Wednesday, 08 January 2020

A comforting presence in a time of crisis

 As unprecedented bushfires sweep across Australia, tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes.By the end of the first week of January, more than 8.4million hectares have burnt, at least 25 lives have been lost and 1500 homes destroyed.

Integrated into the emergency response is the largest scale disaster chaplaincy response on record. 

Uniting Church ministers and members are playing a key role in the coordination of pastoral support and serving alongside ecumenical and interfaith colleagues as chaplains.

“There is a lot of care going on”

Rev. Terence Corkin, former General Secretary of the UCA Assembly, was called in to assist with the disaster recovery chaplaincy effort at Moruya on the South Coast of NSW, even as his own home was under threat.

With a shortage of chaplains on the ground, and many unable to travel to the fire-affected areas, Terence was asked to step into the role of chaplain at the Moruya Showgrounds Evacuation Centre.

On Saturday, Terence and his family were forced to leave their own home behind as conditions worsened.

“By Saturday, I had determined if fire behaved as it did in Mogo, we weren’t going to be dealing with just spot fires,” Terence recalled.

“These fires were not behaving like other fires, traditional firefighting methods were not working. We’d seen the fire jump rivers and 30m firebreaks. Someone reported seeing a fireball fly 100m through the air. You can’t deal with that with hessian sacks.”

“If the fire came from the back of our property, we wouldn’t see it until it was on top of us.”

Thankfully, the potential catastrophic outcomes did not eventuate, but other parts of the state were not so fortunate.

Over a period of six days, Terence spent 30 hours at the evacuation centre.  More than 1000 people were camped at the Showgrounds with pets and animals in tow and 300 slept on the floor of the single-court basketball stadium. The Salvation Army served 4000 meals.

“The chaplaincy presence was incredibly well received by people,” said Terence. “People would say, ‘I’m so glad you’re here’.”

“My designated role was ‘Emotional Support’, including spiritual support if that’s what people needed.”

“Everyone there was providing emotional support, the Department of Communities and Justice, the Red Cross volunteers, Anglicare, but those people all have other jobs to do. So it was very helpful for them to have someone to tap on the shoulder and to work as a tag team.”

“There was a lot of care going on.”

For the evacuees, the chaplains were simply there when someone needed to talk. “Often it was just making conversation and a connection, even just to change the mood for five minutes.”

“There were also some very significant conversations, and people could say I really feel much better now.”

Across the South Coast, nearly 500 homes were destroyed. Many have lost vital income and the ability to do business.

“I spoke to some people with tears in their eyes and full of anxiety for the animals they had left behind.”

“My sense is that for now, people are in survival mode. The question they face is, ‘what next?’ For some people, they do not have an answer to that question, and they are the people I was most concerned about.”

Congregations do their part

One of the many acts of generosity came from Aspley Uniting Church in Brisbane who have donated $2000 to Eurobodalla Uniting Church, where Terence is a member, to provide immediate assistance through supermarket vouchers.

“It will help people stock their cupboards again, and importantly lets them know they are not alone,” said Terence.

Many Uniting Church congregations have opened their doors to community members in fire-affected areas.

One of those was Batemans Bay Uniting Church on the NSW South Coast, which provided shelter when other evacuation points were full or could not be accessed.

Retired minister Rev. Yvonne Stevenson said 100 people came through the doors and 40 slept the night inside the Church.

“We have soft pews, so we were able to turn them around and make a double bed out of them.”

Families with special needs were accommodated inside the Church’s squash courts, including a family with a child with autism. Another family came with a child on a hospital bed needing aspiration every hour. Space was found for them and the medical equipment was recharged at the local hospital.

A third family came with four chicken eggs about to hatch and a rooster.

Yvonne said help came from many places, both within the church and the wider community.

“Literally thousands of people have been displaced. It is impossible to be there for all of them, but we can be there with some of them.”

She said, “We are dirty, tired and blessed to still have homes. Thank you for your support and prayers.”

Call to prayer

In a video message, UCA President Dr Deidre Palmer encouraged Church Members to uphold all those impacted in prayer.

“We pray for all those who are suffering, that they might know God’s grace, love and comfort.

“I encourage you over these coming weeks and months to take time to listen to those who are traumatized. To be attentive to ways we can most effectively support bushfire victims. Continue to pray and offer messages of encouragement and support.”

Chaplaincy deployment

In NSW, where the Uniting Church co-ordinates the disaster chaplaincy for the State Government, there have been 55 chaplains ministering in 34 different evacuation centres and disaster assistance points since New Year’s Day, totalling 1400 hours.

The focus has now shifted to supporting Recovery Centres and Disaster Welfare Assistance Points in regions where people are returning home. The first to open was in Cobargo, the small town that was engulfed in a massive blaze that claimed the lives of father and son, Robert and Patrick Salway.

In Victoria, the chaplaincy effort co-ordinated by the Victorian Council of Churches has deployed almost 200 volunteers since 30 December in 12 relief centres, supporting more than 2000 people.

Uniting Church National Disaster Recovery Officer Rev. Dr Stephen Robinson has worked around the clock to coordinate the NSW response and has communicated with corresponding chaplaincy networks across the country. He praised the efforts of the pastoral volunteers.

“Disaster Recovery chaplains have given unceasing comfort, blessing and support to evacuees, other agencies' volunteers and fearful local residents in the face of great threat,” Stephen said in a recent tweet.

“I am honoured to work with these extraordinary pastoral volunteers who have become an important part of the fabric of emergency welfare in this state. Please pray for all who offer protection and support across our state today.”

From next week, Stephen will commence travelling to affected areas to run information, strategy and support workshops with Church leaders as they take stock and begin to move forward to support their communities.


Long-term recovery

In South Australia where fire has devastated communities in the Adelaide Hills and on Kangaroo Island, two new ministry placements have been established to support recovering communities.

Rev. Matt Curnow will be commissioned on Sunday as a part-time Disaster Recovery Pastor to support Uniting Church congregations in the Adelaide Hills, where fire destroyed 84 homes and caused extensive property damage.

Disaster and Recovery Ministries Co-ordinator in South Australia Wendy Perkins said the focus of the placement was to provide pastoral care for congregations at this difficult time, but also to help church members to support their friends and neighbours.

One of the local ministers, Rev. Geoff Hurst from Balhannah Uniting Church, said many people in those communities were feeling overwhelmed by all that has happened around them.

“Churches in this area have very strong connections that cross over different boundaries in our community. There is a very strong sense of prayerful attention – people wanting to pray for those who have been affected.”

Rev. Dr Phil Marshall will fill a second placement on Kangaroo Island in a similar role but with a focus on the wider community as local ministers give their energy to pastorally support the congregation.

Both placements have been funded by the UCA SA Relief Fund, initially for one month.

Agency support

Uniting Church agencies across the country are also helping to support communities by raising funds and delivering support on the ground.

In South Australia, Uniting Country SA has deployed staff to support affected communities on Kangaroo Island and Uniting Communities has offered accommodation for people from Kangaroo Island in its city hotel.

Frontier Services has launched an appeal to support the East Gippsland community in Victoria. Bush Chaplain Rev. Rowena Harris was among the 4000 people trapped in Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve where fire turned day into night. They waited on the beach for six hours, with blankets to protect against wind and embers.

Money raised will go towards providing an additional Bush Chaplain in the region to assist with trauma counselling.

If you would like to support bush fire communities with a donation, below are the various Synod and Assembly appeals and funds which will provide long-term support to communities as they recover.

National Disaster Relief Fund | NSW/ACT Moderators Bushfire Appeal

QLD Synod Bushfire Relief  | SA Synod Bushfire Relief

WA Synod Disaster Relief Fund  | VIC/TAS Uniting Bushfire Appeal

Target UnitingCare Australia Bushfire Relief Appeal | Frontier Services East Gippsland Bushfire Appeal