As I write this column, the north coast of NSW is on fire.
The newspapers are screaming headlines like ‘all gone to hell’, ’17 infernos ravaging state’, ‘hell on earth’ and resorting to words like ‘unprecedented emergency’ and ‘apocalyptic’ to describe the indescribable.
There have already been fatalities and injuries and, so far, Some 724 homes, 49 facilities and 1582 outbuildings have been destroyed. Staff in Uniting facilities are on high alert to care for residents with emergency plans at the ready in case there’s a need for evacuation.
Like so many people, I have family in harm’s way and their safety will be front of mind until I know that they’re all safe.
There have always been bushfires and responding to those fires and keeping humans and their homes safe has always been extremely dangerous. The extent and ferocity of fires in recent times and their convergence with other complex realities like drought takes us not only beyond our capacity to respond practically to these ‘unprecedented’ disasters but also beyond the language and the frameworks through which they have been understood until now.
Under these circumstances, the public debate about climate science is simply peculiar. One way or another, all over the world, human communities are dealing with environmental conditions and circumstances which present real threats to their existence. While the immediate bushfire crisis in NSW reminds us all of our vulnerability, it remains the case that wealthy developed countries like Australia are still largely oblivious to the existential threats faced, for example, by Pacific island communities. Reports in the media sometimes refer to ‘climate refugees’ – people displaced across borders in the context of climate change and disasters who may in some circumstances, be in need of international protection. Some Pacific island communities are already facing the likelihood of displacement and anticipating – already grieving – the loss of home, the loss of (hi)story, the loss of meaning.
The realisation that members of my family are in real danger of annihilation has been an enormous and horrible personal shock and given me a tiny glimpse of the growing desolation of those confronting existential threats. It throws up questions about the responsibility of the church in times like these and circumstances like these. Beyond the obvious pastoral responses and the provision of immediate disaster relief (UCA Disaster Recovery chaplains are fully engaged in bushfire areas), lies a deeper question. It’s a version of, ‘how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ – how does the church participate as communities begin to shape new stories of identity to carry them into the future? How does the church – locally, regionally and nationally – participate in the public conversation about climate action and climate policy in Australia, the Pacific and beyond to help us navigate the unknown and unimaginable?
This experience of formation, deformation and reformation is actually familiar to the people of God. Throughout scripture there are stories of the people of God experiencing existential disruption – think of Noah, the flight from Egypt, the upheaval of invasion, exile – cataclysmic events that provoked community reflection about what it means to be the people of God in these circumstances. Their collective reflections appear in scripture in narrative, poetry, law; they give voice to their grief, anger, fear – the whole range of human experience; they testify to the abiding presence of God with them and, most importantly, to their repeated discovery – a discovery that only comes through life and death struggle – that the realm of God is always infinitely larger than human imagining.
As we take our own place in the story of God’s people, as we witness and are at times caught up in cataclysmic disruptions in our own time, we too have the peculiar responsibility of learning to ‘sing the Lord’s song’ in the reality that is unfolding on earth, God’s good creation, among God’s creatures. This is the work, let’s do it with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
P.S. They are safe.
Rev. Jane Fry, General Secretary of the Uniting Church in NSW and ACT