As Australia’s bushfire crisis continues, this update reveals how Adventist church members have been affected and what the Seventh-day Adventist Church is doing to support fire-impacted communities.
The Worst Affected Area in New South Wales
Cobargo in southeast New South Wales (NSW) has been the worst affected area in the state, with the township engulfed by fire. Seven Adventist families lost their homes, properties, and businesses. The house in which the Cobargo church company — a total of 15 members, including children — used to meet has also been destroyed.
“The house we used to worship in is completely gone,” said local company church pastor Dragan Kanazir. “Homes have been lost from Wandella to as far north as Batemans Bay.”
Julie Nagle, who coordinates the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministries (ATSIM) for the South New South Wales Conference (SNSWC), has been in the field helping local tracking teams, visiting evacuation centers, and helping Aboriginal communities affected by the fires. Nagle reported that one member of the Cobargo church company has not been able to face returning to his property after losing his home and all memories of his late wife in the fires. His 92-year-old brother died on January 5.
She said the church is praying for him and supporting him at this difficult time.
To help support the community, Bega Seventh-day Adventist Church opened its doors as an evacuation center, accommodating more than 35 people and 15 dogs. The church hall was also used for food storage.
“When we noticed that the evacuation center over the road was becoming overloaded, we made the quick decision to open the church and allow people to use the facilities,” Kanazir said. “At one stage our church looked like Noah's ark!”
“Other evacuation centers didn’t take pets,” said Sarina Taituave, SNSWC director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). “We’re anticipating that there will still be people at Bega church for most of this week, but they’re reassessing at midday today.”
In light of the continuing crisis, ADRA is providing AU$500 (about US$350) payments to families in need across the conference territory, and AU$2,000 (about US$1,400) for churches helping their communities. So far, ADRA has assisted 15 families in the SNSWC region.
The SNSWC and Australian Union Conference (AUC) are also providing cash funding to members, churches, and the community based on needs, with up to AU$5,000 (about US$3,500) available for families who have lost their homes.
“Some [families] have lost homes, some properties or part of their properties, some are evacuated and unable to return to work, while others are volunteering for the RFS instead of working and have run out of funds,” Sarina Taituave said.
Prayer in the Midst of Hopelessness
Many members from Tumut, Corryong, and Tumburrumba churches (NSW) have lost their homes or have been evacuated due to the fires or smoke, according to Jeremy Taituave.
“A lot of our members who live in Batlow have lost houses; one lost a house in Tumut, but two fought to save their property and successfully did,” Jeremy Taituave said. “In Corryong, [church member and Rural Fire Service volunteer] Shirley Sprenger lost 50 acres, but apparently that’s small compared to everyone else.”
Having spoken to Sprenger on the phone, Jeremy Taituave said there is a sense of hopelessness in the rural communities and a need for fostering hope, gathering together, and encouraging each other.
“We’re going to meet up with our churches, have meetings, and talk about how to respond. We need to pick up the pieces emotionally and spiritually; we’re going to open our doors for prayers, and talking to Shirley [Sprenger], we’ve decided to run the Depression and Anxiety Recovery Program [DARP],” he said.
To support drought relief in 2019, ADRA SNSWC funded DARP facilitator training for representatives from 18 churches across the conference. The programs will be run over the months ahead to help struggling families or RFS volunteers who have suffered trauma.
Despite the sense of hopelessness, many volunteers and displaced people have been encouraged by prayer. Volunteering on the front lines, SNSWC ATSIM coordinator Nagle has been actively sharing her faith by praying for firefighters and volunteers putting their lives at risk.
“I was driving along and saw a fire truck and had to pull up,” she said. “I walked up to [the firefighters] and said, ‘This might be a bit crazy, but I feel impressed to come and pray with you guys and your trucks.’ One of them turned and said, ‘Yes, please!’ I had no idea what I was going to say, but once I laid my hand on that truck, the words came: ‘In Jesus’ name, wherever these wheels travel and wherever these feet walk, may you bless their generosity and compassion.’ I've been doing it for each truck, and they've been really grateful.”
Some Homes Saved, Others Destroyed
Tumbarumba Adventist church members Wayne and Sharon Ford, who own two properties in Batlow and Tumbarumba, were in the direct line of fire twice but managed to escape with both houses untouched.
“There were two fires. The one on Tuesday [December 31] came right up to the back door of our home; it went all around,” Sharon Ford said. “We lost a shearing shed and some solar pumping gear. We have a tenant in the other house, and it was saved as well. We are so grateful and thankful.”
Others have not been so lucky. Many of the Fords’ neighbors whose homes escaped the first fire were destroyed by the second blaze that came through only three days later.
“Our niece lost everything. And a girlfriend down the road survived the first fire and thought they’d be OK because the trees were burnt — but although it burnt the base, it didn’t get the canopy. So it went up in flames too,” Ford said.
Having been evacuated from the area on December 30, those returning to find their homes totally destroyed are finding that it is a very emotional time.
“They can’t stop thinking about what they’ve lost and what they didn’t take,” Ford said. “When you’re told to go, it’s a very emotional time deciding what to take. You do the obvious: photos, passport and business stuff, and then you walk into the lounge room and realize you can’t take much. You've got emotional ties to random little items, and it’s hard to say goodbye.”
Despite the stress and devastation all around, Ford said her faith has been strengthened as a result of the fires. “It’s been an opportunity to share [Jesus] with others. As a close-knit little town, people are saying ‘God be with you,’ and they’re not even God-fearing people. A lot of people are asking for prayers.
“What’s been overwhelming for us are the calls from people we barely know who have offered us beds and accommodation,” Ford said. “And even businesses have said not to worry about paying the bill. And I’m so grateful for everyone’s prayers.”