What is a disaster?
Disasters can be natural or man-made
Between 1967 and 1991 – seven million people around the globe died in disaster but three billion people were affected by them.
Since then, the 2004 Tsunami alone killed about 150 000 people.
A number of plane crashes, building fires, terrorist acts, extenuating droughts, floods, fires and pandemics, etc. have occurred.
In Australia in 2009, a defining moment occurred that helped in the formation of the Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network – the Black Saturday Bushfires.
Let’s watch this snippet from a documentary and think of the personal, physical, psychological needs of these survivors after an event which killed 179 men, women and children.
What activations occur when a disaster occurs?
DRCN was an initiative of the Uniting Church in Australia.
This was the brainchild of Rev. Dr Stephen Robinson:
- A volunteer firefighter and RFS Chaplain he started a PhD these in the early 2000s on Ministry in Disaster Settings
- He found that ministry agents and congregations were ill-prepared to respond to disasters in their communities.
Graham Abrahams (who has been to a service here) – Lay Pastor at Thredbo in 1997 – not supported by the church as well as might be expected.
Glenn Cumbers – Port Arthur – 1996 – ordained just six weeks, in the middle of a community that was his own but which had different expectations to his own. He was abused physically and intimidated by his church leaders but had no support from the agencies that had chaplaincy services.
In 2009 Stephen was in ministry at Lugarno Peakhurst, from which we entered this ministry. Stephen went to the Fires in Victoria. Thea and I helped to run the church in his absence and kept sending him batches of holding crosses.
During that time, after some poor behaviours by various ministers, all religious personnel were removed from the fire ground.
I was in my final year at college and later that year I became Stephen’s assistant and together we set up the first training of 16 Disaster Recovery chaplains. There are now more than 200 chaplains trained from all denominations and most faiths.
Also, a memorandum of understanding was drawn up with the NSW Department of Community Services for the activation of chaplains to Disaster Recovery centres following declared disasters.
Later on, we would set up a ‘peer support’ program for UCA ministers in disaster affected communities and longer term chaplaincy/community development after the Queensland floods and the Coonabarabran fires.
In January 2011, while in ministry in Moree, I initiated the very first activation of the service, following the relocation of people from the Queensland border towns due to the floods which also affected the Lockyer Valley.
At first, chaplains were restricted to Evacuation and Recovery centres, but at the Coonabarabran fires in 2013, at which I was Team Leader of the Chaplains, I was asked to coordinate chaplains to go into the field with the Emergency officers, as people were allowed to return to their properties.
At the Nursing Home fire in 2014 and the Martin Place siege aftermath – DRCN chaplains were deployed to the scene.
Today the program has been utilized to some degree across Australia (Stephen now also runs the Assembly Disaster Recovery program) and has even been taken to the Pacific nations following cyclones.
This is a ministry of presence, not proselytizing.
It is about listening, helping practically, improving streams of communication, liaising with staff and personnel, encouraging as well as creating a calm space for people to vent, cry or be silent.
- As I mentioned before, I became involved even before an MoU was nutted out with the Disaster Planning people at Community Services.
- In 2009, in the aftermath of the fires in Victoria, I has some pastoral duties with a Uniting Church minister, a Jewish lady, a woman who lost her house in Kinglake (and further lost her holding cross) and a piano player of another church who
had also lost his house near Marysville.
- In January 2011, the floods of Southern Queensland to the north of us affected two communities who were cut off. Toomelah and Boggabilla – these communities had to be evacuated to Moree – which really stretched the resources of the town.
- In the Evacuation centre I sat and talked with folks, got information for people, went to supermarket and bought nappies, acted as a go-between with police and a homeless man and sat with a grandmother who was angry, anxious, frustrated and grieving as she could return to Queensland to a family that had a lost a child, swept away in the flood across the border.
- In 2012, we again had flooding in Moree and Narrabri. This time I received support from the Acting Senior Chaplain, David Reithmuller – for many in my congregation in Moree were affected. David came to me by plane and boat – the evacuation centre was on the other side of the town cut off by the flood waters.
- In 2013 – I did two tours as Team Leader at the Coonabarabran Fires. Just getting there was dire and once there, the wind shifted and the whole town was under threat. Families were in the centre not knowing if they had lost their homes and being told very little. God Incident – the Fire Controller was my RFS Superintendent – as a result the chaplains were out in the field for the first time.
- After return from Coona – I got another call to be activated – this time it was Kiama.
- Since then I have only been to the Picton flood in a chaplaincy capacity. But I have been on the Synod Disaster Committee, I am a trained Peer Leader and the Disaster Committee DRCN representative for this part of NSW.
I am honoured to be part of this wonderful ministry.