In the aftermath of tragedy, God’s plan to bring regeneration and new life is not always clear. As much as the world tells us we should ‘move on’, there are some losses we never get over. However, a strong sense of community spirit, along with the generosity and prayers of those near and far afield, is helping those affected by bushfires that ravaged many Australian states this past summer to find hope among the ashes.
It’s been a tough time for some people who live in the farming regions around the picturesque coastal town of Esperance, in Western Australia’s south-east.
Last November, four people and thousands of livestock died in the blaze that reportedly razed more than 130,000 hectares of crops. Three of the people who died were overseas visitors working on a farm, while the fourth was a local farmer and neighbour to members of St John’s Lutheran Church, Esperance.
Along with the ongoing grief for those who died, some farmers have had to endure the anguish of destroying and disposing of dying and dead livestock. There have been insurance claims to make – and in some cases battle for. There has been conflicting emotion and frustration for some farmers who did not get burnt out but still had to harvest a wind-ruined crop, which is not covered by insurance.
‘The way that people rallied and responded to the needs of the community was quite overwhelming.’
There are decimated fences and farm buildings to clear and rebuild. Personal problems are often exacerbated in the face of such stress and anguish.
Understandably, people are still hurting even as the rebuilding and regrowth begins.
Among the relatively small Lutheran community in the region of around 70 members, farmer and St John’s treasurer Trevor Schutz and his wife Marie were hardest hit, losing 870 hectares of crop and 670 sheep.
St John’s pastor Jason Pokela says farmers in the community have been experiencing a wide range of emotions in the wake of the tragedy.
‘Those who were burnt out are dealing with the loss; the ones who almost got burnt out are dealing with the fear of that happening to them in future; the farmers who were right next door who didn’t get burnt out are also feeling guilty that their neighbour was burnt out and they weren’t, especially if they’re sitting on a header harvesting probably the best crop ever’, Pastor Jason says.
‘There are people who have gone through their grief and are in the recovery process, but then there are others who’ve had such significant loss and trauma from it that it will stay with them forever.’
However, Pastor Jason says, it is not all bad news for the people of the greater Esperance area.
‘Even in amongst the grief on the first few Sundays after the fire, there were some beautiful stories that congregation members shared of just being thankful to God for the near misses that they had’, he says. ‘And I’m not talking about near misses as in there was a fire 10 kilometres down that road, I’m talking about “If I hadn’t had a sudden thought to go down this road instead of that one, I’d be dead”.
‘The way that people rallied and responded to the needs of the community was quite overwhelming.
‘I’ve certainly found a lot of people – and not just church members – who have been very keen to call out to God, so that is quite significant. And when we think about it in the context of what’s going on theologically, in Scripture we hear about suffering and that it’s not the most terrible thing that can happen to us, because if it drives us to the foot of the cross to cry for mercy then that’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?’
‘We’ve had such great signs of GENEROSITY. It’s just been an INSPIRATION for the people who did lose a lot.’
He says the best thing members of the wider church can do for those suffering in the wake of the Esperance fires is to pray for them.
‘Please pray for us to have the wisdom to know how to care for people who are hurting’, he says.
Pastor Jason says they are still working out the best way to serve the local community with a share of the LCA’s Disaster and Welfare Fund, which had raised $335,000 as at press time.
These generous donations of LCA members will be distributed between Western Australia and South Australia, after a bushfire tore through South Australia’s lower Mid-North and western Barossa Valley areas the same month as the Esperance fire. Known as the Pinery fire, that blaze killed two people and many thousands of livestock; destroyed 91 homes and 300 farm buildings; and burnt more than 85,000 hectares of land in or near towns including Roseworthy, Greenock, Freeling, Stockport, Tarlee, Owen, Mallala, Wasleys and Hamley Bridge.
Peter Ziersch is pastor at Freeling, which was surrounded by the fire. Two members lost houses, while others lost hay sheds, farm machinery and ‘huge kilometres’ of fencing. He said the tragedy had unified the community, even though the toll of loss had affected people differently: physically, financially and emotionally.
‘We’ve had such great signs of generosity’, Pastor Peter said. ‘It’s just been an inspiration for the people who did lose a lot. It’s meant so much to them.
‘Some South Australian congregations have passed on offerings from a Sunday service and that money has been able to go to a couple who lost the house they were handing over to their children. The insurance had been forgotten and they weren’t covered.’
Pastor Les Pfeiffer of the Kapunda parish ministers to the Lutheran congregation at Bethel, which felt the full fury of the wildfire. Bethel is halfway between Kapunda and Hamley Bridge, one of the major locations hardest hit by the blaze.
Bethel members lost farming machinery, a shed and a significant amount of fencing, while 40 hectares of land known as ‘God’s Acres’, which is usually crop farmed and the proceeds given away, was razed. Pastor Les said at least 90 per cent of the $10,000-12,000 of annual income from the land generally would go to areas other than local congregations, including high school chaplaincy and Aboriginal ministry.
He said it was wonderful that people from the Kapunda congregation, who didn’t suffer losses, volunteered to help those who did.
This feature story comes from The Lutheran April 2016. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.