Pastoral Letter from Canberra Region Presbytery

The following letter has been prepared for the people of the Congregations across the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. I am sharing it here for the interest of those beyond that network, with the intention that that it might inform and encourage people about the work taking place on-the-ground amongst the communities where the fires have hit hard in recent weeks.

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Dear friends, the last few weeks have been challenging, confronting us with images of devastated landscapes, burnt native animals and birds, destroyed homes, and the bodies of farm stock unable to escape the fire, alongside of pictures and videos of the still-raging flames of fire, leaping high into air, travelling rapidly across the landscape. 

We have watched aghast as our screens take us right into the heart of the firestorm, standing with firefighters in the face of unbeatable odds. And we have breathed the air that is saturated with smoke from the fires, smoke that causes us to gasp, cough, and wheeze. It has been a challenging time.

Some of us have seen this kind of destruction at close quarters. Some have memories of the 2003 Canberra fires brought back to prominent attention. Some have been recently in areas that are now devastated, or have been caught in the early stages of the recent forefront activity. 

Some have family members or good friends who have had to evacuate in the face of the fire. Some of us know people whose properties, animals, and houses have been impacted by the intensity of the blazes. We are all caught into a sense of anxiety and grief as the fires continue.

We need to be gentle with each other. We need to hold each other in the comfort of friendship, offer supportive words, provide practical assistance, and sit with each other in the uncomfortable spaces of waiting, wondering, worrying. We need to make sure that we don’t expose ourselves, unnecessarily, to risks to our own health.

We need to be mindful of those in the midst of all the affected areas, whose homes are gone, whose friends are scattered, whose memories are burnt and whose hopes are scarred. We can pray for them. We can give to the bushfire disaster funds that have been set up to support people on the ground. The Uniting Church has one, as do Red Cross, the Rural Fire Service, and many other charities and agencies. (https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/giving/moderators-appeal/)

Above: Bushfire, by Gabrielle Jones: an invitation to pause and reflect, in the midst of the fires.

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We can pray, especially, for the Disaster Response Chaplains who are on the ground amongst these people—listening, comforting, praying; holding people in their time of grief, offering consolation and providing practical support. These chaplains are trained to work closely on the ground with the emergency services and the local councils in each location. 

These chaplains work with the volunteers from local churches and service clubs, who are providing meals, water, and a comforting presence to people in great need. Along with the volunteers they work with, they exemplify the ministry of hospitality, expressed through compassion and practical assistance, that is fundamental to the faith we share. 

To assist us with our prayerful support of these people, here is an overview of the ministers, pastors, chaplains, and key lay leaders who have been contributing so effectively to the local disaster responses in each location. Please uphold them as they go about their ministries in each place.


Julie Fletcher has been ministering in Braidwood and working closely with churches and organisations in the town, since the fires broke out there in November. Julie and husband Neil have formed an ecumenical co-operative with other churches and the Moderator’s Bushfire Appeal has already provided funds to assist as they meet the practical needs of people from the areas surrounding the town where the fires have struck. Roads are still closed between Braidwood and the coast.

David Russell and Susan Cann have been active, first in Bega and then in Merimbula, where David has been in placement for some years. David estimates he has had contact with a thousand people since the Sapphire Club was opened as an evacuation centre. This is the kind of ministry that we can support from distance through our prayers. 

Karyl Davison came to the area after the initial damaging impact of the fires had swept through. She has been based at the Merimbula RSL Club, where she has ministered with about 400 people. Ian Diamond travelled to the coast with her and is based at the Tathra Beach Country Club, where almost 400 people sheltered—along with about 70 pets! Most evacuation centres do not accept pets, so Ian set about ensuring that people with pets had a safe and secure place to shelter.

Michael Palmer is an Anglican minister serving the Uniting Church in Eden, and with the UCA people led Peter and Pam Skelton has been working long days and well into the nights to make properties safe, after most of the people in the town were evacuated. The hinterland of Eden is particularly at risk at this time. Instead of worship on Sunday, 

Michael opened his own home to the people still in town and met with people for conversation and prayer, with a cup of tea as well. He also spent some time visiting people who had stayed, praying with them. Some people have been unable to leave the town because they had no fuel and no funds.

Uniting Church ministers Yvonne Stephenson and Kath Merrifield, along with Ray Lemon, from the Assemblies of God, have served at the Batemans Bay evacuation centre. Yvonne, who lives in the area, has been active as a chaplain from the very start of the emergency and has done stirling work in difficult circumstances.

Up to 5,000 people have been fed, sheltered, and comforted in that town. Members of the Batemans Bay congregation cleared the pews so that people could sleep in the church. Some hardy souls were sleeping on the pews, which had been pushed together to form beds! Sunday worship was an informal gathering for prayer and singing over a cup of tea. Power has been cut to Batemans Bay on and off for some days.

Terence Corkin, who lives just out of Moruya, has spent a number of days at the local evacuation centre, helping people to adjust to their frightening situation. Terence and Julie have had to leave their own property for a time during the past week. He reports that the immediate threat of fire has diminished, but there are many people in the town from scattered communities that have been burnt, with little prospect of returning soon. After a period without power, the electricity is running. A fine layer of ash covers everything.

At both Bateman’s Bay and Narooma, a number of homeless men have been sleeping in swags and old vans in Church carparks. They have become the hands, heart and feet that clean the toilets, wash dishes, clear the gutters and are the protectors of church property and drop in centres.

Di White and Kath Crapp, in the town of Narooma, have marshalled and organised a great team that has provided food and water, shelter and support, for the many people evacuated into that town. Monty’s Place operates from the Uniting Church building, so there was already a team and the know-how on hand for the emergency. Kath has expressed their gratitude in the knowledge that people are praying for them each day.

Daniel Mossfield has been at the evacuation centre in Goulburn, where people from Bundanoon and other small towns in the Southern Highlands have gathered after being evacuated over the weekend. The evacuation centre is in the Showground, which is filled to capacity with people. There are many pets at this centre, and this creates various challenges to those organising the evacuations.

At the tail end of the most recent critical period, the township of Jindabyne became a focus point, as fires in the Snowy Mountains intensified and people were evacuated from right across the Monaro and Snowy Mountains region. The Uniting Church there has a small but very fine group off leaders, including Judy McKinlay, recently elected as Co-Chair of the Presbytery, and Peter Beer. Peter is the Mayor of the region, and thus is involved in the centre of all the planning for the region. It would be very good to pray especially for him, as he serves in that position. 

Cooma has also been busy with an official evacuation centre in operation which is now in receipt of DRCN chaplaincy from ADF reserve chaplains. UCA minister in Cooma, Noel Williams, has been at his farm near Adaminaby undertaking the difficult task of fire protecting his farm as it is subjected to ever changing threat levels from two separate fire fronts, whilst also trying to truck in semi-trailer loads of hay to battle the impact from the drought to feed his 1,500 merinos and 50 pigs. Noel’s story will be similar to many within our Presbytery and that of other Presbytery farmers across the NSW and ACT Synod.

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People who have been most impacted have expressed gratitude for the prayer and practical support from others not in the immediate danger zones. We do well to keep praying, and giving, and hoping. 

And as we pray, and watch, and wait with hope, be encouraged that there are people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of no faith, all working together to ensure the safety of people, animals, and property, and to support one another in this time of need. And know that people are praying around the world for those in crisis. 

There is a collection of resources, for prayer and reflection, at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-prayers/

The Moderators of each Synod, and the national President of the Uniting Church, have all expressed prayerful concern for the people who are being hardest hit, and for those seeking to serve them. The President’s message is on video at https://vimeo.com/382251990

Personal friends in countries all over the world are, through the wonders of our internet age, receiving up to date information and offering prayers for those affected. The General Secretary of the World Council of Church has assured Australians of the prayers of people from churches across the globe (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/in-letter-to-australian-churches-wcc-prays-for-respite-from-the-heat-and-the-flames). 

The UCA Assembly webpage contains messages of support that have been sent by our partner churches around the world (https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/disaster/item/424-messages-of-support-from-overseas).

May you go in peace and hope in the days ahead.

Judy McKinlay, John Williams, Delia Quigley, Co-Chairs

John Squires, Presbytery Minister–Wellbeing

The letter is online at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-message-for-the-bushfire-crisis/

There is a helpful list of resources relating to climate change and the bushfires at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-crisis-info/ and some prayers and liturgies for use at this time at https://www.unitingearth.org.au/bushfire-prayers/

The image shows the Batemans Bay Uniting Church, transformed from a place of worship to a safe place for evacuated people to sleep. Photo by Pam Nuessler.

We wait, and hope, and grieve, anticipating …

A Prayer for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

as we sit and watch the flames and smoke

Hear our prayers, O God,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

We have seen the photos, Lord.

We have watched from afar,

horrified, terrified.

We have heard the accounts,

listened to the tales of loss and destruction,

and learnt the names of those who have died.

We have felt the heat,

searing heat, scorching heat;

we have watched the smoke,

insidious, permeating everything,

snaking its way into our region;

and we have become weary,

We have inhaled the smoke,

coughed and wheezed,

closed the windows and the doors,

waited for the change in wind direction.

Now it is inside … inside our homes,

inside our lives, inside our beings.

And still the photos, the images, come;

the searing flames, the plumes of smoke,

the walls of fire, the crowning fires;

the valiant citizens, hoses in hand,

the sobbing homeless, utterly devastated;

we have watched them, from afar,

thankfully, from afar.

And we wait, and ponder,

and hope, and grieve,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

For those with the skills and knowledge,

the energy and the capacity,

to stand and fight the fires,

we are grateful, immensely grateful.

Strengthen them, O God,

strengthen them through the food willingly provided,

the leave willingly offered,

through the places of rest and recovery

and the comfort of the chaplains on hand.

For those who have lost property and homes,

whose neighbours and animals have been evacuated,

whose memories and possessions are gone,

we are sorrowing.

Comfort them, O God,

comfort them through the presence of listening ears

as well as through the offers of tangible support.

For those who are mourning the deaths

of fathers, husbands, sons, friends,

we stand silent, in solidarity, in grief;

comfort them, we know not how,

comfort them through the skill of counsellors and chaplains,

comfort them through the support of friends and family.

For them, we grieve,

just as we grieve for the creatures of the bush lands

where fires have spread,

wreaking havoc, causing chaos,

destroying everything in their midst.

And the native animals die in the inferno

and the ashes spread over the sand of beaches

and the dams are emptied, the dust bowls grow larger,

the birds have no trees as their habitat is destroyed,

and we watch as the climate changes, the damage grows,

the omens line up, the signs become clearer.

And we wait, and ponder,

and hope, and grieve,

in this moment of waiting, anticipating,

waiting, and hoping,

as we prepare for the end of Advent

and the coming Christmas season.

We wonder about what will come next,

we worry about how close it will come to us,

we worry about what future we are leaving for others.

Give us a firm resolve, O God,

a resolve to live our lives in ways

that respect and value all of your creation.

Give to our leaders, O God, a clear understanding

of the critical moment of choice that is here:

a crisis point in our life as community,

a crisis where leadership is needed;

clear-headed, engaged and informed,

committed to charting a course

that will turn us away from having heads in the sand,

a course that will enable us

to reduce our carbon outputs,

foster renewable sources of energy,

and live as a country that reduces our impact year by year.

These are our prayers, O God,

in this moment of waiting,

anticipating,

waiting,

and hoping.

Hear our prayers, O God.

Amen.

Preparing prayerfully for Christmas celebrations

It is the custom, in the Congregation where I am serving this year, for a member of the Congregation to lead the prayers of the people each Sunday. Yesterday, Robyn Robinson led us in prayers which, with her permission, I post here: assisting us to prepare prayerfully for Christmas celebrations.

Loving God, we bring to you the prayers of the people: your people, greatly loved and willingly sought.

As Christmas approaches, we are reminded of the amazing gift you have given us, for as a God who knew no boundaries, you were willing to limit yourself to the constraints and boundaries of being human.

You came to your people as one of us: Emmanuel, God with us.

The angels sang of peace and goodwill on earth; and yet, here, so many years later, we are still struggling with terrible tragedies and inexplicable events.

We think of the continuing battle against the bushfires, and pray for rain.

We think of the civil unrest in countries overseas, and pray for calm.

We think of the natural disaster in New Zealand, and pray for comfort.

We think of the continuing violence in our homes, work places, and cities, and pray for peace.

Compassionate God, we pray for all those who are suffering, and ask for your comfort and peace to surround them.

There was no room at the inn for the child of Mary and Joseph, a king born in lowly surroundings; we pray for all of royal birth, for all of humble origins, for all who find no room or acceptance in society today.

We pray for those who have no room in their life for you; for those who publicly mock or ridicule you, and for all who suffer in your name.

May your love grow more and more in us, as we become more and more like Jesus, living out our faith in ways that will change the world.

We pray that we might see beyond the decorations and the holidays, the food and the presents, to the coming of the Christ child and the love, joy, hope and peace that comes with your presence.

May we all see beyond the snap of a cracker, filled with a few trinkets and a party hat, to see a richly fulfilling life as a child of God.

Help us to let go of our personal kingdoms of selfishness and greed, and, like Mary, bring Jesus to the world through everything we say and do. Amen.