Batemans Bay – Christmas after fires, floods and COVID

A prayer for peace

This time last year, Ben Knight was organising his church’s annual community Christmas luncheon while, at the same time, helping coordinate hundreds of meals at the local evacuation centre.

As leader of Batemans Bay Salvation Army church, Knight was one of a “whole heap of volunteers” from the community and local churches who had banded together to support evacuees as bushfires engulfed the areas rimming Batemans Bay on the south coast of New South Wales.

“In December itself, there weren’t a whole lot of evacuees. I think there were probably at most 60 evacuees on site, all camping on the footy ground [at Hanging Rock Sports Centre] where the evacuation centre was based. There were many others, but we managed to find some accommodation for them,” Knight tells Eternity.

“We had around 40 volunteers, with different volunteers coming along each day to help. We were serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as snacks in between. In December, the ‘evac’ centre was open for around 18 days.”

“The fact there’s been one thing after another, after another, [that] has worn people down.” – Ben Knight

Fortunately, Knight also had a great team of volunteers at his church who managed to pull together the Christmas Day lunch. Little did they know that as they held this celebration, the worst of the bushfire crisis was yet to come.

“New Year’s Eve was our big day when the fire actually crossed the Clyde River [which cradles Batemans Bay’s north-western edge] and raced down on the town.”

Hundreds of residents and homes were threatened by the firestorm, which turned the sky orange and pasted the air with thick smoke haze.

“The evac centre in the Bay was open from New Year’s Eve, right through to the end of January,” Knight explains.

Throughout January – as Knight and other volunteers served what “felt like a million but would be over a thousand meals” to evacuees – church life ground to a halt. Knight admits that this time was a “real struggle”.

“Most things as far as church goes had to be stopped. In a lot of December and January, we weren’t having any church services. But again, it was a real blessing that we’ve got a number of fantastic staff who held the fort while I wasn’t around,” he says.

“My wife [Rachel] was on maternity leave – we had a bub born in August and a four-year-old as well – so she was unable to help. That was really tough on a personal level, juggling all those balls at the one time. But when a disaster like what we had happens, that takes priority.”

Chrissy Guinery bushfire

Batemans Bay locals Chrissy Guinery and her daughter Kelita after bushfires destroyed Kelita’s home. Chrissy Guinery

In early February, just after the bushfire threat subsided, the south coast was hit by flooding due to torrential rain.

“It wasn’t too severe, thank the Lord. But there were a few properties who couldn’t get out [of their homes] for a few days because of the floods,” says Knight.

“People weren’t complaining about the flooding though, because they’d been praying for rain for so long that they couldn’t help but be kind of relieved.”

However, he adds, this did leave the whole community feeling a sense of “what’s next?”

Unfortunately, COVID-19 was next. Six months later, in July, a COVID cluster emerged from Batemans Bay Soldiers Club, forcing hundreds of residents to get tested. It also impacted local businesses, with many voluntarily closing down during the testing isolation period.

From a health perspective, locals handled the COVID cluster very effectively, Knight notes.

“Because people already had this heightened sense of fear after the fires, anyone who had even a slight sniffle went and got themselves tested. So there wasn’t a big outbreak because our community did the right thing.”

But, in an already fragile community, he says the emotional impact of COVID has been greater.

“COVID testing happened where the [bushfire] evac centre was. So I think it would have been a bit of a trigger for people as they were passing the evac centre to see all these cars there,” Knight explains.

“I think the fact there’s been one thing after another, after another, [that] has worn people down. There was this real sense of resilience when the fires were going, of strength and courage, which was quite visible. But that has kind of waned.”

“There’s going to be a lot of grief over this Christmas period. That’s where we need to shine the hope of Jesus.” – Ben Knight

He expects this Christmas could be “really hard for a lot of” the local community.

“The thing that I’m worrying about this Christmas is that there hasn’t been many victims of the fires who have actually completely rebuilt their homes.

“Those who had dreams of their house being fully completed and having a nice Christmas in their new home, all those dreams have kind of been dashed, not to mention the isolation that’s come through COVID so people may not be able to see family through Christmas.

“So there’s going to be a lot of grief over this Christmas period. That’s where we [the Salvation Army] and the rest of the churches in the Bay need to shine the hope of Jesus. It’s really needed over this period.”

As Knight and other local churches come together to host this year’s community lunch on Christmas Day, Knight hopes to make it feel like a “blessed and sacred space” for those who attend. The lunch will look a little different this year, thanks to COVID, as it will be hosted at three different sites in order to reduce the number of people gathered in one place. So, as well as the Salvation Army, local Catholic and Anglican churches will also host lunches.

“We need unity and community now more than ever,” says Knight. “That was shown in bucketloads during the fires, especially. But I think we also need each other over this period. We need people looking out for each other, encouraging each other to keep going and to keep moving in the right direction.”

“I think that peace is what the whole world needs after what we have been through this year.” – Ben Knight

At the end of the conversation, Knight tells Eternity that, sadly, this will be his last Christmas in the Bay. In January, after four years there, his family is moving back to Sydney, where he and Rachel will serve at Sydney Inner West Salvos.

“That’s going to be really hard for us, and we’ll be grieving a lot of relationships that have been built. But we’re excited about how God’s going to use us,” he says.

As well as a simple taste of “normalcy”, Knight’s parting prayer for the Batemans Bay community – and indeed for the whole world – is for peace.

“I think our community needs to feel a sense of peace (that’s the big word that I feel like the Lord has revealed to me) over this Christmas period and over the next year. That’s not peace as in there will be no more problems, because there’s always going to be issues.

“But that we as the church can show people that they can have peace in Jesus Christ, where despite our life circumstances, we have peace in the knowledge of the salvation of our Saviour. I think that peace is what the whole world needs after what the world has been through this year.”