The story of Alan Stafford and the Uniting Church Emergency Fencing Team came to my attention via a copy of an article in the Benalla Ensign last month. It included news that Alan, a long-time member of Benalla Uniting Church, had just received an Order of Australia Medal in the recent Australia Day Honours list “for service to the community of Benalla, and to bushfire recovery projects”.
I had so many questions for Alan. I sensed in the story so many of the hopes of the Vision and Mission Principles of the Synod, so I headed up the Hume Highway to Benalla to meet him on his farm about 10 kilometres out of town.
I asked him how, following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the fencing idea started.
“After church, a few of us were having a chat in the carpark,” Alan said.
“In this simple way, some ex-farmers began a passionate idea to help. They knew a few things, and one of those things was how to build fences.”
Slowly but surely, the idea became reality. Over the ensuing years Alan led an increasingly well-equipped team of volunteers throughout central Victoria from Wandong to Buxton, from Boho to Corryong.
Alan would be the first to say the fencing team started with just normal folk responding to a need. In this humble beginning was a true sense of being driven by compassion. These farmers knew what it meant to suffer loss from bushfires. Together, they simply responded to the need in their context. The plan was simply farmers reaching out to farmers.
From the beginning, Alan constantly formed partnerships with others – both within the church and the wider community.
The initial small group solicited help from the presbytery that, as it turned out, had a Share grant to help in bushfire recovery. Further relationships formed with Uniting Church Chaplaincy responses through Rev David Howie and others.
Word got around to other neighbouring congregations. Relationships were formed beyond the church with groups such as Blaze Aid operating out of the Kilmore region, where lessons were learnt in organisation and resourcing. Links developed with disaster response agencies, Landcare groups and community groups like Rotary.
As things progressed and the work developed, somewhat unexpected surprises and challenges emerged that were profound.
Mending fences, mending lives
The work involved volunteers sharing time with farming families who were doing it tough. As we spoke, Alan became emotional as he tried to help me understand the significance of conversations that happened over morning teas. Sometimes it would take days before hurting and confused landowners could tentatively share their tough feelings.
Time and again a ministry of presence had a healing effect. A heart of compassion is a powerful healing force.
Kindness begets kindness and builds bridges. The presence of the team would often bring neighbours together – neighbours who previously did not really know each other. The impact of the fires, soothed by the compassionate presence of the team, brought people out of their private worlds to necessarily depend upon one another. Farmers who were isolated in their post-fire grief were linked in friendship and support with others. As a result, communities were renewed and hope found good soil from which to spout new life.
Determination in the struggles
Alan was quick to say that it had not always been a smooth road. From a church perspective, the initiative was challenging ‘the system’. The church had not done this sort of thing before.
Who was responsible? How to manage donations and money? What about risks and safety issues?
On a more personal level, the volunteers weren’t trained to cope with grieving and frustrated farmers. And the area of need was expanding across presbytery boundaries.
Alan was determined: don’t lose focus, keep things simple, organise well, resource well, make decisions promptly, follow through on your word. His resolute motto was: “Do it right and do it well”. As a result, from time to time, Alan was not the most popular man in some people’s eyes. Starting something new always seems to tread on someone’s toes.
Standing up for justice
Alan and the team learned from affected landowners about the added concerns of exploitation and bureaucratic processes. Alan suspects that some tradespeople and service providers did not always treat those needing help well. And, in some instances, their ethics were indeed questionable.
Alan is a big man (I’m six foot and he towers over me) and he knows how to stand up for himself. There was many a time when he stood up for the people he was helping. From his stories, Alan suggests with a smile that: “the threat of media involvement often resulted in a more helpful response”.
Humility in service
Alan is quick to say how much all this has meant to him. He is deeply humbled by the experience and insists he has received so much more than he has given. He has made many new friends and it has made a difference to his own outlook on life.
Yet Alan also knows that he has brought his own particular contribution to the project. He has offered his gifts – farming skills, a tough determination, contacts from his working life, experience in community involvement, and (as he demonstrated to me personally) “a weird sense of humour”.
Benalla Uniting Church has embraced this wonderful outreach.
It is now their mission too. It reaches out beyond their immediate local town context. They are ready to touch more lives when the next inevitable bushfire comes.
For me this story is powerful because it presents a lived example of the Synod’s Vision and Mission Principles. In this story we can see ordinary people (Alan is quick to agree on that) participating in the extraordinary mission of God’s love for the world.
When I asked Alan about the faith aspect, he preferred to simply point upwards as he struggled for the right words. To quote Alan: “I believe … there has been a greater power involved in what we’ve been doing”.
… following Christ from the church carpark to a burnt-out farm.
… seeking the wonder of community,
the power of compassion and the tough stand for justice.
… pursuing God’s mission with so many surprising partners.
Now that’s a story!
Strategic Framework Minister
I’m sure there are many more stories – even if different types of stories – unfolding in your part of the world. Please contact me at:
David.Withers2@victas.uca.org.au to share your story.