By Robyn Douglass
A raucous festive season is sorely needed in Australia — but we’d settle for a bit of joy and a good dollop of peace on earth. After we’ve experienced three years of bushfires, COVID lockdowns, and illness, two La Niña events in the Pacific have turned the weather in the east of the country wet and wild.
In central New South Wales, towns and farms are under water, and the crisis is immediate.
But as the astonishing flows drain into the Murray-Darling Basin, the nation’s food bowl, rivers’ relentless rise is monitored as people in three states prepare for record-breaking surges. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said to expect two peaks — one in early December and one closer to Christmas.
Anglican churches and agencies are in the center of all this, working and praying. The affected dioceses mostly have small population centers spread across vast areas.
Anglicare, the church’s welfare arm in southern New South Wales, has staff meeting the demand for emergency assistance.
In the Diocese of Bathurst, Sue West is Anglicare’s manager of disaster recovery. She has rallied her team three times in as many weeks. They work cooperatively with other agencies to receive and register people evacuated from their homes.
“Some people had to escape with nothing but the clothes they stood up in, so we bring essentials like clothing and toiletries,” she told TLC.
“Sometimes the shock hits in the weeks and months after. Many people don’t know, until a week or so later, even whether they have a home to go to.”
After the immediate crisis is over, the team returns for regular recovery visits every couple of days to find out what people need. Support is available from government agencies, but many people need help sorting through what they are eligible for — and applying for assistance.
“Especially primary producers,” West said. “Their crops are destroyed again, as they were last year. Clients are exhausted. Fodder, paddocks, are under water and the grass is contaminated, and if they had any hay, it has probably washed downstream.
“We had a dairy which was milking regularly, but the tankers could not get in to collect the milk, so it had to be tipped down the drain.
“It will have a huge impact over the long term — and we have to continue to be there to walk with them through the next 12, 18 months, two years. … We have to be there for the long haul.”
West said many people don’t know where they are going to be for Christmas. There is a housing shortage throughout the country, and the pressure on accommodation is already acute.
Further south, Bishop Donald Kirk of the Diocese of Riverina told TLC that “just about every parish in my diocese has been affected by flooding in one way or another.”
Bishop Kirk said none of the churches had been inundated with water yet, “though some are holding their breath.”
Damaged roads have made travel difficult and many communities have been completely cut off. Riverina clergy spoke of their concern for farmers whose livelihoods are being washed away, and for exhausted emergency workers.
The Rev. Paul Kumasaka of Lake Cargelligo Anglican Church said volunteers in his parish work with Anglicare in disaster recovery. They have had two groups of evacuees flown in, and Kumasaka said he invited community groups, including the parish’s Indigenous youth training group, to provide catering. They have been grateful for donated goods, which volunteers sort, pack, and take to people boarding in caravans, hotels, and friends’ homes.
Further south on the Murrumbidgee River, at the Parish of Balranald and Cobb Highway, the Rev. Neale Sommersby is keeping in touch with isolated parishioners via phone and a weekly newsletter. But the church is a hive of activity too, and he has invited groups to provide meals for volunteers who are filling sandbags, and for those who attend State Emergency Services training.
In Wentworth, at the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers, 185 kilometers (114 miles) downstream, Deacon Mary-Ann Crisp said “people are anxiously waiting to see if their properties or access roads are going to be flooded. It is a difficult time for them.” Meanwhile, they are sandbagging or fixing levees with heavy machinery. In a twist of history, the little church of St. John was built in 1871, the year after a major flood, so “hopefully it is above the present flood level,” she said.
In Renmark, 142 kilometers (88 miles) downstream in the South Australian Diocese of The Murray, the Rev. David Patterson of the Anglican Mission District in Riverland said it has been a slowly unfolding drama as the river rises. This has given his huge parish time to prepare — and gives a new poignancy to the waiting game that is Advent.
Against nature’s big drama, Christmas this year will be a prayerful pause.
“Jesus was also born into an imperfect chaotic world, but there was still room in the manger for people to come and worship him. Christmas this year will be chaotic for some [people] and a little unknown, but we walk by faith, not by sight,” Sommersby said.
Deacon Crisp prays that “people will feel able to put their trust in God no matter what happens; that families will still be able to come together to celebrate Christmas; and that the community spirit which is evident with neighbors helping each other out continues and restores our faith in humanity.”