Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Bushfire Chaplaincy Update - 14 Jan 2020

As many bushfire emergencies move into the recovery phase, President Dr Deidre Palmer has spoken to National Disaster Recovery Officer Rev Dr Stephen Robinson on the chaplaincy response ahead.

We share their discussion in a special podcast.

Dr Deidre Palmer: I'm talking with Reverend Dr. Stephen Robinson, who is our National Disaster Recovery Officer and Stephen's been very much on the ground responding to these bushfire crises for quite a while now. Stephen, thank you so much for giving this opportunity to update people on what's been happening. Can you tell us what's been happening around the nation, and where are we right now with responding to the bushfires? 

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: Sure. It's an interesting sort of transition phase at the moment. But in terms of what's been happening - obviously people would have seen a fair bit on the news about where the impacts have been and some of the devastation - in terms of both communities and the environment. From South Australia, with the impact in the Adelaide Hills, but also the ongoing fires on Kangaroo Island, through to Victoria with the impacts that have happened along the coastal areas and in particular into the Alpine regions, and in New South Wales particularly lately where the fires started some months ago, from the beginning of September, up in the far north, but then on the Central Coast and then now in the South Coast and Alpine regions, and particularly along the holiday towns from Eden right up through to Nowra. So it's been a really long term fire situation and I think that's probably what's made it unique in this circumstance.

Dr Deidre Palmer: You've been working with chaplains and with local churches and other emergency responders on the ground. What has been the Church's engagement in those regions?

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: My particular oversight in this crisis has been the New South Wales response in terms of chaplaincy. In NSW and the ACT the Uniting Church has an overseeing role, particularly within the New South Wales arrangements (each state and territory is different) the role of the Church there is to organise ecumenical and multi-faith chaplaincy into evacuation centres and recovery centres and also where Disaster Assistance points are happening. So during that time (of the crisis), we've been extremely busy. In fact, it's been beyond anything we've ever done before. Just since the beginning of this year for instance - there've been 36 assistance areas, whether they're evacuation centres or recovery centres or community meeting points - that's in the last 11 days. Sixty-three chaplains involved and as of last night 1677 hours of chaplaincy face-to-face, which is just mind-boggling considering that's less than two weeks. They've been really, really busy and some of those chaplains have been in place through the most difficult parts of that fire emergency when evacuation centres were being evacuated, fire storms were on and so on. So it's been really very intense in terms of what the chaplains have been doing.

Dr Deidre Palmer: It's amazing - and their dedication and the work they've done before to be trained in responding to trauma and grief. You've been very involved in that kind of training. Stephen, across the country and internationally. Tell us a little bit about that work that you've been doing.

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: It's something that's been developed over the last 10 years - the importance of not just waiting till the thing happens, to bring people in before or to have local ministry agents having to cope with it. The idea of this really is to train people who are already capable pastoral carers. One of the bits of feedback we get back about chaplains is that they're essentially ministers or pastors or chaplains within institutions, whether that be aged care or whatever. They have a terrific capacity already that we don't recognise in the Church. We forget how capable these people are, and we add to that a couple of intensive days training in relation to this and then put a framework around - an organisation which enables them to be integrated in the government response, so that they work as partners alongside Red Cross and Salvation Army and other groups that are in that space. And I guess that's the great discovery, is that you have a very good resource (in these people), but it's also one that understands pastoral care, grief, loss, all the things that ministers do. But it's integrated and it's in in place already - and that allows that ministry to be really effective.

Dr Deidre Palmer: So an amazing resource integrated in the community and government response. 

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: It's integrated both before and after, which is wonderful, and I guess that's really about what happens after this as well, but the idea is not to come in as the experts and push the local clergy out of the way, because the local clergy are disaster-affected themselves. And many of them have been evacuated themselves and have had an impact on their homes or families or their parishioners. So the idea is to simply come beside and add support for them and add capacity to their ability to work. And then as it moves into the recovery phase to give them what they might need for the future.

Dr Deidre Palmer: So we are moving into the recovery phase in many of those contexts, Stephen. So tell us a little bit about what that recovery phase looks like.

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: Yes, in fact, we're seeing that right now. Where a week ago there were showgrounds full of people with their caravans and there were literally hundreds and hundreds of people who were displaced waiting for the fire's impact and wanting to be safe. That's the prime thing about an evacuation centre - to give them a safe place with all the resources they might need for basic sustenance. When the threat of a fire or another disaster abates, and they're able to then either go home or go back to where their homes were, those evacuation centres shut down. So we've seen that happening over this last weekend, and it will be happening from today through this week. We're getting many messages now that the evacuation centres are shutting. But the next phase is that the local government is largely involved in the recovery process, and it's backed by the the resources of the state government and some of the funding from the federal. And what that means is that the recovery centres and assistance points are set up so that the locals can still get the resources and the care that they need. Because they're really just, at this point, coming to terms with their losses. So what it looks like on the ground is that, for instance, last week and over the weekend, we've had chaplains out in areas like Cobargo which was very heavily hit or Quaama - this is in New South Wales. And there's been the equivalent things happening in Victoria, around Mallacoota, where there've been chaplains who have been available to support people as they're starting to come to terms with their losses and walking around their homes - that were - the terrible grief and impact of that - of coming into a devastated community. And now, for instance, this afternoon I spoke to a chaplain who was in the recovery centre that's been set up near Cobargo. Through the week, he's been talking to people and they've come to know him, and this afternoon, they've started to visit the recovery centre in the civic area of the Council. And there's a link there and continued pastoral care, as they now move on to the next phase, which is going to be a long term one for so many people, moving on to the next phase of their life.

Dr Deidre Palmer: It's so important that they're not forgotten, isn't it? There's been the media attention and the global attention, but this is long term. This could be years in the recovery for these communities that have been so devastated.

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: Yeah, absolutely. And that's one of the problems that we face in disaster recovery is that the news cycle is very rapid and is very fickle at times. And even though this is a worldwide story now, within a matter of a couple of weeks, it could be virtually old news for other people. And yet it is actually going to be a very long, long journey for the people who are in it and even now, people who are involved in fires in southern Queensland in November, or earlier impacts of fires in other places in the country have been forgotten by the media. But we're working as a Church to make sure we are continuing to resource long term recovery.

Dr Deidre Palmer: Yes and Stephen, I was part of a induction further for the disaster recovery pastor in Adelaide Hills yesterday and quite a number of the congregations there were present. It's great to see that the South Australian bushfire relief are funding (Rev.) Matt Curnow to be there in the longer term. You know, he knows the Hills communities and so there were nearly 100 people there yesterday afternoon. It's really good to see that our local congregations and our networks are really committed to this long term recovery and resourcing that long term recovery in community.

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: Yes, that's a really very helpful thing to do, is to have somebody brought into an area that knows it and can work in that space just to concentrate on that recovery process, and in cooperation with the congregations. And the idea of Matt being there for the Adelaide Hills and then there's another position that is coming up for Kangaroo Island which will be implemented fairly soon with someone who's very, very, very valuable after the Pinery fires to South Australia. We're looking at that now in consultation with the Moderator of NSW/ACT of putting in a number of positions down the coast of people working part-time, but they will be concentrating purely on recovery. Because the local ministers are already tired, they're disaster-affected and they are going to be feeling the weight of that recovery. But to have someone that works alongside them. And this is not just with Uniting, the conversation we're having now is with other denominations, and they all agree the sense in having a joint approach to this and being able to jointly fund and also operate this in concert with all the churches of those areas. It's a great way to go. We've done it north after cyclones and fires and floods - and it works really well.

Dr Deidre Palmer: And yes, you know, you're raising the ecumenical cooperation - and you and I, I think have both been encouraged by the global messages that we've received. The international interest, the prayers, the offers of support. I've received messages from the Methodist Church in the UK, the United Reformed Church, our Pacific Conference of Churches, the Church of North India, churches in North America... what is what is your sense of that global response, Stephen?

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: It's been wonderful, and it's something that actually it really does - I can speak personally - it lifts my spirits to hear those messages of encouragement, but also very solid offers of help. 

Dr Deidre Palmer: Yeah. 

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: And they've come back - where we've been able to extend support to - say, the church in Tonga - to be able to have something come back from them to say, "How can we help you? Can use our chaplains?" We've had some terrific (offers). Even this morning I got a message from one of the world experts in the US from the Baptist Church, It's just quite extraordinary to have their generosity and it's part of the nature of this work. It's really important to both receive it, but also to think about how that can be best used. For me, this is a learning time as well. It's not just a matter of having numbers of people, the old thing of boots on the ground, it's also about how do we work as the fire services and others work about learning lessons from each other - and learning even as we go about the recovery. How can they be part of that learning or teaching us. I think that's a really, really important part of ecumenical learning and the other one is that chaplaincy teams that are out there are learning all the time from each other. It's an extraordinary gift in some ways that we've had people from all different denominations just working side by side. It's a great encouragement for building partnerships in other parts of the Church's life. 

Dr Deidre Palmer: Stephen, the Moderators and I have put out a joint pastoral statement today, thanking those who've been involved and encouraging our congregations to walk alongside people in their grief One of the questions, of course, is what what can we all do next? So, what would you encourage people to be doing in this next recovery phase?

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: I think it's one that needs to be needs to be supported by prayer, by contact, by building relationships, and that's one of the things I've been getting numbers of phone calls and emails asking. We don't want to just send money though money's very important in this. But we want to actually develop relationships and we're looking at ways of being able to connect people with people. And that's really important. But the money is also really important. And one of the messages that you'll see on the media keep on coming back is people want to contribute but don't send goods, don't collect clothing and all the stuff that becomes ultimately a real problem for storage and sorting and time and energy. What they really do need is money, and the money can be used in the local community. So it restores the local economy. Particularly these holiday towns that have been emptied out of any financial income. This is their prime time, but people are having to leave. They're going to need that injected back in. So we would purchase goods, purchase stuff locally. We want to restore both the economic and also the social and spiritual life of the town by what we want to do there. So the advice would be, certainly contribute also to the appeals that are there, and I believe they've been circulated in terms of the Synod and the Assembly funds which will be well used. 

Dr Deidre Palmer: It's interesting you talking about buying local produce, because when we inducted Matt Curnow yesterday, instead of having an afternoon tea at the Church we all went across to the local Olive Tree Cafe, because that owner lost her home in the fire at the local Church have been very involved in that cafe. So it was really lovely to meet her and to offer our condolences and support for her and buying local produce and, like you say, engaging with local communities that are tourism destinations who've lost a lot of business, how can we practically support those communities. I'm certainly planning a holiday on Kangaroo Island late in March to support the local economy.

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: Good idea. I'd like to hope that many other people pick up on that. It will be very important.

Dr Deidre Palmer: Well thank you, Stephen, so much for all that you're doing on behalf of the Uniting Church, for your compassion, for the amazing way you've equipped people in this time and for your ongoing support to the Church nationally and regionally. God bless you with wisdom and courage and rest when you most need it as well, and we pray for that rest and relief for all those who've been putting so much effort into this bushfire recovery.

Rev Dr Stephen Robinson: Thank you. Thank you for your support and for your leadership through this.

Dr Deidre Palmer: Thank you Stephen.