Thursday, 06 February 2020

Courage under Fire

It’s been a disturbing start to 2020. Bushfires across all states and territories have taken a devastating toll - 34 human lives, almost 6000 buildings and, according to some ecologists, more than one billion native animals. Many Australians have endured weeks of choking smoke and fear, and fires are still burning in many places. We’ll be counting the costs, physical, material, environmental and spiritual for years to come. 

Amid this unprecedented crisis Uniting Church members have stood up - disaster chaplains, Defence Force chaplains, local ministers and congregation members. There are many powerful stories of Christian community and compassion for neighbours in their hours of need.

These are just a few of those stories:

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, the morning sky turned black as a firestorm tore through the picturesque seaside Victorian holiday town of Mallacoota. Four thousand holidaymakers fled to the beach and huddled in blankets to protect against wind and embers, as houses and gas bottles exploded around them. Among them was Rev. Rowena Harris, Frontier Services’ Bush Chaplain in the Victorian High Country. When Rowena made police aware of her ministry background, she was immediately recruited into trauma-counselling for her fellow evacuees.

That work stretched into days with all roads out of Mallacoota blocked by the fires, and the Royal Australian Navy were sent in to ferry evacuees to safety. Rowena was eventually airlifted to safety by an Army helicopter almost a week after the fires burned through Mallacoota, but she still had no home to go to. At the same time as Rowena was stuck in Mallacoota her own home at Swifts Creek was cut off and under threat from fires further inland.

Rowena is now taking some hard-earned leave with friends in Melbourne. More than a month since the sky went black in Mallacoota, the main road into the town from the Princes Highway has just re-opened, and fires are still burning in the Gippsland region. When she finally gets home, Rowena will be ministering to a community facing a long and difficult journey of recovery.

Batemans Bay
That same New Years Eve, four hundred kilometres up the coast from Mallacoota the Uniting Church congregation at Batemans Bay in NSW was opening its doors to shelter people fleeing their own firestorm. The Minister at Batemans Bay Rev. Yvonne Stevenson said the response at short notice was to accommodate evacuees with special needs.

“Although we were expecting and had been forewarned, it still came as a surprise because it [the fire] was so quick to engulf the surrounding areas. The smoke and the darkness and the not-knowing was very frightening for people really,” said Yvonne. 

“The people here were not expecting to be opening up as a centre, but they did then get involved. And it was rather gorgeous. They were asked to be a place of quietness, where people with special needs could come and we were able to accommodate them. And I thought that was a wonderful thing to be able to say here is a place of safety and quiet.”

Former Assembly General Secretary Rev. Terence Corkin was one of the locals called into action as a disaster chaplain. On that day, Rev. Corkin and his family closed the door of his home at Moruya as the fires advanced and went off to cover a chaplaincy shift at the local evacuation centre. When he got there he was faced by hundreds and hundreds of people. 

“I'd been there the day before and Mogo had been burned out, and people were coming in, having lost their home distressed,” says Terence.

“And now there were even more people. Some had already lost their property. There was a lady from Cobargo in her 80s, just sitting there waiting for the road to open, so her son could come from Wollongong to come and get her because she had nothing. 

“There were distressed people that just needed that practical care. And there were people who were just hoping and holding their breath, looking for the best to be the outcome, but not knowing what's going to happen.” 

Not sure whether he’d have a home to go back to himself, Terence gave pastoral care to those in distress.

“Most people were in that fight or flight mode, you know, they were they were just getting through it. They weren't processing very much. So it was just about acknowledging where they were, if they wanted to wanted a longer conversation."

“The pleasant surprise for me - and it could be called the learning was, I really expected that the church would be a bit on the nose, because, you know, the church isn't what it used to be in terms of social standing and reputation. I expected a higher level of distancing. But the team, and the people really embraced and appreciated the presence.”

Batemans Bay was only one place where evacuation centres were in operation. The month of January broke every previous record for the deployment of chaplains in the New South Wales Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN). In that month alone, 86 chaplains from a range of denominations and faiths provided 2,683 chaplaincy hours across evacuation centres or outreach posts.

DRCN Coordinator and UCA Minister Rev Dr Stephen Robinson says these numbers are “insane.”

“The most number of centres we've ever had open in the 10 years prior to this was probably five at once. And about that time, we had about 15 or 16 running. So trying to get people there was a major stress,” says Stephen. 

“I think in some ways, we have learned that we can actually do more than we thought we could do. We have operated in a scenario like this, one I would not have written for any training situation. People would have laughed at me as being unreal.

“But we have learned that actually, we have got the tools to put out an enormous number of people. I think we've learned new levels of cooperation and so on along the way, too. So that's been been very positive.

“That said, we continue to need more people.” 

Rev. Dr Robinson is now guiding local clergy on the NSW South Coast to deal with the looming challenge of ministry in the post-disaster recovery phase. 

“Disaster recovery has to be locally led,” explains Stephen. “We can add capacity from outside for a time. But it's the locals that are going to carry it forward.

“If possible we’d like to be able to put some disaster recovery chaplains on on a longer term basis that work from the churches in the community. 

“So over the next six months or 12 months, you'll have locally-led integrated community work with the churches and I think to be able to prepare for the future in that is a good thing to do.” 

If that’s possible, Stephen and his Network will be building on the knowledge of previous disasters.

“Many of the chaplains who are on the ground now helping were trained down in the Bega area after the last fires at Tathra in 2018.” 

“What we did then was go in and train those local ministers into chaplaincy, and now these people are free to be able to move on and help our communities when disaster strikes. 

“So that's another gift that's possible as we do training with clergy here and with pastors and with institutional chaplains now, that they may be able to serve in a future disaster in another place somewhere in the future.”

If you are looking to help out those impacted by the bushfires donate to the National Disaster Relief Fund. Your donation will help fund the disaster recovery chaplaincy and support programs helping communitites rebuild.

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