A critical question we need to ask about this year’s catastrophic bushfires is this: What is the best type of long-term spiritual and pastoral care we can offer people and their communities over the years to come.
We have communities of walking wounded in our midst. We have experienced some of the worst fires we have ever seen as well as drought, flood and then the COVID Pandemic. There have been so many external factors out of our control, is it any wonder that we are seeing so much stress in individuals, parishes and our communities.
As Christian communities of faith in the midst of this Christmas season, it is an opportune time to reflect on the God who came to us in our deepest need; on the God who beckons us to walk alongside others in the mess of life to be a source of love and peace. It is important to consider – what is the most helpful way we can walk alongside those who are wounded so that it brings small glimpses of healing and hope?
The impact of the 2019-2020 Bush Fires continues to be evident on so many levels. The huge disruption to so many people’s lives has taken an enormous toll on mental health and well-being. Strong and independent communities have faced the worst and been crippled in many ways, in losses experienced by individuals, families and as community. Surviving has been a challenge for many financially as well as emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. Everybody’s story is different and unique although there are many threads that connect us and that seem to help to build strength and resilience and, most importantly, hope for the future.
Mental Health support through many agencies has offered opportunities for people to feel heard, supported and not alone. Listening empathetically to a person’s story gives that person the opportunity to process what has, and continues to, happen for them and to make sense of their experience. It gives reassurance to the person and helps them in their understanding. This is hard work and, like any grief, there is no fixed timeline – ‘it takes time and there are good days when you feel like you are moving towards recovery and other days when you are feeling like you are going backwards. While the process of recovery may be long and painful, many people are able to use the experience to grow. People often feel they come out of a traumatic experience with a stronger belief in themselves, with improved social relationships, benefits in personal [and spiritual] growth and life priorities.’ (Taking Care of Yourself and Families, 2010, Beyond Blue, pp 107&109.)
For the professional carers, our clergy, pastoral carers and bushfire recovery staff in Anglicare, burn out and compassion fatigue is very common and poses a threat to our well-being. Emotional exhaustion can creep up unexpectedly. Vicarious trauma can stop us in our tracks unless we recognise it and acknowledge it. So caring for oneself and each other is vital. Practising kindness and compassion and being ready to receive it is a gift.
The media is reminding us of the year that was, and yet our minds and bodies do not fit in this construct. Time has paused; for some time has stopped. Some are not ready to consider it has been a year. You may be a member of your community trying to work out what to do for each other. It is a stark reminder of the need for that connectedness, coming together to share stories and to remember.
Yet not necessarily everyone who has endured the trauma of the past year wants to or is able to endure the pain of remembering. Pastorally and prayerfully, there are opportunities to get alongside those who seek the enabling of someone who will listen, who will support them through their journey of grief, of the kaleidoscope of emotions that come with such trauma, and assist them to more fully process their experiences in a sensitive and non-judgmental way. Gentle, gentle is the pace and nature of this journey for the wounds are so deep.
Some people are ready to deal with and process their trauma from the fires in positive ways. Many are actively engaging in the creative space and stories are being told through extraordinary artworks, craft, poetry, music, prayers or gardening.
Recent exhibitions I (Janice) have been deeply moved by in the Eurobodalla include Postcards from the Fire held in Mogo and now showing in Batemans Bay, the Creative Arts Batemans Bay art and sculpture exhibition, and initiatives such as Rising from the Ashes in Milton are examples of local communities working together to express themselves and their experiences through the various mediums of the arts. Some people are creating objects of art from remnants found after the fires to truly bring beauty out of ashes.
As much of the landscape begins to bring forth new life and the colours return, the flowers blossom, the crops are ready to harvest and the birds and the wildlife start to return, there are signs of renewed hope and for many there lies new fervour to conserve and protect what remains.
The shared experiences of the past year have brought some communities closer together as they continue to build on the bonding that fighting for survival brought for them, an RFS chief in one community told me very recently. Other communities may not yet be at that point, such is the extent of their loss and grief and the delays in recovery due to sometimes multiple reasons. For some the strain has become unbearable, with couples and families now dealing with fractured relationships in the midst of trauma. Sadly, some families have relocated out of their communities as paperwork and insurance decisions have left them unable to rebuild.
I pray for compassion and wisdom for us all as we move together towards recovery and renewal. Please continue to uphold our affected communities, our clergy, pastoral care workers and Anglicare staff still caring for the needs of those affected.
We invite you to continue to pray this prayer, written by Dean Andreas Loewe, uttered at St Paul’s Cathedral early Jan this year by the Anglican Primate of Australia, Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier.
Almighty God and heavenly Father, we pray for this world that you love so much
that you sent your Son Jesus to be born as the child of Bethlehem:
We pray for the safety of those sheltering from fires and those fighting fires,
for livestock, native animals, paddocks, bushlands and sacred places.
We remember our own loved ones and those who are dear to us facing this crisis.
We pray for those tending to the injured, the frightened and the brokenhearted,
for emergency services, emergency broadcasters, chaplains and counsellors.
We ask for your forgiveness for our own failures in safeguarding your good creation,
and pray for political and community leaders, and all those responding to the current crisis in our nation.
Above all, we pray the peace that passes all understanding, in our nation and state, in our homes and in our hearts.
This we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
by Reverend Sarah Plummer and Janice Ackland