“An immense privilege to be part of people’s lives.”
As the fires began on the far north coast before Christmas last year, Rev. Peter Overton, the Presbytery Minister for Far North Coast had his first deployment as a Disaster Chaplain for the Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network in Tenterfield – a literal baptism of fire as he witnessed the devastation first hand. Peter spoke to Insights, to tell us some of the stories of resilience that have come from one of Australia’s worst disasters.
“Tenterfield was sort of the ground zero of the North Coast and the start of all the fires. The fires nearly came into Tenterfield, just singed the edge of the town and an evaculation centre was set up in Tenterfield and I spent some time there.
“At the same time the Long Gulley fire commensed down near Drake and the Long Gulley fire started from a lightning strike. That fire was ferocious and threatened the town of Drake. The folk in Drake as it evolved weren’t able to have an evacuation centre there because the town is surrounded by bush, so they actually had to go to Tenterfield.”
The area from Woodenbong through to Rappville (near Casino) and across to Ewingah (Long Gully) and Drake have experienced housing issues and financial pressures. For those moved into the evacuation centre, whatever problems they already had became heightened.
“So, the experience in evacuation centres was big and challenging,” Peter explains. “So, the difference with my situation in terms of disaster chaplaincy is that I had the privilege of actually doing a few months in the recovery zone like some folks are doing down in the south.”
“The money donated to the Moderator’s Appeal very generously was able to release two days a week for me to be able to spend one day a week in the Rappville area in Casino and the other day to help out around Long Gulley and Drake and all around there with all the connections that I’d made. I spent some time in Tenterfield with a firey and a few others that the Deputy Fire Chief wanted me keep an eye on who had witnessed a bad incident.”
How the Churches move forward
“The interesting thing about the Casino Congregation in its Methodist days [before it became part of the Uniting Church], there were around 17 to 18 preaching points from Casino. We no longer have ministers in the affected areas that I was involved in during the fires.
“For our Churches in those areas we are now having a strategic life and witness consultation to take into account what is our role going forward as we struggle to finance a minister.
“So we are thinking what it means for us in terms of us being church in affected communities. Our people have been incredibly generous financially. And I’ve distributed significant funds from the Moderators Appeal, and a generous philanthropist in Sydney gave more money. And so as soon as money has come in, it has gone back out to affected communities.
“So in terms of our mission, you really have a town like Rappville that has incredible need. And Rappville is a very small town – tiny – it just has a pub. It used to have a general store and hall.”
As the fire raged near Rappville, the Long Gulley fire joined and became an inferno with 60 foot flames. The cleaner at the school in Rappville had the absolute foresight to open up the school to create an evacuation centre. Residents actually watched in horror from the top floor of the school as their houses were consumed by fire. Peter has been able to connect with all these residents and support them.
“Cyril would be in his late 80s maybe even early 90s. He came in to the school with his wife. When the fire came Cyril was ready for it. He had all the trenches dug around his house well in advance of the fire coming, and he was well prepared as a good bushman. He’s fourth generation Rappville. So he presented himself and told me the story. He was crying about losing all his farming equipment and everything else.”
Cyril explained that he defended the house, and let his wife go expecting the worst. He cried as he explained that he had lost all his cattle and equipment, and when Peter asked why he defended the house when he was insured he simply responded: “Because we built the house for our 30th wedding anniversary.”
“This was just an unbelievable and very powerful moment,” Peter continued. “And I made sure when the Prime Minister came that afternoon and I made sure he met Cyril and I had to tell him the story because Cyril was in tears. I made sure the Prime Minister heard this story because at that point funds hadn’t been released to assist people in affected areas.”
“So it was an amazingly profound experience. For me, it reminded me that church was there in the evacuation centre, and we had church on the streets talking to people. When we look at what God has taught us about these terrifying events, it’s that churches have really understood the place they have in the community and the support needed.”
An immense privilege
“It was a great honour and I was privlleged to have a couple of months break afterwards. It reminded me that we need to have the Gospel seen in ‘wholeness’ – in words and deeds. Capturing the witness, but by God, we need make sure you care for people and feed them and help them build capacity back into their lives.
“I was in Casino for a Presbytery meeting recently and as I sat and had a snack I saw a guy that we had helped looking happy and clean and tidy and he just winked at me. I didn’t make a big deal of it, but I just know he’s alright. It was an immense privilege to be part of peoples’ lives.”
Photo: Rev. Peter Overton tells Cyril’s story to the Prime Minister