Meet Trish Johnson from the Atherton Tablelands Worshipping Group

Trish Johnson

Judith Pembleton, Queensland Regional Meeting

Trish Johnson was born in Pietermaritzburg in Natal, South Africa, during the apartheid era and her family’s commitment to social justice meant she was aware of the racism and inequity within that system of government from an early age.

Trish’s mother was part of the “Black Sash” movement, a movement of white South African women who campaigned against the National Party’s removal of mixed-race voters from the voters’ roll in the Cape Province. As the apartheid system began to reach into every aspect of South African life, Black Sash members demonstrated against Pass Laws and the introduction of other apartheid legislation. The movement would later open advice offices to provide information concerning legal rights to non-white South Africans affected by that legislation.

When Trish graduated from university with a psychology degree, she was the third generation of women in her family to graduate. Trish’s mother and grandmother were university educated in an era when it was unusual for women’s intellectual gifts to be recognised and supported in this way.

Trish’s mother graduated as a botanist. Her father was a horticulturalist and this common interest formed a strong bond for their partnership and engendered a love of natural beauty in Trish from an early age. The family lived in the parks that her father managed, and in her early life Trish often went with her father when he was designing landscapes. Trish was very close to her father and was greatly grieved when he died when she was just 19 years old.

Later in life, Trish realised that her father probably had undiagnosed PTSD following five years of active war service. She remembers her father as a gentle and courteous man who nevertheless hated loud noises and could not bear anything to be broken. There were difficulties in the marriage but after what Trish describes as “a strong Christian conversion”, her mother’s faith brought the family together.

Trish’s family moved from South Africa to Perth when Trish was 11 years old. Her father became the Superintendent of Perth’s beautiful Kings Park, one of the world’s largest and most beautiful inner-city parks and a rich cultural heritage site.

While they left the apartheid system behind, Trish is aware that Australia was “every bit as racist” as South Africa was. The move was easier for Trish, who says she quite likes change than for her parents who had no family in Australia. They had left all their family behind including Trish’s many cousins whom she missed. And though she appreciated Perth’s beauty, she also missed the mountains of Natal — the beautiful Drakensburg ranges — when they moved to Perth’s very flat environs.

From these beginnings, Trish developed her maxim: “You can never have too many flowers”. She remembers her godmother who had a wonderful garden and people wondered why there were no weeds — “There is no room for them” was the response.

Trish studied at the University of Western Australia, at a time when she described psychology as being “rats and stats” – observing rats in mazes and learning about statistics for research purposes. She found this was not a terribly useful preparation for her first job which was in the prison system!

Trish met David Johnson at university and they married in 1972 when she was 21. In their early married life they spent two years travelling overseas after David finished a doctorate in geology, travelling in south-east Asia and India, where they saw the Taj Mahal by moonlight and then on to England and Europe.

Trish and David were both brought up in the Anglican tradition, though while travelling found themselves attracted to the meditation practices of Buddhism. In the early 80s with a young family, Trish and David were drawn to Quaker worship. The writings of early Friends such as Isaac Pennington and 20th Century Quaker Thomas Kelly have touched her deeply and continue to provide guidance in her life. She and David feel fortunate they share a deep commitment to the spiritual journey.

They have worshipped within larger Quaker Meetings in England and Canada when on study leave. Their first Quaker Meeting in north Queensland was in 1982, and Trish remembers Rhoda and Francis Dorrell and other Brisbane Friends travelling up to North Queensland gatherings that were held in the late 80s when there were a lot of Quakers in the Tablelands, Mackay and Rockhampton, but those families have died or dispersed. There is currently a small Meeting in the Atherton Tablelands, mainly online.

When living in Townsville far from the larger Brisbane Quaker Meeting, Trish said they learned a lot about spirituality with the nuns of the House of Prayer & Spirituality, a contemplative community offering an oasis of solitude, for retreat, prayer and meeting spaces for individuals and groups whose meeting room was similar to a Quaker Meeting, with a circle of chairs surrounding a central round table.

Trish and David were two of a small number of Australian Quakers to see the need for one central place of retreat where Quakers could seek and find spiritual renewal. From this early vision, Silver Wattle Quaker Centre was established — against much opposition within Friends at the time. Without Yearly Meeting backing, this small group went ahead and found the venue, raised the funds and put in endless unpaid hours to make the vision a reality.

Helen Bayes was the inaugural Centre Director, followed by David and Trish in 2013-2014, three of the Silver Wattle ‘pioneers’, who moved from their homes to live and work on site in its early years. Trish remembers that money was scarce and the daily demands at Silver Wattle required a great deal of time and energy. She estimates that she worked 12-hour days and David regularly worked a 16-hour day.

Just as well Trish describes herself as being very active and having a great deal of energy! Trish has always been physically active, in sport as a young person and she is currently swimming, and doing Scottish dancing, yoga and Pilates.

When other Friends took over at Silver Wattle, Trish and David returned to north Queensland. Trish’s psychology career had continued to focus on human interactions and in a long career she has undertaken mediation training, and worked with veterans and trauma. She is pleased that now, as she finishes her career, the sole practice she opened in 2000 has expanded and now has seven psychologists.

Trish is not renewing her registration to practice psychology at the end of 2023 and says she is relieved not to feel responsibility for others. She finds retirement brings a great deal of active discernment as she is approached to do many things, and has been learning to say ‘Yes’ only when spiritually led to do so.

She is also finding that life is not “poorer or lesser” and says you have to let go any sense of “relevance deprivation”. Instead, she finds it freeing to be able to make statements she wants to make and to put more energy back into activism. The issues that are important to Trish are environmental, First Nations, opposition to nuclear weapons and assisting refugees.

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1 Comment


    As a psychology graduate myself of the same vintage as Judith (but in the UK), I enjoyed the article and shared the frustration of a ‘rats and stats’ psychology degree course of that era. I have been fascinated by the way academic psychology has changed in the last five decades even to include spirituality. I can recommend the recent book’Varieties of Spiritual Experience’ by Yaden and Newberg which talks about the strides that psychology has made since Judith and I studied it to include people’s experiences as well as their behaviour. I am a Quaker at Bournemouth meeting in England, which, like Perth, is a pleasant coastal town with a great beach, but…. no sharks!


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