Memories of a friend
by Tom Pietsch
Leo Seemanpillai knocked on our church doors over a year ago.
It happened to be a Thursday, the same day he was released from detention into a house over the road from our parish in Grovedale, Victoria. No-one answered that day so he tried again every day until Sunday, when he came in for our service, along with his Tamil housemates. As a baptised Christian, Leo knew that he could find help at the church.
Without wanting to sound trivial, it was something of a novelty for us to meet asylum seekers. Like everyone, we had heard about them and about detention centres on the news, but had never had any contact in the flesh. That day, and in the coming days and weeks, our parishioners sat down with Leo and his friends to hear their stories, to help them in ways material and spiritual, and to receive together the grace of God through Christ Jesus in worship.
Soon there were many more asylum seekers in our neighbourhood and our Pietsch parish was, and remains, enriched by friendship with them.
On Saturday morning, 31 May, I played golf with my brother. I overhead a young man apologising to his friends for being late—someone had set themselves on fire just down the road. It was only when I got home that I got the call that this was Leo. I reached his bedside a couple of hours later, where I prayed with him and anointed his charred forehead.
The tragedy has been deeply felt in our parish because we had come to know Leo so well over the past year. We had heard about his life in Sri Lanka and then in an Indian refugee camp. He had worked alongside us, digging ditches in our car park. Some members had employed Leo at their business, as Leo was fortunate enough to have a bridging visa that gave him working rights. Some of us had also counselled Leo during his darker times. We loved him, not as an asylum seeker, but as a brother in Christ. Through Leo, many of the Hindu Tamils came to our church and heard the gospel.
Leo died from his injuries the following morning, just as we were getting ready to begin our Sunday service. Since then, Leo’s death has been felt all over Geelong, in the churches and in the asylum-seeker communities. Our hearts are heavy as we remember him, and as we process his horrific death. But on the following Sunday, Pentecost, an Iranian family of asylum seekers were baptised in our church—a day of great celebration. In one week we experienced the fullness of St Paul’s words to the Romans: ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6:23).