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The murder of the co-owner of iconic Melbourne restaurant Pellegrini’s has caused an outpouring of grief in that city. Sisto Malaspina was an Italian migrant who took over Pellegrini’s in 1972 with his friend, Nino Pangrazio. Ever since, generations of Melburnians have enjoyed the warm hospitality and authentic home style cooking that have made the Bourke Street establishment a treasure on the culinary and cultural landscape of Melbourne. In many ways it still stands as an important symbol of the massive contributions that immigration has provided for our multicultural country. These contributions were first expressed and understood through food and Pellegrini’s has stood the test of time in that regard. It was sadly ironic then, that this immigrant from Italy, known for his warmth and generosity of spirit, was murdered by a fellow immigrant.

The untimely death of Sisto has made me reflect more than usual on what it means to be a good neighbour. I’ve moved house 24 times in my life, and in all of those moves one neighbour stands out for me. I lived in Brunswick for a year, and Maria, (an Italian immigrant like Sisto), who had little to no English, was the most generous and caring neighbour that I’ve ever had. She took me under her wing. Not only would she come over with bottles of home-made tomato sauce, she’d often arrive unannounced with food such as stuffed artichokes, tomatoes, or broad beans all freshly picked out of her garden. On other days she’d share recipes with me over the back fence, or simply give me advice on where I could buy the best cheese in Brunswick! At the time the Federal Government was bringing in a new citizenship test which also required a level of English proficiency and proof that you understood important cultural facts about Australia; knowing about Don Bradman was apparently an important way to prove your Australian bona fides. I remember thinking at the time that if Maria, who was an Australian citizen, had been forced to take that test, despite the fact that she had been living in Australia for over 50 years, she probably would have failed. Her English was rudimentary at best and she knew nothing at all about cricket. At that time, I was angry that there were probably good, generous, respectful people just like Maria who may have been denied a full life in Australia because of a test that grew out of political expediency. Many other Australians might be denied a neighbour like Maria I reasoned.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks us to reflect on who our neighbours really are. My reading of the parable is that our neighbours are the people that do the right thing regardless of the situation. To give this story context we need to understand that the Samaritans were considered a low class of people by the Jews at that time. It was the Samaritan in the parable though, who saw someone in need and looked after him while the people we would expect to have helped, the priest and the Levite, walked on by. Jesus asks us the rhetorical question “Who was the good neighbour in this case?” The answer is clear – it was the hated Samaritan who behaved as a good neighbour. Jesus asks us then, not to judge people on who they say they are, but by what they do; actions are more important than titles, creed, or colour.

The Samaritans were looked down upon and shunned by Jewish society at the time of Jesus. We know that excluding and isolating people is hurtful and can cause great emotional and psychological damage. That’s why we don’t tolerate it in schools. We call it bullying. Nevertheless, with the cacophony of political dog whistling going on about immigration after the Bourke Street stabbings, the endless and ongoing political debate about asylum seekers and off-shore detention of children, and the confusing messages coming out from the church in Sydney, it is understandable that we find it hard to think clearly about this issue. I reckon the way forward is pretty simple though. Sisto and Maria can both show us the way. So, I ask that you think about Sisto Malaspina while I reflect upon Maria. Let’s consider what they would do if they walked past a person in distress. I reckon the answer is pretty simple. Like the Samaritan they would reach out and help; not isolate or exclude.

Pro Deo et Patria.

Ben Hanisch
Deputy Headmaster/Head of Senior School