Lifting hope in flood-ravaged Lismore

Christmas is nearly upon us again. For many it’s hard to cast our gaze back to the beginning of 2022, as COVID and Russia’s  invasion of Ukraine have dominated headlines and conversations. But for residents of north-eastern Australia, the deluge of rain in February is still very much at the forefront of their minds. In Lismore, NSW, residents are still living with the irreparable damage caused to much of their town, including homes and businesses along the Brisbane River.

At the height of the Lismore floods, Eternity spoke to Senior Pastor Dave Winter of Lismore’s Centre Church about the impact on his community. At that time, Dave spoke of the assurance that comes from the knowledge of God’s constant presence – the promise that he never leaves us.

Now, eight months later, how is he faring? How are the people of Lismore managing in a world of shortages? Not enough building materials. Not enough tradies. Not enough staff.

Dave Winter, Senior Pastor of Centre Church Lismore

The pastor is feeling pretty good. He had stepped away for 11 days to enjoy the delights of Tasmania. But he is still conscious of the personal impact of the two floods which hit Lismore in quick succession earlier in the year.

“It took a toll on me in that disaster messes up all your rhythms and strategies we have in place. A disaster chucks that all out of place and you don’t realise the impact it has until you get down the track a little bit and go, ‘Wow, I’ve lost all my life rhythms.’”

Dave’s rhythms are a morning quiet time, regular exercise and other daily habits.

“These rhythms are very important. So, if I have learned anything out of this disaster, it’s to stick to your rhythms as close as possible, because you don’t realise how it affects you. To be able to keep these disciplines gives you a little bit of normality when there’s no normality around you.”

Centre Church, located in a building in the middle of Lismore’s CBD, had several metres of floodwater through it. Its members have been doing a slow gutting of the ground floor, and only recently pulled out and dismantled their much-loved grand piano. It took six men to add it to the pile of debris in the street.

The ground floor of Centre Church Lismore is gutted.

Dave estimates that they have lost somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 of contents, including sound and production gear, and all their seating and carpets. They have been gifted another grand piano, which Dave describes as “awesome”. And the way the Lismore community has responded to these months of recovery, he says is “incredible.”

“The community has just come together so well. It didn’t matter what your beliefs were or what you belonged to, we just seemed to come together and stick together,” Dave explains.

He sums up the resilience of the town as “it was really just supporting one another through it.” Their church received so many donations that they couldn’t process them all. They dropped supplies to other centres also assisting the community.

Dave is an optimist. Is the town quite as buoyant as he is suggesting?

Flood-damaged items are piled high outside Centre Church Lismore.

Rebekka Battisa wears many hats. Not only is she the Associate Pastor of Centre Church, she also heads up Our Kids and Our House, two charities that support children and their families while in hospital. This is not a small endeavour. Rebekka says they have provided accommodation to 10,000 guests over the past ten years! As well as these roles, Rebekka also looks after the church’s women’s ministry, Mums and Cubs ministry and the creative and music portfolio.

Rebekka’s roles put her in touch with people who are very vulnerable, often carrying big loads, managing children whose school was closed due to flooding and are now adjusting to new environments. Some have lost everything in the floods and are living in a tent in the middle of their flood-damaged lounge room.

How does Rebekka think the Lismore community is tracking?

“I think it’s been a real rollercoaster for everyone. I deal with a lot of the businesses in town as well, and a lot of the mums and dads. And so, what I have seen is, after the first flood, absolute shock, because there was such devastation and people just did not expect that we would get water where we got water.

“Having all the petrol stations taken and Woolworths; all our normality was taken. Everyone was in shock.”

“It’s been a real rollercoaster for everyone.” – Rebekka Battisa

Rebekka is proud of her local community. The resilient people of Lismore have given generously to support the work of Our Kids and Our House. Her love and respect for her town and its people comes out in her voice, as well as her words.

“Our community is very much a beautiful kaleidoscope of colours or it’s a very beautiful woven quilt. We are extraordinary. Nimbin’s part of Lismore. So, we’ve got our eclectic, gorgeous ones who moved in here in the 70s – dare I say, hippies. Then you’ve got business people who have been here all their life or have moved in, then we’ve got big business here as well, and lots of farmers and family.

“Health and education are probably our biggest industries. Moving forward, I think education and health are the ones that are going to keep Lismore going for the time being, as all the other industries have been smashed.”

Chester Carter takes a break during flood clean up at Centre Church Lismore

Chester Carter takes a break during flood clean up at Centre Church Lismore. Centre Church Lismore

Rebekka’s office is in Lismore’s CBD, and there is sadness in her voice as she recounts that while rebuilding is underway, walking through the town’s centre, perhaps as little as 10 per cent of businesses have reopened.

“It’s pretty extraordinary,” she says, “because eight months on, you’re still dealing with a flood-affected, damaged city. So, you feel like you’re running and you’re trying to do a sprint, but you’re actually in an ultra-marathon and you’ve only just realised it. So I feel like people are hitting the wall.”

Over 2000 homes were destroyed by the surging floodwaters. Rebekka points out that is a lot of new kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms.

“Even if you’re setting up your office and you’re needing 12 chairs, well we ordered 12 chairs five or six weeks ago. They still haven’t turned up because everyone needs chairs. Everyone needs their work desks.”

“Lismore is the resilient capital of Australia.” – Rebekka Battisa

However, despite all that people have experienced – and there’s always lots of tears, lots of hugs and lots of opportunity to pray with others – Rebekka agrees with Dave that Lismore is resilient.

“I think Lismore is the resilient capital of Australia,” she tells me. “I just want to say that. But I think too, they’ve done it tough. This has been a very tough season … You can’t remain permanently buoyant. I mean, you can try, but it’s difficult to.”

For some years now, Rebekka’s catchcry has been “God’s got that.” God has got her family through some seriously hard times. Floods are seriously hard times as well, but she knows that with lots of effort from the strong community of Lismore, good times will return. Because God’s got that too.

A member of Lismore's 41st battalion with Rebekka Battista

A member of Lismore’s 41st battalion with Rebekka Battista. Natsky

In the meantime, as Christmas approaches, several churches are coming together to celebrate Jesus’ birth. They will share meals, enjoy fellowship and bask in the grace and hope of the risen Lord Jesus.

And already Rebekka has seen evidence of a recovering community. She has been helping to organise an annual fun run, held to raise money for the My Kids charity she is involved with. They decided to hold it this year, but not charge for the privilege of running.

“We just did it for free and we asked everyone to wear red for the heart of the Northern Rivers, which is what we call this ward.

“So everyone wore red and 650 people turned up, and then all these other people turned up and cheered all the people doing the run through the city. And it was magnificent.

“It lifted the tide. It was almost like the hope was lifted.

“And as we move towards Christmas, I think all the churches in Lismore … we need to lift the hope in Lismore by celebrating Jesus who is our ultimate hope, by gathering people and bringing a celebration where there hasn’t been much celebration.”