Australian Bushfires Lead to Canceled Mission Trips and Climate Change Conversations in the Church

Image: Scripture Union

Every summer, hundreds of young Australians devote two weeks to running Christian programs for families and youth on the beaches of New South Wales and Victoria.

But cataclysmic fires in southeastern Australia have interrupted the efforts of Scripture Union teams in the nation’s most populous states.

Scripture Union has served in the Victoria beach town of Mallacoota for more than 30 years. But when teams showed up to the vacation town this year, the winds changed and the fires began immediately threatening Mallacoota.

As the blazes inched closer, leader Chris Mulherin and his team, along with hundreds of locals and tourists were evacuated to a movie theater were they spent hours in the hot building listening to sirens roar and glass bottles explode outside.

“Part of the sense of wanting to stay was the commitment to the local youth who had been through this extraordinarily difficult experience,” said Mulherin. “Some of them had lost their homes. Others hadn’t. Most of the [tourists] were actually evacuated so they moved on or were going to move on but the locals obviously were still around and so there was this sense that we didn’t really want to leave them.”

One night later, Mulherin and his team opened up a space for young people—locals and tourists alike—to come and process their experience. Then, the students headed back to Melbourne on a boat shortly after Victoria’s premier designated the area as a state of disaster, with Mulherin by helicopter a few days later.

Meanwhile, Scripture Union evacuated eight teams serving on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state.

The Australian bushfires have torched more than 24 million acres and spread across all six states. A New York Times article described the scale as “an area almost as large as West Virginia, more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia.” The fires have also killed at least 25 people and hundreds of millions of animals and destroyed thousands of buildings, including at least one church.

The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team announced this week that it would be deploying two groups of crisis-trained chaplains from the US, Canada, and the UK to Victoria and New South Wales. Nearly 40 chaplains have been traveling alongside Samaritan’s Purse since last fall as the organization has responded to the fires.

“God has been reminding me the beautiful words in Matthew’s Gospel: Come to Me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,’” said Steward Beveridge, who leads the ministry’s rapid response team in Australia and New Zealand. “When I have the opportunity to talk with people, there are tears and a moment of silence as they reflect on the words and take comfort in them.”

The board of directors of A Rocha Australia, part of an international Christian conservation group, acknowledged that the fires had affected them personally, through assisting the evacuated or working with other environmental groups.

“We are also pausing in prayer and reflection, to meditate on gospel truths, and to bear with others amidst our grief,” the board said in a statement. “And we are worshipping the Lord through creation care mission as we seek to be salt and light, in our own small way, to people who are in shock, angry, and despairing at the fires.”

A Rocha Australia also said it was building partnerships with Christian and non-Christian conservationists to aid with the recovery.

“We are looking for opportunities to engage Australian churches to see this disaster through a scriptural lens, in repentance and obedience, rather than simply as a political issue,” its board stated. “This is a challenge for Christians and churches in a nation where climate and environmental politics are so polarized, often being based upon political ideology rather than science, the Scriptures, and the new climate reality.”

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Source: Christianity Today