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In for the long haul:

Australian churches support bushfire victims

By Paul Titus

In the aftermath of the devastating bushfires in Victoria, Uniting Church of Australia relief efforts have sought to support those affected but not overwhelm them with attention.

Uniting Church leaders also rejected outright the statements some religious figures made that the devastation caused by the bushfires was the action of a vengeful God.

The week after the bushfires destroyed towns and scorched the lives of thousands of Australians, moderator of the Uniting Church’s Victoria-Tasmania synod Rev Jason Kioa toured some of the towns in the Kinglake district. He says the point was to provide visible support for the victims of the blaze but to give them the space they need to come to terms with their loss.

“The people organising the support effort said it was ‘better to coordinate than suffocate’. They were actually asking people to stop donating emergency food because there was no place to store it.

“The Uniting Church did provide some initial relief and we also provided some campgrounds and buildings for housing those who lost their homes. Organisations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are better equipped than we are to provide immediate aid.

“The Uniting Church will wait and focus its efforts on people’s long-term needs. Once the bushfires and media hype are gone, people will be still be suffering and they will need to rebuild their lives.”

Jason says many

The Uniting Church in Baynton was destroyed in the February bushfires.
Photo by Kim Cain.

Uniting Church members lost houses, property or livestock in the fires, one church elder was killed, and the Uniting church building at Baynton was burned down. However, the Church made no distinction between members and non-members in its support for those affected.

“The atmosphere was very open when we visited Kinglake,” Jason says. “People were open and talked to one another. We pitched in and helped unload a truck of goods donated by the Turkish community.”

Appeals, some of them backed by celebrities, raised tens of millions of dollars for the victims. Jason says how that money is used will become an issue.

Through its Uniting Care facilities the Church can provide counselling, community development and other forms of support.

Special services were held in the weeks following the fires. Uniting Church leaders were invited to take part in a massive interdenominational service of mourning at the Rod Laver Centre in Melbourne on February 22nd.

Jason echoed Uniting Church president Rev Gregor Henderson’s unqualified rejection of the statements made by controversial leader of the Catch the Fire Ministries Danny Nalliah. Danny said the fires were divine retribution for abortion law reforms Victoria passed last year. God had removed his protection from "the baby-killing state" and Satan was having a go at it, he claimed.

In a public statement Gregor said to “suggest that the loss of life from these bushfires is the reaction of God towards the Victorian people for decisions made by Government is not only ludicrous, it misapprehends the nature of God, the giver of life.

“God is not punishing the people of Victoria, so many of whom lost their lives, and so many more who are working day and night to fight fires, support the victims, and provide food, clothing and shelter. God is, in fact, there with the people, in the middle of their suffering; God is made known through the love that is extended to those most in need.”

Jason says when Christians put forward arguments such as Danny’s it turns people away from the Church at the very time they are seeking help and support. “Why would people turn to a god who shows his wrath in that way,” he asks.

For more information about the bushfires or to contribute to the relief fund visit www.victas.uca.org.au.