All hands on deck

Rona Russell is a Samoan member of the Frankston Uniting Church. She maintains close contact with Samoa. In September 2009, a tsunami devastated the southwest coast of Upolu. Rona arranged to send a container-load of aid. She approached the firm for whom she’d worked for 20 years for shoes. The firm not only donated shoes, they paid for the cost of the container and return airfares to supervise the distribution of a wide variety of goods Rona had collected. In January this year she flew in again: this time to see for herself the unloading of the MLG shipment. While there, Rone took these pictures of the devastation.

The spirit of Christmas came to the fore in mid-December when members of the Mission Liaison Group (MLG) heard the news that communities in Samoa and Fiji had been battered by the onslaught of Cyclone Evan. Rev John Connan is the convener of MLG. He admits it took him a few days to process the news of the devastation in Samoa, but once the realisation sunk in, things happened quickly.

“By our normal schedule of sending shipping containers of goods to our Pacific-partner churches, the MLG’s first shipment for 2013 would have been sent to Samoa in late January or early February. Cyclone Evan changed that,” Mr Connan said.

“I emailed Dr Namu Potoi (secretary of the Women’s Fellowship of the Samoa Methodist Church) asking what we could do to help. Originally we were sending school supplies, but in light of the cyclone, I felt that household goods were more appropriate.

“I also knew that we would have to speed up plans for delivery if we were to be of any real help.”

Power blackouts made communication difficult, but three days after the cyclone hit Samoa, Mr Connan achieved email contact with Dr Potoi, who had managed to charge her mobile phone at the local hospital.

“I tend to agree with you,” Ms Potoi wrote.

“If you could possibly re-think – re-strategise an urgent container filled with second-hand clothing and household goods at this point in time. Only if you consider it feasible and that it will not stress you and your kind volunteers out.”

Port Philip East presbytery minister Rev John Mann sent an email to all congregations calling for donations and volunteers to help with the packing. Mr Connan was aware that it would be difficult to mobilise support and goods in less than two weeks, particularly over the festive season, when many people were away or busy.

“On Saturday 29 December, my wife Ann and I drove to the MLG shed at Keysborough towing a trailer load of goods, with no idea what was to come,” Mr Connan said.

“At 8 a.m. the shipping container was all but empty. Little by little clothing and household goods came – as did people.

“Those who came set to work, packing crockery, pots and pans into boxes. Breakables were packed in light-weight clothes. Pots and pans were filled. No spaces were to be left.

“While that packing went on, others carried the filled boxes to the container, where MLG regulars did the packing. Even with a break for morning tea, exhaustion began to set in. Not everyone came early. Some who came late morning took over the container packing and provided the break needed.

“Altogether, 62 people signed in.

“And by 1 p.m. the doors were shut on a container of relief goods and the seal applied.”

On New Year’s Eve, MLG was told the good news that Swire Shipping had arranged for the container to go on an earlier ship than had been booked. The container was taken to the wharf on 3 January.

Mr Connan said this experience has reinforced what can be achieved when others are invited to help in any way they can. Donations of goods, money and labour meant that what seemed impossible, particularly over Christmas, became a reality.

“By the time readers are taking in this story, the Women of the Methodist Church in Samoa will have distributed clothing, household goods and food to those left devastated by Cyclone Evan,” Mr Connan said. “Did I say God is good? So are God’s people.”

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