Former Carey student Rev Jude Benton shares what it has been like ministering in the midst of the horrific bush fires burning through much of southern and eastern Australia. 

The news in New Zealand has been inundated with the pictures and stories of the fires in Australia. One of the communities that has caught the media attention is the remote Victorian beach holiday town of Mallacoota. With a permanent population of about 1,000, but a summertime holiday population of up to 10,000 the fire hit Mallacoota just when it was at the peak of holiday season. The beach became the place of refuge for locals and tourists as a wall of fire hit the edge of the town, destroying over 100 homes, before continuing its path of destruction north.

Mallacoota is by all standards isolated. Road access is limited to a single windy road through thick forest, which even at the best of times it takes an hour to drive north to the small New South Wales town of Eden, or three hours west to get to the closest large Victorian town of Bairnsdale.  Thinking in a New Zealand context it is most similar to somewhere like Kaikoura—and the dynamics of responding to a disaster of fire and earthquake in a tourist town is a similar.

There is only one church in Mallacoota, the Cooperating (Anglican & Uniting) Parish of Croajingolong, where I have been ministering for 18 months. I originally went through the Baptist Pastoral Leadership training at Carey  in Auckland, graduating in 2004,  before finding employment and subsequent ordination in the Anglican Church. When it became apparent that a firestorm was heading towards Mallacoota, a priority was to get my parents, Rob and Colleen Elwood, residents of Blenheim who were there for Christmas, to safety. Thankfully that was achieved when they got through to Melbourne before the roads were closed. My husband Andy is a local fisheries officer. He and I chose to stay and to continue to minister through whatever lay ahead.

Ministering through disaster

As those who’ve ministered through natural disaster will know, whether it is earthquake, flood, fire or something else, nothing can prepare you for ministry in a completely altered context.

In a day you go from having a wonderful summer plan of advertised activities, to instead trying support 40 displaced beach mission young people who are sleeping in the church until they can be evacuated, to planning a service that will simply give people a place to hold the tension of faith and despair when homes are destroyed and community is dispersed, to the fear of walking up your own drive way to be confronted by a backyard and shed that is destroyed while the rectory miraculously stays standing and habitable.

When for 17 days you have no power at home, yet you still try to run a church, oversee an op shop, be a part of the community, respond as the local police chaplain, reply to well-meaning calls, messages and emails, sometimes all of the activity seems too much. But sometimes there is that calm assurance that I am not facing this alone, that in the midst of crisis the Spirit of Jesus is here, weeping with those who weep, strengthening me for the next step, and showing me where to stop and rest.

On the Sunday after the fire, as we stood surrounded by smoke, with Navy evacuations happening on the beach and Chinook helicopters flying overhead carrying supplies, the Bible passages I used were Psalm 13 and 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.

Psalm 13 in six verses takes people on a journey from struggle and feeling abandoned by God, to rejoicing. As I said that morning and have been saying since, people may be at different places in that psalm each day, or throughout the day. Particularly those who’ve lost houses may not see any hope yet, but we can hold hope for others in our love, prayers, support and presence… but in time my prayer is that we all journey through to a new place of a new reality knowing God is still with us.

And the blessing from 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV):

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

Ways people can help those affected by the bush fires

So how can people help us, and the many hundreds of small communities and churches across Australia?

Prayer: For rain, for the end for the bush fires, the continued safety of the fire crews, and comfort for those who’ve lost family members and homes. For wisdom for all church leaders who are suffering and struggling as they seek to be faithful to God and the people they are called to serve.

Financially: Like all the businesses in town, our church and many others in the tourist coastal areas were dependent on the income of summer op shop trade and bigger congregations. There are so many agencies that can be donated to, but to assist the rural and remote churches like ours I invite people to check out the Anglican Diocese of Gippsland, which has an emergency relief fund to fund ministry in remote places at this time. Other dioceses through New South Wales will have similar ones. Donations can also be made through the Baptist equivalent.

Come and visit: Mid-year, next summer, whenever, come and hire a car in Sydney and drive to Melbourne via the coastal route. Stay in the towns and spend some money; this is what we will need.

Contributor: Rev Jude Benton

Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™