A couple of days of light rain brought some relief to those resisting killer bushfires across southeastern Australia. Still, firefighters, residents and other responders were bracing themselves and preparing for more mayhem.
The fires have ravaged more than 8 million hectares (19.8 million acres) of land, amounting to almost the size of Austria, killing 25 people, Reuters News Agency reported on 6 January.
The coordinating group for church responders is the Australian Volunteer Emergency Chaplaincy Alliance. It falls under the National Council of Churches of Australia and cooperates with states and federal authorities as well as church groups.
The National Council of Churches of Australia includes Anglican, Orthodox, Reformed and Roman Catholic traditions along with The Salvation Army, Quakers and other Christian traditions.
The bushfires have destroyed thousands of buildings and left some towns without electricity and mobile coverage including the worst-hit areas of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia as well as Australian Capital Territory where Canberra is situated
Along with the usual fire and emergency services, mostly filled with volunteers, the Australian military is in action along with a myriad of church and faith-based responders.
Rev. Anne Hewitt, executive officer of the South Australia Council of Churches, said that Salvation Army Disaster and Recovery Ministry chaplains are working well, supporting all affected by fires and resultant devastation.
“We pray for rest-making, companioning, and space for both sorrowing the losses and devastating changes, as well as noticing joyous kindness shining in the midst of such unexpected and long-lasting trauma.”
Naturally, the church responder groups could not have sprung into action without prior preparation in a country long used to fire and natural disasters, but not always ready for such ferocity as the current affliction.
The National Council of Churches of Australia president is Bishop Philip Huggins, who is director of the Centre for Ecumenical Studies at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.
He said in a message to the World Council of Churches (WCC), “It is a terrible time. Alongside others, many people of faith are involved in helping in all kinds of practical ways — many are living their prayer as community members.”
The Australian Volunteer Emergency Chaplaincy Alliance works with other church groups such as the Victorian Council of Churches Emergencies Ministry, New South Wales Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network, Disaster and Recovery Ministries of South Australia, Tasmania Council of Churches Emergency Ministry, and Emergency Response Chaplaincy Service of the Northern Territory Council of Churches.
In South Australia, Disaster and Recovery Ministries is an increasingly multi-faith ministry engaged in providing pastoral care for communities recovering from disasters.
These include natural disasters (bushfires, floods, severe storms) or those of human origin such as large workplace or transport accidents and terrorist attacks.
‘MOU with state government’
The Uniting Church coordinates this network across the state, operating under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the South Australian Government and in partnership with other participating organizations.
“While other services and groups will aid in taking care of people’s physical and emotional needs, chaplaincy seeks to support people’s spiritual and pastoral needs,” it says on its website.
The New South Wales Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network is also an ecumenical network of chaplains that assists people in the most populous state affected by disasters and significant emergencies within their communities.
The network was established in 2009 by the Uniting Church (Synod of New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory) after deliberations within the State Disaster Welfare Committee, which recognized the need for chaplaincy to complement the other welfare services within evacuation and recovery centres following major emergencies.
The network says on its website, “When disasters strike, people are affected in every aspect of their lives, physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Holistic care must account for all aspects of a person’s experience and need.”
The Australian Volunteer Emergency Chaplaincy Alliance also works with other groups such as Conquerors Congregation Ministries International, a group of mainly evangelical believers that was founded some eight years ago as “a result of deep prayer and fellowship with Almighty God.”
Rev. Tony O. Jegede, senior pastor of Conquerors Congregation Ministries International, said in a statement released to the WCC, “The church at this time can only proffer temporary solutions of shelters and other aids, but Jesus provides the permanent solution of an everlasting home which natural disaster cannot destroy, a home that gives the church hope, even those whose properties have been destroyed.
“We know that we may lose every material thing, but our hope for the kingdom of God that experiences no disaster gives us strength to move on in Christ Jesus and still glorify God in the midst of the fire.”
The Salvation Army said its Emergency Services teams, known locally as “the Salvos” (#salvos), are responding to the unprecedented number of devastating bushfires around Australia.