A variation on Psalm 137, written by Jean Malcolm, and prayed at St Gabriel's Grantham:
By the waters of Lockyer Creek
we sat down and wept
when we remembered Grantham.
On the Eucalypts there hung our lives for the world to see,
flotsam and jetsam left high in the branches by the flood waters.
Captives on our roofs and hilltop islands we were;
and now the media come asking us for “songs”;
melodies in our heaviness…
“What was it like? Paint us a picture. Share all the gory details.
How has it all affected you? Tell us, how was it for Grantham?”
How can we say anything in this foreign land,
this devastated space that once was a safe and secure home?
Planted fields sinking under tonnes of sticky mud,
waterlogged spoiled crops stinking in the hot Queensland sun,
houses and shops tossed into crumbling heaps
and cars and machinery crushed by water’s might.
If we forget you, O Grantham,
may our identity as Aussies count as nothing.
We have been bruised but we are not beaten.
We are God’s poor, God’s little ones.
We may not have wealth or status, but we too matter,
and so does our town.
Though the journey back to wholeness is long,
the deconstruction, cleanup and rebuilding,
the ploughing under and replanting,
the battles with red tape and regulations,
and the oceans of grief and anxiety and uncertainty to work through,
you are with us in the midst of it, O God.
You suffer and struggle, weep and laugh with us.
With your strength and love
we will re-member who we are,
and finding together, new joy.
Some of the photos that I used in my photo essay about the little south east Queensland town of Grantham create an: Oh My God! reaction in us.
They make us stop and pay attention, and think of the people who've been affected and how awful it must have been and still is for them. Maybe that’s useful...
And yet I'm starting to think that there is an unpleasant side to using these "sensational" pictures.
They tap into and feed our desire for OMG reactions and experiences!
We've been inundated with images from Cyclone Yasi, and I'm getting angry with all the repeated images that fill the TV news and current affairs programs. Those responsible seem to have chosen the most distressing pictures and then run them over and over, even when the interviews and reports are not about those particular places. GRRR! It’s a kind of violence, and violation.
Perhaps instead of more high adrenalin, heroic ministry, crisis-junkie experiences, we need to be more concerned for the unseen, unimaginable, impossible-to-depict devastation that is present and will continue to be present for a LONG time in the lives of all those who suffer from disasters... disasters of all kinds..
Pray for those who are left devastated, and for those who are willing to walk with them through the VERY LONG journey to healing.
Our present of PRESENCE
My time in the Cunningham Archdeaconry in the Brisbane Diocese over the 18 days from 21 January to 7 February has been about presence. Winton Davies and I have been present with people as they clean up, process their emotions and begin adjust to life after the January floods.
I trust God that in our presence people have also encountered something of God’s presence with them, alongside them, giving acknowledgement to all that they are thinking and feeling and experiencing.
As well as bringing God’s presence, and meeting God’s presence in the people we have been with, we have also been bearers of the love and care of the Anglican whanau in the Wellington Diocese. Our presence has been a symbol of solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ.
From my arrival into Brisbane at a hot and steamy 7.10am on 21 January - and being met there by the Reverend Keren Terpstra, Priest in Charge of the parish of All Saints, Booval in East Ipswich - to the journey back to Brisbane Airport on a sweltering Monday afternoon 7 February – transported by the Reverend Michelle Knight, Deacon in the parish of St Thomas’s, North Ipswich – my reception in Queensland has been nothing but warm.
VERY warm weather, and hospitable friendly people who have continually expressed their gratitude for us coming to be with them. I have enjoyed getting to know my Ipswich colleagues.
Before he went away on his postponed holiday, the Rev’d Matthew Jones, the Rector of St Paul’s Ipswich and Archdeacon, welcomed me warmly. He made his office and car available to me, and took me on a drive to see the extent of the flood damage, and to meet some of his parishioners who had been badly affected.
The worst affected of these was the family of Michelle Jacques, the Director of Music at St Paul’s. Their house in Karalee, was flooded to halfway up the roof. The family is now living in three caravans on the section as they dry things out and prepare for the reconstruction of the innards of their house. I’ve visited there several times over the last two weeks.
The first day we were there, the Armed Forces and Council workers were still coming in to remove great mountains of damaged household goods and house construction material, and swathes of mud and tree branches.
The sight of the damage, and the presence of people in army fatigues, made for the feel of a war zone. The cleanup continues on more of a domestic level now, but it’s going to be a very LONG time before things get back to anything like normal.
Seeing all Michelle’s music that is considered salvageable lying out in the sun to dry, wrinkled and water stained but still precious, is a sign of both heartbreak and hope for life to continue.
The task ahead
A number of St Paul’s parishioners have hosted Winton and I for evening meals. This has enabled us to feel part of their community, and able to hear their stories, and help them process their own complexity of emotions. Most are wanting to get on with things… to be the “little Aussie battlers” they are known to be.
But it’s not as easy as they think. People who I visited during the day who had suffered physical devastation, are experiencing an inability to do very much, a lack of focus, and “flood brain” – a failure to be able to hold much in their memory.
Colleagues who have been alongside their people through it all were beginning to suffer similar symptoms. Keren whose house had gone under in the flood was suffering twice over. I spent quite a bit of time with her, helping out, talking things over, and also doing “time out” things like going to the movies.
Those who were not inundated with water have been overwhelmed by the need to help. Mountains of clothes, household goods, food, furniture and white-ware have been donated. People have got in and helped people clean and prepare to reconstruct.
Some of these people feel guilty that they didn’t suffer. Others still feel a residue of anxiety and fear from the time of the rising waters which hangs over them, stalking them, lurking a few paces behind, not allowing them to rest, so they HAVE to help.
In the week after the waters receded there was still adrenalin pumping, and people were energised to act. In the next week there was a slump, a glazed look in some people’s eyes, a slowing of energy, it was harder to focus.
Now amongst the worst affected there is a new surge of energy fuelled by people’s anger and frustration as they battle the red tape of Insurance company and government regulations and delays. Some who were insured were unaware that their insurance didn’t cover flood damage.
There have been some financial grants made, and those who have found somewhere new to live are able to get on with it.
Many though, are in a holding phase, living with relatives or friends (with all the tensions that that can bring!) or in temporary accommodation.
Contaminants like asbestos have to be removed from dwellings. Mud has to be extracted from between wall linings. Internal structures have to be quoted for, and the money and tradespeople found to do repairs. Some are waiting to hear whether they will even be allowed to build again.
So as well as dealing with grief and loss, people are having to wait for unspecified amounts of time to even begin the rebuilding which might give them a sense of moving on and achieving something.
Out at the little town of Grantham, where I visited on five out of the 18 days I was in Qld, and led prayers on both Sundays, the complex mix of “getting on with it” and “playing the waiting game” is heightened, because the devastation has been so widespread.
Many people, official organisations and volunteers, are there helping. And people are doing a good job of pulling together as a community.
Yet they have not yet even completed the round of funerals for those who have died, because of the need for autopsies to be completed. When all the funerals are over, there will be a memorial service planned WITH the input of the community (unlike the official one held on Australia Day (26 Jan) which was for officialdom really and pulled together at 24 hours notice).
I feel torn, heading home now. I’d like to be with people as they continue the long slow journey of the reconstruction of their lives.
But I’m also ready to be back home. Back in my own place. Reconnecting with my whenua.
What can we continue to do?
The Anglican Church in Queensland can pool experiences and insights in order to be more prepared and able to respond for the next community crisis. There are lessons that we are only just learning.
Like managing people’s generous impulses. Most of the mountain of donated goods will not be needed for some time. People need to be back in their houses before it will be much use.
If someone gives you a fridge, what do you do with it if you have no electricity to run it? And maybe even no house to put it in? Storage is at a premium! Church halls are overflowing with goods, and soon will need the space for other activities.
We in other parts of the Communion can continue to pray and fundraise to help. We can also work at “real life” relationships with people on the ground so that perhaps our prayers and our funds can go directly to particular needs.
We also must be prepared to wrestle with the social and theological implications of times of crisis. How can we bring good news with integrity when people feel betrayed and oppressed by their situation?
Where can we see signs of hope and new life in the darkest of situations without minimising or denying the reality of people’s experiences?
What needs to be challenged and changed about the way things are done in our communities that has led to some of the misfortune suffered?
Where do we meet God in the stickiest of the mud and the devastation of the drowned – people, plants, pets, livelihoods and homes?
How do we find ways to express our living faith TOGETHER, in the midst of it all?