Then I decided I would return to teaching English as a second language. I had trained as an English second-language teacher and had taught overseas. When I came home I did a formal diploma at Victoria University in Wellington. I joined the programme the Salvation Army had for Pacific Island young people who were unemployed. I really loved that. It was exposure to a culture which I really hadn’t been exposed to before. I discovered a fantastic culture. Samoan culture is so misunderstand by many and I just loved being exposed to the wonders of that culture and the wonderful qualities that so many people from that country have. After that I decided along with my colleague Herman Ah Kuoi to set up an organisation that would cater for Pacific Island people and others. Hence in 1991 we formed PEETO, Pasefika Education and Employment Training Organisation. It was a huge challenge because not only did we have to set up a professional organisation but also I had to keep teaching and employing people.

Starting with a largely Pacific Island clientele, we quickly developed into an institution catering for all sorts of nationalities coming to Christchurch both as refugees and migrants, as well as students coming to New Zealand to study. Over the years we have had 65 nationalities studying here. Currently we have 41 studying from every continent and background and culture. It is a wonderfully enriching place to work. We also have a multi-cultural staff, so we have plenty of people here who are being and have been exposed to other cultures through travel and work.

PEETO is made up of three divisions. One is the government-contracted division. Then there’s another division for overseas students. Then there is a third division, which is a charitable trust where we do orientation courses for refugees and migrants, and community and social work.

It’s a huge challenge. Essentially we deal with language issues. But there are so many other issues that crop up, including race relations, racism, issues of parents seeing their children growing up as little kiwis and the tension that can bring, divisions within families, and the challenges of trying to seek, gain and maintain employment in what is really a mono-cultural society.

One of the things we are grappling with here is this term ‘culture’. Many say we are now a multi-cultural society. I prefer to use the term multi-ethnic, because I don’t think we have achieved the status or have the credentials to call ourselves multi-cultural. A true definition of culture contains very deep meaning. I don’t think we can call ourselves either truly bi-cultural or multi-cultural yet. So I believe multi-ethnic is the better term.

I think the process of bi-culturalism and multi-culturalism is parallel and a simultaneous thing, not a continuum in a chronological way. It would be unjust to jettison the concept of bi-culturalism because we haven’t addressed that properly as a nation. But it would be equally unjust to say that we will put multi-culturalism on hold until we address bi-culturalism, because that could take 30 years or a century. Though we have made good ground in the past 10 to 15 years, there is still a long way to go. I think it is disenfranchising people who don’t belong to the two parties in bi-culturalism to say we will wait until we get our house in order.

So I think all groups have to work on a process of integration at the same time as we acknowledge that in Christchurch, according to the 1996 census figures, there are 158 ethnicities living here. In Auckland there are 225 or more. Our country is multi-ethnic and one of our duties here at PEETO is to inform all the varying cultures who come here about the issues surrounding the tangata whenua, bi-culturalism and the Treaty of Waitangi. It’s a complex matter but we are trying to find a formula that works for everybody.

The Treaty plays a central part in most of our programmes but it is a difficult thing because we are dealing with issues that many Maori and Pakeha don’t understand well. At PEETO we have got people who may have just recently arrived. It can be difficult trying to discuss Treaty issues with them when perhaps Joe and Josephine out in the street don’t understand it. They may have been here for decades. Throw in the language component and it makes for great difficulty. But we are absolutely committed to talking about the Treaty because it is a wonderful foundational document if it was implemented properly and if the spirit of it was understood and practised by all. People settling in our society should know about it and we do stress it very much.

I see the imperatives of the Gospel as fundamentally where my own spirituality and practice lie. I think my exposure to other religious faith traditions has helped that. All the major world religions are well represented here. There are substantial similarities between the basic tenets of all the major faith traditions. Working here gives me a huge inter-faith experience which I value deeply.

My faith is very simple in that I believe we are all created human beings from God (or whatever word you chose for God). I believe true faith is essentially about justice and understanding and kindness. Not tolerance, because I think tolerance implies that you disagree or put up with something from others. No, it’s much deeper than that. It’s an understanding and acceptance of others. That is crucial.

I try to live a spiritual life on a daily basis and I’m constantly reminded of the beauty of humanity and things every day with staff and students around here. Even though I am in a position here as director providing something for people, I am very conscious that I receive something wonderful from the people who come here. We have refugees and migrants here who have been through horrendous things in life and struggled against tremendous odds. They teach us so well about the human spirit and the enrichment you can get from that spirit on a daily basis. Regardless of the hurdles they face and the suffering they’ve endured, many of them are constantly witnessing to their own spirituality on a daily basis. And that is a real lesson to us. I feel that I get plenty of stimulation spiritually on an everyday level.

So prayer for me happens spontaneously in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of situations. I tend not to pray formally so much as relate to the spirit around me. In a sense that leads to prayer all the time.


The Global Kitchen (201 Peterborough St. Christchurch. Ph/fax 03 377 9904)

The Global Kitchen was a response to a need to provide some employment for middle-aged refugees and migrants who came who were finding it really hard to get work. We were holding a lot of functions here in our offices. So we decided to form a non-profit charitable trust called the Global Kitchen. We set that up – we have several trustees including migrants on the Trust. We now have a catering company. We cater for all sorts of functions. We say we will cater for any number between one to one million. Anything bigger than that we need to negotiate! We’ve had a sit down feast for 200 people providing 18 different ethnic courses drinks and food. And we’ve had little meals catering for three or four people. We can supply anything from Kenyan Samosas and Egyptian Falafel to Fijian Goat Curry and Caribbean Meat Balls.

We have created employment for 15 part-time and four full-time employees. We are totally unsubsidised. We are about to open a café/dairy called a cafiary. It’s the world’s first cafiary! That will be a commercial outfit for people wanting to buy ethnic food. Our third phase will be to set up a food production company, where we will be able to create jobs through our own label of exotic spices and chutneys and whatever. You name it and we’re going to produce it – and lots of jobs with it. – Patrick O’Connor

Everybody’s Cultural Centre

Everybody’s Cultural Centre has been borne out of the fact that PEETO itself has become a de facto cultural centre with groups here every night and most of the weekend. They come celebrating a variety of festivals, weddings, dances and so on. I then thought that a lot of people use the words culture and ethnic in the third person and don’t always see themselves included within a culture. They say ‘let’s go out for a cultural or ethnic meal’, usually meaning other peoples’ culture. Yet everyone has got a culture and we need to celebrate that fact. It was important that it be seen as available to every culture and not specifically Maori or Irish or something else. But it will belong to everybody. Hence the name – Everybody’s Cultural Centre. Right now we are working with the Christchurch City Council to get a building that is suitable. It will be a place where everyone can come to celebrate their own cultures and learn about other cultures. We’ll be able to have big functions there and it will be a good meeting place. Good, huh?

– Patrick O’Connor

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