Bushfire catastrophe has brought out the best in us

Bishop Pat Power and Alison Burt listen to the experiences of people in and around Tumut including those who were on the front lines (CSSA photo/Facebook)

by Ursula Stephens, CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia

Visiting some of the areas of southern New South Wales most affected by the unprecedented bushfires in recent days has highlighted the extent of the devastation and the long road of recovery that is ahead for so many communities.

In Wingello, I witnessed the capacity of a little village to hold its own, grateful for the diligence and persistence of firefighters who held off the fire in the Morton National Park. The community has rallied to support those who lost their homes, and there is an enormous sense of resilience in dealing with the aftermath of the terrifying experience.

Our visit to Batlow and in Tumut was also profoundly moving. The destruction and desolation, the humility and stoicism. I listened to people who have lost everything but are somehow clinging to hope. I heard stories of heroic deeds and inexplicable escapes from ravaging fires.

I also got to see retired Canberra-Goulburn Bishop Pat Power and Alison Burt from the Bishops Conference speaking with the locals – people like Jannine Richards, the principal of St Mary’s Primary School in Batlow, the Rural Fire Service personnel , the volunteers in the recovery centres and the local parish priest.

I saw what a difference Bishop Pat’s and Alison’s warmth and thoughtfulness made to the people. It is faith in action. It is the Church living out the Gospel. It is humanity expressed in mateship and in kindness and in the strength of a hug.

The network of Catholic social service agencies, with a presence in more than 650 communities across the country, including dozens in affected areas, is well placed to be at the coalface of the Church’s compassionate response to this disaster.

Our services, which often work quietly and with little fanfare, are embedded in the community and are therefore in place for the long haul. For Catholic social services responding to disasters, the efforts are targeted and sustained for weeks, months and years – well after the national spotlight has faded.

When people have themselves been evacuated, when they have lost property, when they have lost loved ones and animals, there’s an empathy and an understanding that allows them to respond with a listening ear and a sensitive spirit.

It is in areas like trauma counselling that our services shine. The horrors of bushfires and other natural disasters leave scars on our landscape for days or weeks. The hidden scars on people’s hearts can last months, years, even a lifetime – but ongoing support can help ease that pain.

How do you start again when everything you own has been destroyed in a fire? That’s even scarier for families that didn’t have insurance, but financial counsellors from Catholic and other agencies can plan a way back.

How do you try to find God in all the literal and metaphorical “mess” of a flattened house or community? Priests, pastoral workers and others will help people work through those questions of shaken faith.

Our people are part of what we might call a “Catholic ecosystem” that is part of responding in various ways to the crisis.

One of our great strengths as that ecosystem is our far-reaching presence in the Australian community. Few communities exist without a Catholic presence. In some remote communities, the Church takes on a quasi-governmental role – for example, being the sole provider of school education.

Sometimes it takes catastrophic events like the one still unfolding across the country to bring out the best that humankind has to offer. Within the Church, it’s prompted an even deeper collaboration between some of the major national entities.

That has led to the special collections in parishes over the Australia Day weekend, to the partnership with Vinnies and to the shared resources between Catholic schools, hospitals, social services agencies and parishes.

Religious orders and other Catholic organisations are seeing how unused accommodation might be made available to affected families or first responders who need some respite.

My hope is that the spirit of generosity and solidarity we’re seeing – within and beyond the Catholic Church – becomes the rule, rather than the exception.