Throughout the past month, the weather in Melbourne has lived up to the cliché ‘four seasons in one day’. While Melburnians have been inconvenienced by the threat of sunstroke and torrential downpours in the space of a few hours, for those living in the country the weather is no laughing matter.
Recognising the impact of extreme weather on farming districts, the state government recently announced a $27 million funding package for a range of support measures, including employment initiatives and counselling.
Last month the presbytery of Loddon-Mallee held a seminar at Wycheproof where representatives of congregations spoke about the effect of the on-going drought in their communities. About 20 people attended together with a regional school chaplain, a Baptist minister, the community development officer of Buloke shire council and a representative of the Rural Financial Counselling Service. It was a chance to share what organisations were doing and explore what more could be done do to assist those affected.
Jim Foley, retired minister, attended as a presbytery rep from Castlemaine. He said the area had been hard hit since 2000, when farmers suffered through seven years of what became known as the ‘Millennium drought’. The area was then devastated by extreme flooding in 2011, and is currently enduring drought conditions that have lasted for the last three growing seasons.
Mr Foley said people spoke candidly about the social and emotional impact throughout communities.
“A doctor spoke of ‘a lot of sadness’,” Mr Foley said.
“Someone told of the anxiety in communities about young families leaving and not coming back. Another farmer spoke of hope being given up for a harvest. There was talk of a ‘ripple effect’ causing people to be on edge and niggly and an extra layer of stress around the place that included churches.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, and Mr Foley said humour and a positive outlook were strong throughout the day.
“Someone raised a laugh by commenting that diminished harvests meant local sporting clubs had no problem fielding teams because there was not a lot to do on drought stricken farms at harvest time.
“People spoke of ‘wellbeing’ barbeques, often coordinated by local fire brigades. There was talk of pampering days for women, of concerts and food voucher programs involving local communities and businesses to keep the money in the town. Some spoke of churches needing to think outside their church headspace to partner with community groups in programs rather going it alone.”
Mr Foley said everyone agreed that support was the key to managing yet another drought. This support could come in many ways, with finance being only one avenue.
“Supporting congregations could consider attending worship services in drought areas (and taking along lunch for a social time afterwards), writing letters, arranging weekend or breaks at someone’s holiday house, hosting city weekends,” Mr Foley said.
“St Margaret’s UC, Mooroolbark, is a congregation in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne that built such a relationship.”
St Margaret’s congregation member, Marj Hookey, said one of their congregation members had been a teacher in the country and was concerned by the devastation of people and communities caused by the Millennium Drought.
St Margaret’s made links with the congregational group of Wycheproof, Birchip, Culgoa and Nullawil and built relationships, sending Christmas cards and cakes.
“The people were surprised and delighted that a city congregation was interested in them,” Ms Hookey said.
“A proposal was put to the St Margaret’s church council that some of the proceeds of our fete be sent to help. Over the next five years, a total of $50,000 dollars was forwarded to the parish to be used in funding ministry and maintenance.
“The response of people coming to our fete was wonderful when they heard of where the proceeds were going. People had not known what they could do to help people in drought areas and now, here was an avenue. Time and time again people would hand over money to our stallholders and say ‘Don’t worry about the change. Keep it.’”
The relationship has developed in the years since, with visits in both directions and the congregations coming to know each other well. As Mr Foley said, such support lets rural people know they are not forgotten.
Congregations interested in linking with churches in drought affected regions like Loddon-Mallee can contact presbytery ministers Gordon Bannon 0417 037 450 or Judy Berridge 0409 258 230.
I have run a community meal at Kinglake West UCA in response to Black Saturday fires. One that has since been impacted by suicide cluster and other deaths. Letting the community come to together to share and be together. Resourcing an assistance is needed so churches can do these things. Open the church more than on Sunday. It can be craft, coffee morning or distribution of assistance. It does not matter how few come, all are important. The answer does not lie in agencies just coming in and rolling out their own ideas. It needs to be local driven. A great start would be for UCA agencies to work in with local churches.