An update on Chaplaincy Training in Tonga post-TC Gita

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Life goes on in Tonga but the damage is extensive and will take a long time to be repaired.  It appears that the state of emergency continues as the roadblocks still keep traffic and people that don’t need to be there out of the CBD at night.  Many shops are still closed as a result of flooding, and people continue to repair their own houses, mostly with broken and re-used materials.

It will be some time before power is restored to many of the outlying communities and the internet at the college has only just been restored.

I have been working with a group of probationary ministers from the college who were sent out into the most heavily affected areas in the days after TC Gita hit the island.  The good work that was supported by UnitingWorld on Disaster preparedness and mapping has paid off in the way reporting and damage assessments were made possible directly after the cyclone’s passing.

On Tuesday afternoon we began with a debriefing process, learning what is happening, and working through how the ministers’ exposure to the difficult sights and stories affected them.  I taught them a good debriefing model which they used in pairs on each other as well – which taught them a skill for themselves for the future and allowed them to look after each other.

Yesterday and today was about the disaster recovery chaplaincy training.  This has been well received and very timely. The work begun in 2015 is bearing real fruit.  Those chaplaincy (or “takiama” teams are out and working – and seen as extremely valuable.  These teams will be working over the coming months in local support.

I brought with me 35 chaplaincy tabards made up, just in time, for the group to be identified.  They look very professional and fit into the style of emergency response of other services such as police, Red Cross and other agencies.

IMG_4815Today marked the last day of training with the group and tomorrow we will meet with the leadership to work through some administrative and policy tools which will be very helpful in continuing to roll out the network, then head to the airport.  We’ll be arriving back late on Friday night.  IMG_4818

I am already convinced that it has been well worthwhile, both in terms of encouragement for our partners, and sharing some important tools which will have value – not just in the emergency response – but in the long-term ministry of these ministers and the church into the future.

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Connecting with the Tongan Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network post-TC Gita

Back in 2015 a small team of people sponsored by UnitingWorld in Australia were invited by the Tongan Free Wesleyan Church to assist them in establishing the Tongan Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (TDRCN).  The training was modelled on the training and experience of the NSW DRCN in Australia, but adapted to the Tongan culture with advice and experience from our two Tongan ministers/chaplains.  (See the blog written at the time here.  Since then, the network has continued to prepare and receive further organisation and training.

Just under two weeks ago the chaplains were put to the test when Tropical Cyclone Gita struck Tonga as a Category 4 storm, causing extensive damage to the island nation, and bringing hardship and stress to the citizens.  Churches were heavily involved in caring for people, providing their buildings as shelters during the cyclone and lending  a hand and a listening ear, as the key providers of psychosocial and emotional care in its aftermath.

TC Gita

This week I am travelling back to Tonga at the invitation of the church, accompanied by Rev. Nau Ahovisi, to reconnect with the church.  A group of probationary ministers have been working in the relief effort, and the time we spend with them will be to allow them to process their experience and bring two days of fresh training around understanding the dynamics of response to people in trauma and hardship, and the process of recovery.  This, like the original training, will enable them to more effectively engage with people, giving the chaplains tools to listen and support disaster-affected people, while taking care of themselves and each other in the process, to avoid vicarious traumatisation. Gita Parliament House.

The churches are only one part of the recovery process in Tonga, but – as in many Pacific island nations – are central in the life of communities and play a unique role in social and spiritual connectedness.  As such, churches are vital in the recovery of the nation at such a time.  I’ll add further posts as the week progresses and I check in on the ministry of the Tongan Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network.

Peer Support in the Uniting Church

“Peer Support” covers a range of contexts, from anti bullying programs in schools through to bringing assistance from colleagues in the work place.  In the context of professions with potential for high levels of trauma such as emergency services, trained peer supporters often assist in highly structured psychological defusing processes following critical incidents.

Some churches, including the Uniting Church in Australia have recognised the importance of Peer Support to assist ministers and congregations as they are affected by, or seek to assist in, community tragedies or disasters.Keep calm and ask for peer support

In the Uniting Church the first Peer Support program was trialled and commenced in the Synod of NSW and the ACT in 2007.  My DMin project (which was published as the book “Ministry in Disaster Settings: Lessons from the Edge”) highlighted how leaders conducting ministry within disaster trauma-affected communities are vulnerable to vicarious traumatisation and required support structures beyond that which are normally available to them in everyday ministry.  In beginning this ministry, the Synod selected ministers with strong pastoral gifts and trained them, forming a peer support team.  Since that time, peers have come alongside ministers in a range of difficult circumstances; not only disasters and major community crises, but at points of grief and major loss within congregations.  In that context  peers were able to assist in guidance and provision of a range of good liturgical resources to help congregations process their loss and the challenge of going forward.

My national role has allowed the concept to be introduced to other Synods, and I have had the privilege of running peer support training in the Synods of Queensland, South Australia, West Australia and the Northern Synod.  Each of these now have a growing capacity to have trained peer supporters come beside ministry agents in difficult times.

Initially the role of peer support involved listening and education.  While these are basic to the role, we found that there needed to be some flexibility in what the peer brought according the circumstances.  Peers never take over; they support, encourage, equip (educate and resource), make connections and empower.  Peers have needed, on occasion, to take services where the minister was unable, or take on particular tasks of support – ultimately lending a hand where the need was most present.

Peers have also been helpful as another set of eyes and ears to help the ministry agent work through the issues, devise strategy, and see the bigger picture.  Peers have been able to meet with church councils and other groups to give whole leadership base a good picture of needs present and likely in the near future.  Peers have connected with leadership of presbyteries (such as Presbytery Chairpersons and Presbytery Ministers) to assist in meeting the needs of a parish as they sought to care for a disaster-affected community.

To find more about this important work within the Uniting Church and how to connect to it in your Synod, contact me on stephenr@nat.uca.org.au

 

 

Prepare now for the fire season

During the east coast bushfire emergency of 2001/2, I was seconded by the Senior Chaplain of the NSW Rural Fire Service to support his work for a very intense week as fires broke out in multiple areas across the state between Christmas Day and beyond New Year.  I clearly remember following lines of tankers into areas in the Blue Mountains and bush/urban interface in parts of Sydney.  At one point, while anticipating a particular fire front, RFS crews were marking driveways with spray paint; deciding ahead of time which houses might possibly be saved and which would need to be left to burn should the fire hit those streets.  The difference was the owners’ level of preparation.

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The Bushfire Emergency of 2001/2002

As the fire season approaches each year, the fire services across Australia prepare.  They conduct hazard reduction burns, step up the training of their volunteers and ensure all their equipment is well maintained and ready.  At the same time, they step up the public messaging in an effort to get people to prepare for the coming season.  They realise that there is only so much they can do to save lives and property without people cooperating and preparing ahead of time.

My work in disaster recovery works on a seasonal cycle, known as the Disaster Management Cycle moving through response to events, assisting recovery, prevention and preparedness.

This logical sequence recognises that, when the disaster season hits, preparation must be complete or well underway to ensure readiness.

This year the fire season has come early.  Last winter was the country’s hottest on record (BOM) with a mean temperature of 2 degrees above average and record highs in numerous locations.  This, combined with extremely dry conditions (the ninth driest winter on record), raises real concerns for the fire season this spring and summer.

This coming weekend looks particularly bad for Queensland and New South Wales, with temperatures of over 40 degrees forecast for western areas of these states.  This means less time than ever before to prepare.

I urge you to undertake preparation without delay.

There are a number of very useful websites to assist you in this, and even 30 well-spent minutes of preparation could save your property and lives of those closest to you.  Some good sites include:

The Rural Fire Service bush fire survival plan https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/resources/bush-fire-survival-plan which gives some very simple steps to undertake, and the CFA plan-prepare site http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/vicemergency-app/ .  The Queensland fire site https://getready.qld.gov.au/be-prepared/ provides further tools for preparation.

To keep an eye on where fires are in NSW the RFS “Fires Near Me” app is excellent.  Its web-based equivalent is at https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/fire-information/fires-near-me

I have also been working with others to prepare kits for planning congregational disaster response plans.  For more information contact me on stephenr@nat.uca.org.au

 

Prayer at the time of an approaching cyclone

 

Psalm 29:3-5, 10-11

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon…

10 the Lord sits enthroned over the flood;    
the Lord is enthroned as King for ever.
11 The Lord gives strength to his people;
the Lord blesses his people with peace.

TCDebbie

God of creation,
Scripture speaks of your hand in the movement of wind and wave.
You sustain reefs by the cooling movement of cyclonic winds,
and parched ground with sweeping moisture from the skies;
yet are mindful of all people in the path of their power.

Even now, as wind and rain approach the people of this land,
grant us wisdom in our preparation,
courage in our response,
safety in our retreat,
and blessing in our care for one another.

Lord have mercy on all who wait,
and when the storm has passed,
bring comfort and strength to affected people and communities
as they begin afresh.

AMEN

Heat Waves: a thought for churches

This Summer has been particularly hot.  Records have been tumbling, including hottest January and longest heatwave (consecutive days over 35 degrees) with Moree stealing this (unwanted) crown from Broken Hill.  Yesterday’s power failure in South Australia left thousands of people needing to cope without relief in conditions over 40 degrees.
This brings to mind the importance of recognising the danger of heat waves, and churches getting serious about working cooperatively to help people survive them.  I don’t use the word “survive” lightly.  Heatwaves kill more people than all other natural disasters combined.

r1325359_18392695An excellent article by Sara Phillips (ABC Environment), from 2014, relates some frightening statistics on this – including the reality that “While 173 people died in the Black Saturday fires, for example, 374 people died from heat stress around that time.”

My concern is that these deaths went largely unnoticed in the media at the time (as do those of people who cannot survive the current heat waves), because they don’t have the visibility or drama of bushfire, flood or cyclone.  Heatwaves are silent killers.

My call is for churches to take this threat seriously and do something about it.  It is not hard, and lives can be saved, or at least made more bearable if congregational leaders take some simple steps.  Here they are:

  1. Gather a list of the most vulnerable people in your congregation, and ask the congregation to do the same of their immediate neighbours. This list will include frail elderly, people with breathing difficulties including acute asthma, and infants – particularly those without air-conditioning.
  2. When a heatwave is on the way (and forecasting has got this down to a very precise art), congregational leaders call their people and ask if they have arrangements in place for somewhere to go, somewhere to sleep with an air conditioner etc). Where such events are protracted, the use of air-conditioned church facilities may also be used on hot evenings. Just the act of connecting could be a life-saver for someone who is silently suffering and ‘not wanting to be a nuisance’.  It gives them an opening to express their need for help.
  3. Church members do the same – contacting neighbours likely to be affected, and invite them over for a time, even for an evening to stay if relief is not on the way.

Being someone who is acutely aware of the importance of child-safe checks etc, I understand other things that might need to come alongside this, but – essentially this is actually just churches exercising proper pastoral care, and neighbours looking after each other.

Churches and other faith groups have the potential to bless many thousands of people in, and beyond, their congregation.

If this makes sense to you, please pass it on.  And take it quietly in the heat.

A Blue Christmas: Service for the Second Anniversary of the Martin Place Siege. St Stephen’s Uniting Church, Sydney, December 15th, 2016.

This service took place at the request of NSW Premier, the Hon Mike Baird.  Its intention was to support the hostages and their families, loved ones, and all left grieving after the event. This was to be open to members of the public.  St Stephen’s recognised the need of many people experiencing grief in the  days leading up to Christmas and promoted it as a “Blue Christmas”recognising that sometimes it is not easy to rejoice.

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The following is the text of the readings, and sermon preached.

A reading from the Hebrew Scriptures:
LAMENTATIONS 3:1-3; 19-26.

– The Hon Mike Baird MP, Premier

I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

 

A reading from the Christian Scriptures:
MATTHEW 5:1-11

– The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, Prime Minister

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

Sermon

My name is Stephen Robinson.  I coordinate chaplaincy for disaster welfare services in NSW.  I also happen to be a member of this congregation.

Two years ago I worked, with teams of disaster recovery chaplains, to care for members of the public in Martin Place after the awful events there.  I know there are people here today, for whom those days were so much more raw and difficult than I can imagine, as someone on the side-lines; but I have some very clear memories of encounters there as people came together to try to comprehend what had taken place.

I remember, on the second day –  early in the morning, walking up the steps from Martin Place Station.  About half-way up the stairs, even before I could see anything, I was met by the extraordinary aroma of flowers.  As I emerged into the light, I saw that, what had started out as a few bunches, had grown to a small field of flowers.  And, as you would know, in the days that followed, as tens of thousands of people were moved to come, this field of flowers grew to cover so much of Martin Place.  Those flowers, and many other tributes, had cards attached on which people poured out their hearts – their shock, their sadness, their solidarity, their hope for consolation and blessing – and a future beyond this.

The flowers themselves were a powerful symbol from the heart of the people, in the heart of the city.

And the aroma and the sight of the flowers stayed with me more than I realised…

A couple of weeks later, I was attending the wedding of a friend.  The reception was held at the Dawn Fraser baths at Balmain – a beautiful setting for a summer celebration.  Access to it is along a boardwalk from the park.  As my wife and I walked around a corner, I came across an arrangement of flowers on the side of the boardwalk, beside a burning tea-light candle; then another bunch, then other candles.  The sight of flowers and candles on the ground jarred me.  My first thought was, “Who died?”, “What happened here?” It took me a couple of breaths to realise that these flowers were there, not as symbols of grief and loss, marking a closing – but as things of beauty and colour, representing the beginning of a whole new life for the young newly-weds.

For me, what flowers symbolised had changed.  Yet, in both situations the flowers were expressing heart: – the first in grief and loss, the second in celebration and joy.

 

It made me think back to a conversation I had had with a couple at Martin Place weeks before…

Towards the end of the day a couple in Salvation Army uniform came up from the train station.  They saw my chaplain’s tabard, and came over to me to talk. One said to me,

“We are on our way to the Carols in the Domain to sing in the choir – but it seems wrong somehow, to be singing about peace and joy when there is so much sadness.”

I understood what she was saying.  And it rings true today…

The coming of Christmas is supposed to be a time of happiness and joy and celebration, yet – for so many people – it’s a time of loss and grief.

Many of us here today could understand that.

For those of us, still carrying a weight of loss or pain from that time or any other – words like “joy” and “peace” written on the Christmas cards seem like a dim memory of another age – and a long way from our present reality.

Like the flowers I spoke of, Christmas can bring two, seemingly opposite, realities together:

Christmas can celebrate beauty and celebration and new life – even as we experience the bleak emptiness of someone we love missing from our Christmas table.

The reality is that, in this world, these things come together side by side – life and death, joy and pain, celebration and mourning…

From the very first Christmas this was always true: Christmas has always been a mixture of great joy, and deep hardship and loss – we have just edited out the painful bits in our telling of the story…

The Bible tells us how, at Christmas, the Son of God, gave up the beauty and presence of heaven, to be born to a young mother as a helpless little baby in the filth of a middle-eastern stable.  Even with the memory of angels in the night and promises that they couldn’t begin to comprehend, the young family were forced to flee persecution in their homeland.

When they returned, and Jesus grew, his life was an extension of Christmas.  He knew such a breadth of experience:

  • Jesus feasted new beginnings at a wedding; and he cried gut-wrenching tears at the death of a friend.
  • He knew days of rest and comfort; and days of hunger and thirst.
  • He knew the joy of having family and friends who loved him; and the deep heart-ache of being betrayed and rejected by some of those same people.
  • Jesus gave blessing and healing and life; even as he received abuse, cursing and death.

That was the context of his coming on the first Christmas.

If we really GET Christmas, there isn’t a clear separation of joy and suffering, beauty and ugliness, despair and hope.

Katherine Perchey wrote the following, in a piece called “A feast juxtaposed”…

“We know full well that the work begun in the manger is not yet complete. Christmas is, for the time being, a feast of light juxtaposed with darkness. We brighten our sanctuary with candles, but the night persists beyond these walls. Though we wipe our tears away to join in yuletide celebration, we are still a people who mourn.”
– Katherine E. Willis Perchey in “A Feast Juxtaposed”

I am heartened that Christmas holds both…

We can be sad together, for losses shared or borne alone.  And yet we should not feel guilty to laugh, and sing and celebrate.

Yes, even as the light burns in the sanctuary, the darkness continues outside, but the Christ child, born to be God with us, is – by his Spirit, still with us.  Scripture tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

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Today we mourn together, (and I thank God for the comfort of others alongside, and God’s own presence to bless and sustain).  Together we hold to the hope of Christ, who joined us on the first Christmas Day, and remains with us in this broken world, and opens the way to eternal life.

And we do this even as we understand that all is not well – but we look in hope to a time (as Scripture puts it) when those who mourn “will be comforted”, and “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’[1]

The one who joined us on that first Christmas is with us here, now and always.

So we pray for ourselves, and we pray for others– for blessing, for grace, for forgiveness and for healing.  Now and into the future.

Amen

(The printed order of service may be accessed here

[1] Rev 21:4