Chaplains volunteering with the Victorian Council of Churches Emergencies Ministry spoke to more than 3300 people on the day of, and the days following, January’s Bourke St rampage.
VCC Emergencies Ministry CEO, Rev Stuart Stuart, said it doesn’t matter what kind of emergency it is, the human response is the same.
“People are looking for meaning in the emergency, regardless of whether it’s a bushfire, a road accident, or the Bourke St event,” Mr Stuart said.
“People are trying to answer the question ‘why?’, ‘why did this happen to me?’, ‘why didn’t this happen to me?’.
“The human response is one of yearning to know why this happened and for some, and particularly those of faith, it’s a yearning to know ‘where was God in this?’.”
On 20 January a driver evading police turned into the Bourke St Mall and randomly drove through hundreds of lunchtime pedestrians. Six people were killed, more than 30 hospitalised, with one still in serious condition six weeks later.
While this was not a terrorist event, it evoked terror. In the following weeks, a spontaneous shrine of flowers, soft toys and messages in the Bourke St Mall provided people with a space of quiet contemplation and an opportunity to talk about their fears and grief.
When asked whether pastoral care was merely a Band-Aid in the midst of chaos, Mr Stuart rejected the analogy.
“A Band-Aid conjures up the notion of a temporary protection, because that’s what a Band-Aid is, it’s a temporary protection of infection in a biological sense,” he said.
“We use terms like psychological first aid, and emotional spiritual care.”
He tells stories of people whose connection with an Emergencies Ministry chaplain helped them come to terms with the tragedy.
“They say ‘it was that moment when we connected and engaged in a conversation that helped to reframe my thinking in such a way that I can stand here before you and I am OK’, Mr Stuart said.
“So in that sense, it’s not temporary.”
The Emergencies Ministry was established the same year as the Uniting Church – 1977 – by John Hill, a Uniting Church minister, in response to a significant weather emergency in Mildura.
While the ministry is now ecumenical, the Uniting Church’s commitment is still significant. Of the 162 chaplains who volunteered their time at Bourke St Mall in January, 60 of them were members or clergy of the VicTas synod.
Mr Stuart said the service was localised, with trained clergy operating within their own location. For the first 30 plus years of the ministry, it was predominantly the domain of clergy. The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires led to a change of thinking.
In 2009 VCC Emergencies Ministry had 280 clergy volunteers. Mr Stuart said there was no way that number could respond to all emergencies across Victoria.
“By broadening it out to the laity, we’ve now got nearly 1700 volunteers,” he said.
Recruitment focuses on people with pre-existing qualification or experience in the caring professions – pastoral care, youth work, teaching and chaplaincy. Once they join Emergencies Ministry they receive specific training in disaster counselling, spirituality and trauma.
When an emergency event occurs, area coordinators send text messages to contact volunteers who live in close proximity and can attend rapidly.
“The Bourke Street event happened at 1.45pm, and we had 25 volunteers ready to go at 2.15pm to support that community,” Mr Stuart said.
In 2016, the volunteers of Emergencies Ministry were called to 44 events across the state. Mr Stuart said the organisation has demonstrated its willingness to work with government authorities.
“So not only are we just a recipient of the policies that Emergency Management Victoria puts out, we’re actually invited in on the ground floor, to be part of the decision-making around what those policies look like,” Mr Stuart said.
“During the Bourke Street incident, for the first time, the VCC Emergencies Ministry was offered a seat at the state control centre during the event. To not only participate in decision making, but also provide intelligence to government about what’s happening on the ground.
“That’s never happened before.”