Uniting Church members and ministers are helping in the recovery efforts at a number of communities affected by the 2019-2020 bushfires. As they help, they too are challenged and changed. This page will share some of their reflections.
Wendie Wilkie and Bill Gerritsen
Wendie and Bill are spending a few months in Corryong working with Blaze Aid – a national volunteer group focussing on helping fire affected farmers on the road to recovery by clearing and helping to build new fences, both internal and boundary, and carry out other small practical tasks.
What do we think we are doing?
What do we need to heal? Have you noticed what happens to gum trees when they are severely affected by fire or storms and lose their canopy? The trees grow, taking what they need from the soil, remaining sap, available water, and air. They look very weird as they sprout and grow small new branches low down on their trunk and along the lower branches that hug the tree trunk.
This may last for a few weeks or months. But slowly the trees regain their canopy and then this lower, new growth falls off. The sap in the tree carries this healing message. Such regeneration is a particular characteristic of gum trees in Australia.
If animals, people or insects damage those new fragile emerging branches, the tree has a much harder struggle to survive. The tree knows it needs those little lower sprouting ones to help it build its canopy again.
Bill and I are spending a few months in Corryong working with Blaze Aid – a national volunteer group focussing on helping fire affected farmers on the road to recovery by clearing and helping to build new fences, both internal and boundary, and carry out other small practical tasks. We have hundreds of properties on our books at Corryong.
Farmers are resilient and tenacious – even when their properties and businesses are severely damaged, and life is chaotic. And they all say that there must be someone else worse off than them! They are like the trees, putting their life and farms back together slowly. Overwhelmed by the scale of what needs to be done, they begin with a few essentials, baby steps towards recovery that will take years not months.
Many people hearing the stories of the fires and devastation react by wanting to give and help. And that is worthy and good. But sometimes we can rush in with our own ideas, without first asking the people who have experienced such loss what they need.
When we don’t listen carefully to what the community and farmers know and want, when we take away from them choices that are theirs, it is like smothering those new branches on the lower part of the tree. As a result, they might feel even worse. So, we need to listen carefully and be prepared to wait. It can be hard to articulate what is most important and to ask for help.
When we rush in with our donations, unintended problems are raised and can mean real, practical problems such as where to store things and how to distribute them, and how to manage a lot of it not ever being used. So, let’s practice a discerning generosity, and first check that what we have to give is actually needed.
you support and encourage us in our
first steps towards change
and new life.
As we care for others
may we be ever mindful of their needs
rather than smothering them,
generously helping them,
as they need us to do,
and not always as we might choose to do. Amen
Wendie Wilkie 19/02/2020
Feeding Sheep -Helping others nourishes hope.
A sheep farmer came into register her property to get some help with fencing from Blaze Aid a day or so after the camp opened. In these very early days, I had yet to learn to listen deeply and gently ask more questions. So we gained only minimal information. On registering, she told me that her house had been saved, but that the rest of her property was burnt.
A few days later she returned, very hesitant and not sure we could help her. She asked could we arrange for someone to feed her sheep for a week. She had no one she felt she could ask. He needed to go to Melbourne, where her sister needed an urgent operation. She commented that her autistic teenage nephew could not be left alone.
Normally, she said, it would not be a problem to be away for a few days as there would be plenty of feed for her sheep in the paddock. But the fire had burnt everything, and she was hand feeding them. We agreed that we could assist her. After due instruction as to where and what to feed the sheep, we wished her and her sister well.
I took another volunteer with me to feed the sheep. Always work in pairs on a farm! We successfully got the feed into the bucket but then dropped the partly empty bag and spent some time picking up the pellets one by one to put back in the bag!
Pouring the feed along the fence line went faultlessly, until we realised that one of the sheep was on our side of the fence not the other side! And able to get out on to the road! So pretending to be a scary sheep dogs, we shooed, barked and yelled until the sheep went through a gate in another part of the house yard.
And then, how to get this sheep back into its proper paddock? We thought, pondered and watched – until we saw the sheep calmly walk back to its mates through a hole in the burnt fence! Being concerned that it might escape again, we patched the hole with branches and wood lying on the ground. Standing back to admire our handy work, we saw to our surprise see a young heifer walk through the broken boundary fence from next door passing through our recently patched hole! “Oh well”, we mused, “at least they can’t get into the house yard!” And we fervently hoped all the sheep would be there to get fed again tomorrow. And they were!
Going out to the property gave us a new insight into the real situation of this single farmer. We were shocked to see that her house was saved, but that the fire had burned the wooden veranda that ran around it and had also burned carpets and blinds on one side of the house. Twisted metal and ash was all that remained of a cottage she had just renovated as a B&B. Lingering smoke smell has contaminated many houses along with fridges and freezers that went off when power was lost and then oozed out food while people were evacuated.
I was pleased that this small bit of practical help freed her to do what was important for her and to also have the chance to see for myself a bit more of the effects of the fire. And I learned to listen better and to ask more questions.
help us to listen beyond the words.
Help us to see more clearly beyond the image,
to feel more deeply beyond the touch,
to attend ever more closely,
and to extend Your patient, gracious hospitality
ever more deeply
to people who hesitate to ask us for help.
Wendie Wilkie 22/02/2020
Tenacity and Regeneration
A crepe myrtle tree stands at the entrance to a property. It is badly burnt but still displaying its fragile flowers on some branches. There is a green tinge on the burnt, blackened paddocks: new small growth as a result of rain. Not yet enough to feed the hungry livestock but a hope-filled sign of regeneration.
Farmers who yesterday were sad and down – overwhelmed by the scale of the damage to their property – give a small smile as volunteers finish a section of fencing. This fence will contain their stock. It is a step in the massive restoration work of their life and business.
A farmer loved her garden and was gutted when it burnt. But she now she feels brighter when she sees the roses bushes sprouting again. They have been pruned by volunteers, who came to help clean up her devastated garden.
The chat over a cuppa at lunch with the farming family is as important as the work the volunteers do that day. They hear about the story of the farm and what it means to this family. A chance to talk about what is precious and lost.
The resilience and tenacity of the people and the environment in the aftermath of devastation is a powerful reminder of the deep connections of this region. Connections to soil, place, ecologies and communities.
God’s tenacious grace abounds if we can only see it – in the rising sun of a new day, in a small job completed, in a friendly smile, in new growth. Yes, we grieve rightly – and deeply – for what was lost and destroyed. Yet we also continue to live to the dawning of changed, new life – surrounded by the tenacious and resilient grace of God.
Help us to grieve rightly
for what is
Help us to grieve remembering
you are with us
in our despair
Help us to see signs of new life
rising in our midst
inviting our attention
and leading us to you.
Wendie Wilkie 22/02/2020
A new freezer - Paying it Forward
Donated generously many years ago, the old freezer in the Lions club facilities now struggled to keep water cold or frozen in the heat and humidity. The Blaze Aid camp uses frozen bottled water to help keep lunches cool for volunteers when working out on farms. The co-ordinator agreed that a new freezer should be bought.
As we prefer to shop locally, I was deputed to go and see what the town had to offer. Without any thought I asked another volunteer to come with me. Two heads are better than one, I surmised.
The one store in town that sold white goods had one upright freezer in stock. And a good brand of freezer, too. I asked the shop owner for a discount. The shop owner gently but firmly said that he didn’t give discounts.
Fair enough, I thought. Businesses in fire affected areas have also a taken significant hit from the loss of trade and visitors. Nevertheless we decided to discuss whether the freezer purchase over a cup of coffee, so the other volunteer and I left the shop and walked together to the bakery. Suddenly the volunteer said, “I’d like to buy that freezer for the camp”
“Really?” I queried?
“Yes!” she replied. “But” she said, “I don’t want anyone else but you and the co-ordinator to know. This freezer will be my gift to the camp, which I think is doing important work. And I like the way you look after the volunteers. And I want the freezer to stay in the Lions club facilities when the camp closes, so the Lions Club will have the use of it too. ”
I left her to go back to the shop owner, buy the freezer and arrange to have it delivered while I completed other small tasks.
I loved the film Pay it Forward which set out that paying back a good deed is not so great, as it is a closed circle, but paying it forward – helping others who haven’t helped you – is an open and generous way to live.
The reminder by the shopkeeper that the people we were helping were the very people who had helped others. The generosity of the volunteer who quietly watched and waited for an opportunity to help where it was needed. When we help others, we are simply repaying the help and support we have received in so many ways by others before.
So no thanks are needed, and no special deals.
have first loved us.
May our loving be
and without expectation of reward.
Wendie Wilkie 22/02/2020