LCA members have been at the forefront of community efforts to serve, minister to and offer relief to those who have suffered losses during the national bushfire crises in Australia over the summer.
By mid-January, the fires had claimed 28 lives, destroyed more than 2300 homes, killed an estimated 1.25 billion animals and razed more than 10 million hectares of land across the nation. In New South Wales alone, at least 20 people died and more than 5 million hectares of land was believed to have been burnt.
Amid the tragedies, devastation and heartbreak caused by hundreds of blazes, Lutheran members initiated and joined community efforts to support those affected.
At Tuggeranong in the Australian Capital Territory, the Lutheran church became a makeshift evacuation centre for several days in early January as holidaymakers headed west after being moved out of towns along the NSW south coast and cut off by a closed highway.
About 25 people stayed overnight at the church, either in the building or using its carpark to accommodate camper trailers. Volunteers from the church and the local community arrived to help out, including preparing food for and offering support to the guests, after the word was spread via social media posts by the congregation, the State Emergency Service, and a local exercise group that uses the church facilities.
Pastor Paul Hannola of the Good Shepherd congregation at Tuggeranong said God’s hand in the situation was clear throughout.
‘It all just fell into place extremely quickly’, he said. ‘God prompted one of our members and they simply responded to that prompt and God opened all the doors and made the rest of it happen. We’ve had some really significant community engagement from it.
‘It’s been on our hearts to connect with the wider community a lot but this relief centre was just a new and unexpected way that none of us saw coming. When God’s moving, I’m just trying to keep up with what he’s doing and not get in the way of it.’
In the Adelaide Hills, where fires killed one person, destroyed more than 80 homes and 400 other buildings, and burnt at least 24,000 hectares of land before Christmas, a team from St John’s Lutheran Church Woodside instigated what became a multi-parish, cross-denominational, community relief effort.
Kelly Johnston, who is coordinating the relief distribution with fellow St John’s member Tania Schoell and other volunteers, said more than 600 home-cooked meals had been delivered to members of the community who had suffered losses in the fires, along with baked goods, hampers of non-perishables and vouchers for use at local retail businesses. Other members, including Kelly’s husband Vaughn and Tania’s husband Graeme, are also helping fire victims with farming issues such as fence repair, stock management and hay supplies.
With donations of meals from as far afield as Victor Harbor – almost 100 kilometres away – teams of 10 to 20 people have been doorknocking every house on every fire-affected street across the 10 fire-hit towns and hamlets. They plan to continue or repeat regular visits to those in need until at least April.
Kelly said the meal and food donations were a practical way for the local churches to show love to the broader community.
‘I just love that it’s strangers helping strangers’, she said. ‘We’re this group now that are known for the fact that we will come to your home, we will talk with you, we don’t know you but you are actually part of our family, and we will walk alongside of you, and we’re not going to just do it for a month and then forget about you.
‘I come home and I’m exhausted but my cup is overflowing every time.
‘What they’ve gone through is so unbelievable, I have no words to describe what it’s like, but in a small way we can do something and it’s from the church, and you don’t know where that will go. A meal is so small but it means so much to them.’
Woodside Lutheran Church chairperson Darren Juers, who was fighting the fire on one front when word came over the radio that the flames had reached his late father’s land, said the food relief was a wonderful outreach into the community.
‘The people who deliver the food stop at every house and just talk to the people. A lot people are too scared to leave their farms for fear of looters, so this is some of the only contact they have’, he said, adding that 30 to 40 per cent of the congregation was probably involved with fire relief in some way. ‘If you can take a positive out of this tragedy, it’s the fact that the community works together, everyone pulls together, whether it’s our church or our CFS.’
More than a third of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island – more than a third 200,000 hectares of land – was blackened, two people died, around 60 homes were destroyed and approximately 32,000 livestock animals were killed, along with many more native animals.
At Stokes Bay on the island’s north coast, Helen Wurst’s family homestead, in which her son and his family now live, was destroyed by the fire, along with sheds and livestock, including about 1000 sheep, vineyard and pasture land. Helen, who is treasurer and organist at the Kangaroo Island Multi-site Congregation, said she felt ‘very supported’ by the Lutheran church, including the SA/NT District.
‘I’ve had phone calls from the Bishop David Altus and just about all of our spiritual leaders from previous years have either phoned or emailed to see how we’re going, so we’ve felt very supported by the church family and our members as well’, said Helen, who added that at least two other church families had lost homes.
Despite the losses, Helen said the fire devastation had brought her closer to God
‘We all need something in a time of crisis and I’m just glad that I have this faith that can keep me going’, she said. ‘It’s acceptance that things like this happen in the world – that terrible things happen – but we can still feel supported and loved.’
Click here for information about supporting bushfire-affected communities through donations, prayer and in other ways.