Chaplains and churches put lives on hold to care for bushfire victims

Australia’s bushfire emergency has prompted the biggest ever deployment of Disaster Recovery Chaplains at evacuation and recovery centres along the NSW north coast.

“We’ve had chaplains at up to 15 evacuation centres at a time, which is by far the biggest we’ve had – in 2013 we had five,” says Stephen Robinson, Coordinator of the Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN), a multi-faith network of chaplains run by the Uniting Church.

“We’re there to simply support the families and the workers.” – Stephen Robinson

He adds: “It’s the biggest deployment not just for us but for all the welfare disaster agencies. Each of those evacuation centres is a different town so that’s 15 communities – and about 20 opened and closed [during the bushfire emergency].”

Robinson, who works full-time as the Uniting Church’s National Disaster Recovery Officer, says about 35 chaplains worked 800 hours from Thursday to last weekend – when the bushfire crisis was at its peak.

“It was quite extraordinary – people were working really long shifts and also staying through the night with people,” he says.

“The sort of thing they do is mainly about comfort. They have an enormous amount of conversations with people who have gone home and found that there is no home, that they’ve lost their property.

“They’ll go out with people as they go back to their homes and talk to them about the reality of what they have just witnessed or help them to comprehend it and work out what’s next – being part of the process.”

Robinson told Eternity the role of chaplains is built into state welfare arrangements. The DRCN partners with key agencies such as Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Anglicare with the aim of getting chaplains with great experience in pastoral care into every evacuation centre and recovery point.

“It’s overseen by the Uniting Church, but it includes 20 denominations and faith groups in it, so we draw on ministers and chaplains right across the state,” he explains. “They do intensive training before being deployed.

“We also connect with the Department of Primary Industries, so we go out with the vet people because the destruction of stock is very traumatic for families.

“We’re there to simply support the families and the workers.”

“The chaplains are amazing. Some of them have been deployed for up to a week away from home.

“They’re just volunteers – there’s no payment … Their time is given freely, and some are pastors who put their own lives on hold. Some agencies like Uniting Care will give up their aged-care chaplains for a week and allow them to go away and do this work, so it’s pretty amazing.”

The only state that doesn’t yet have a formalised chaplaincy network for disaster is Queensland; Robinson says a network is just starting up there. It will be coordinated by Lifeline in conjunction with the Uniting Church – but open to all churches.

“We just brought things that were needed.” – John Parer

OneLife Church in Taree on the mid-north coast of NSW is one of many churches up the eastern seaboard that offered practical assistance to the community during and after the recent bushfire emergency.

“I went to all the evacuation centres and so did some of my other leaders … and we just brought things that were needed,” says Pastor John Parer of OneLife Church.

“As soon as I could, I took food up and just handed out food and gave them a card for a place to come and have coffee at our community centre.”

After seeing trucks delivering unwanted donated goods to evacuation centres, OneLife Church decided to give money and deliver water to the bushfire victims.

“The bushfire people used all the water up fighting fires and the people have had to spend a lot of money on fencing [to contain livestock], so we’re just trying to figure out what is best to do. Because I’ve been to all the evacuation centres and there’s truck after truck coming and bringing milk and clothes and stuff, and it’s lovely, but a lot of that stuff is not helping – it’s not scratching where it’s itching.”

Parer says that while nobody asked for or wanted the bushfires, the crisis has brought Taree into the spotlight, highlighting how people support and love each other while fighting the fires.

“We’ve been praying and believing that it’s time to go outside our walls [of our church],” he says.

Parer believes that “people have turned up their noses at Taree” because of its working-class nature and race problems – it’s not shiny like Port Macquarie.” So the church felt God was telling them it was time to go out and walk the town.

“I put a map up on the wall in the foyer four or five days before the fires because I felt God wanted us to get to know our region, like he knows every hair of our head, and that we have to get out there, walk the streets and pray together.

“And we started doing that. During the fires I travelled all over our region. I didn’t know that Bobin was Bobin – I thought it was Bobbin – and I didn’t know where Rainbow Flat was and I didn’t know the difference between Killabakh and Krambach; yet I’ve been to these places …

“I know them all now because I know the stories and the people.”

“It was a really powerful time for her.” – Marty Thomson

In Kempsey, the Seventh Day Adventist Church welcomed several people back to the church after the bushfires, says pastor Marty Thomson.

“I guess it was because of the fires, because it has been a time to reflect on what is most important in life,” he says.

Thomson is very proud of the way his church engaged in neighbourly care during the fires – with members helping neighbours clear out gutters and prepare their properties, moving livestock, helping families with transport. One woman, a masseuse, even gave free massages at the evacuation centre as a way of encouraging survivors.

“They’ve really shone during this time.”

Thomson joined some indigenous women from South Kempsey SDA Church in performing songs at the evacuation centre on Saturday, and one woman in particular was really moved.

“It was a very touching experience for her and she just embraced [one of] the indigenous [singers], who comforted her as she cried and let out that emotion. It was a really powerful time for her.”

Some people in the church also helped survivors with financial donations. The church hopes to continue such support in the recovery phase.

“We’ve had a couple of conversations with the Shire Council and among ourselves as to what we could do to best support using our personnel and our resources.”

Thomson, who has been in Kempsey just two years, said he believed the church can do more to be a blessing to the community.

“There’s so much need and there is so much that we can do. It doesn’t have to be some profound, expensive thing but often, I think, the simplest hands-on ministries are going to impact lives.”

In Port Macquarie, pastor Philip Brown of Generocity Church, was pleased to be one of the churches to receive a donation of Bibles and children’s Christmas books from Bible Society Australia.

“We will be giving those out where we can to bring hope to people,” he said.

“We also have a whole heap of trauma ‘teddies’ that we want to partner with someone to give away to families with little kids who have lost their homes. They’re actually not teddies – they are kangaroos and other Aussie animals.”

Brown hopes people will see churches are not helping bushfire survivors in order to get anything but just because “we love people wherever they are, and whatever is happening.”