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Helping bushfire survivors in the long term

Out of Australia’s bushfire crisis, local churches, ministers and chaplains can emerge as an unexpected source of ongoing, valuable support to communities.

So says Stephen Robinson, co-ordinator of NSW Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network. Right now, Robinson is in Bateman’s Bay on NSW’s South Coast, meeting with churches in that fire-ravaged area to provide “basic training on what they need to expect and account for” during the next phase of recovery.

“They are actually doing what Christ told us to do – getting out of ourselves and into the world.” – Stephen Robinson

As Robinson told Eternity in mid November, this fire season has seen the biggest ever deployment of disaster recovery chaplains in Australia. And that was before the widespread damage of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Already this month, 55 chaplains have clocked up 1400 hours of face-to-face comfort and support in 34 evacuation locations. From a listening ear to driving someone to the chemist or mediating stressed situations, volunteer chaplains have been up close and personal with hurting Australians.

Although the bushfire threat is far from over across Australia, Robinson notes how some areas are at the transition point to recovery and rebuilding. The physical and spiritual needs of devastated Australian communities are so pronounced that new roles already are being created to help bring local churches together – to best help those around them.

“The idea is that we don’t come in to try to fix it; we work in concert with the churches to have a really holistic ministry of supporting the person in the field and they support the ministers,” explains Robinson, who also is National Disaster Recovery Officer of the Uniting Church in Australia.

Such a co-ordination role might be needed for six to 12 months, according to Robinson. While Robinson and his chaplains previously have been involved in the aftermath of other fires and floods, the scale of these fires demands a different order of response. He adds that in NSW’s Bega Valley, as well as South Australia’s Adelaide Hills region and on Kangaroo Island, different Christian organisations have already banded together to deploy someone to co-ordinate the response and efforts of local churches.

“I don’t think anything can meet the need, in terms of what is out there at the moment. Every single agency is stretched beyond anything they had imagined. But this goes a long way towards supporting the local churches, who become very tired and stretched in terms of the pastoral needs; when you’ve got multiple houses lost and the communities are badly hit by the economic impact, as well as the social and spiritual impact.”

Robinson points out that natural disaster can cause churches to refocus “the ministry quite strongly … about genuine practical and pastoral care into their community.”

“It’s where the body of Christ works as the body of Christ,” he says about Christians coming together in their area, for a common purpose. “It’s where they are not looking to their own interests but, as it says in scripture, ‘the needs of others’.”

“They are actually doing what Christ told us to do – getting out of ourselves and into the world.”

Local communities also can be “astounded” to discover that their churches are “useful”.

“I’ve seen it happen a number of times,” says Robinson. “I think one of the challenges the church has these days is being seen, from an outsider’s point of view, as ‘what’s the point of the church?’

“If [a local church] can illustrate that in action and heart, people are astounded at what value the church and pastoral agents have.”

“I see this is how it is and this is where we are to be.” – Stephen Robinson

Perhaps more than many of us, Robinson understands “that things are not as they should be or could be” in our “broken” world. Yet even as he struggles to make sense of the destruction and devastation, he remains certain that God is not distant to the world’s sufferings – and that he calls us to confront them.

“If you look at the way God is working through people and his church, he is profoundly present in that,” Robinson says.

“It’s something I wrestle with and don’t have a lot of answers for but I do know God has called us into this stuff. The nitty gritty happens where we encounter the difficult, dangerous or dark stuff in the world, in a way that brings hope and light of Christ.”

“You don’t get a resurrection without a crucifixion and I think, quite easily in the Christian faith, we could be lulled into a sense that everything should be perfect and life should be easy.”

“But Jesus never, ever talked about … Suffering was part of the deal.”

“So, I see this is how it is and this is where we are to be. That understanding and calling is what keeps me going and motivated, despite the fact it gets very, very tough.”

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