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disaster reduction Tag

Pacific church leaders and theologians have been guiding people of faith through the COVID-19 crisis. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the region, Pacific Island nations were quick to guard against the disease with safety lockdowns. The limited health infrastructure across much of the Pacific meant its populations were particularly vulnerable.

Pacific churches too were proactive in urging people to follow official health and safety advice during lockdowns, as well as giving theological guidance to help people of faith (the vast majority in the Pacific) understand and respond to the crisis. A proliferation of misinformation and dangerous theological framings has made their messages even more important.

A series of pastoral letters put out by the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) as well as several letters and social media posts circulated by prominent Pacific Christian leaders created an opportunity to consolidate the themes into a set of key theological messages.

The key messages were then turned into a series of seven printable posters and social media assets that could help amplify important pastoral guidance during the crisis.

Reverend Dorothy Jimmy of the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) has been sharing the messages in her church and her words have reached people nationwide. One of her Sunday sermons was broadcast on national television and she used the opportunity to share the messages as well as reflections on gender-based violence and the need to promote dignity and protection in the home during COVID-19.

She also led follow-up daily devotions that were broadcast over a week, each morning and evening highlighting a message from the resources, Biblical Theological Guidance during COVID-19 and Messages on Dignity and Protection in the Home during COVID-19 (14 in total).

“People told me, ‘we saw you on TV! It was really good to hear a message about what God’s word says about what we are currently going through,’” said Rev Dorothy.

“The TV producer said he had never heard that sort of practical theology coming out [of the church].”

“A lot of people are looking to the Church right now in regard to what is happening.”

Martha Yamsiu Kaluatman, the Gender Focal Point of PCV said many people were hearing the ideas shared by Rev Dorothy for the first time.

“Many people I spoke to said they loved hearing the message on that issue [COVID-19] and on being resilient,” said Martha.

“It’s a new message to them.”

As part of the Gender Equality Theology project in Vanuatu, Martha, Rev Dorothy and the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union (PWMU) Gender Team ran an awareness workshop and used the theological messages with 36 women leaders in North and South Efate Presbyteries on 24 and 30 June.

The feedback from the women leaders was positive and helped highlight the need for clear and positive theological messaging during crises like COVID-19.

“Most of us have been confessing – because of our misunderstanding of COVID-19 as a punishment from God and we blame other people as well,” said a participant.

“The message challenged me because I was upset with the people of China and anyone from China.”

Many of the leaders committed to sharing what they learned at the workshop with others in their communities.

“I have to go and help others that have negative thoughts. I have learned that COVID-19 is not a punishment from God.”

“We must not blame others for COVID-19, and I must be kind to them because everything has its seasons.”

UnitingWorld Project Manager Aletia Dundas says the power of the messages relies on how they are picked up and adapted by churches in their local contexts.

“The key messages were consolidated in this way to be contextualised, translated and used by churches to inform people about what is going on and how to respond faithfully to the crisis,” said Ms Dundas.

While a lot of bad theology has emerged during the COVID-19 crisis, many of the harmful messages have come to the Pacific from outside and are being countered by Pacific theologians.

“Pacific leaders and theologians are challenging harmful theology with strong positive theological messaging in support of government and health messaging, and against stigmatisation and blame. These messages identify preventative measures and identifying it as an act of faith.”

“The posters aim to amplify their messages,” said Ms Dundas.

Churches in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have already adopted and translated the messages, and churches in Papua New Guinea used the initial PCC pastoral letters to create their own series of posters.

You can download the English and Bislama (Vanuatu) versions of the resources here.

Another series of posters and shareable key messages are being developed from the Messages on Dignity and Protection in the Home during COVID-19 resource. Stay tuned!

 


 

This project is a collaboration of UnitingWorld, CAN DO and the Pacific Conference of Churches, in close collaboration with UnitingWorld’s partners in the Disaster READY project (the United Church Solomon Islands, the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu, the United Church in Papua New Guinea and the Methodist Church in Fiji).

Funding was provided by the Church Agencies Network – Disaster Operations (CAN DO), a consortium of faith-based agencies that was formed to better coordinate and strengthen our global humanitarian, disaster risk reduction and resilience-building work.

Funding from the Australian Government through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership is supporting the translation and adaptation of messages in some countries.

Read about the innovative ways our Pacific partners have been responding to COVID-19 crisis

As fires burn throughout Australia and flooding takes the lives, homes and livelihoods of people all over Europe, Africa and the Pacific, we’re reminded again of our deep vulnerability. We’re grateful to our Uniting Church ministers and partners in places where people cling to hope by a thread – managing drought, stretched finances and in places like Tuvalu, lack of fresh water and food.

Adamstown Uniting stepped up to acknowledge the global need to support people at the mercy of a changing climate by hosting ‘Songs for Tuvalu,’ a concert that raised over $1,000 for disaster relief and recovery work.

“It was so timely to be able to speak about the importance of UnitingWorld’s climate change and disaster readiness work,” says Roslyn, coordinator of the event at Adamstown. “At $15 a ticket, we’re delighted to have been able to raise $1,000 – and so many people spoke to us afterwards about how worthwhile the work is.”

UnitingWorld’s disaster relief and readiness work helps prepare Pacific communities for the impact of increasing storms, cyclones, dry seasons and other disasters. It includes equipping leaders to carry out assessments to determine people and places at risk; increasing awareness of safe evacuation places and helping people understand the biblical call to take responsibility for their environment.

A series of Bible studies have been developed by Pacific theologians to answer questions about God’s role in suffering and disaster and people’s responsibility as stewards of the earth. You can see a copy of the resources on the UnitingWorld website here.

 

A huge thank you to Adamstown for their fundraising effort and to all who’ve been supporting our climate change and disaster readiness projects. If you know people who are enthusiastic about the work, buy them a gift at www.everythingincommon.com.au!

Theology can’t prevent disasters, but can help people and communities prepare for them and lessen the impact. That’s why we’ve been supporting our Pacific partners to develop a theology of disaster resilience and share it across their churches and the wider Pacific. Our church partners work among communities who have been taught to believe that natural disasters are an unavoidable punishment for personal or societal wrongdoing.

This understanding of the nature of disaster sometimes means people haven’t thought through the practical steps they can take in their communities to avoid and lessen their impact. These new resources are written by Pacific theologians and designed to be shared as Bible studies as widely as possible with people in their own language. They teach about the nature of disaster and suffering, God’s call to care for creation, our role as stewards, and preparedness and advocacy as acts of discipleship. The Bible studies will work alongside teaching about evacuation plans, risk assessments and the provision of pastoral support.

The Framework paper was the result of a Working Group of twelve Pasifika theologians and practitioners gathering in 2018. Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll was lead writer.

The Bible studies were written by Rev Koloma Makewin (PNG), Rev Geraldine Wiliame (Fiji), Dr Afereti Uili (Samoa) and Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll (Fiji/Australia).

In the face of increasing threats from drought, fire, flood and storms in our region, we’re doing everything we can to equip our partners to respond with determination and hope, starting with foundations of faith.

Read more about the project and access the resources here.

This project is made possible with funding from the Australian Government through the Disaster Ready project of the Church Agencies Network – Disaster Operations (CAN-DO).

*Header pic: Theology of Disaster Resilience Working Group meeting in Fiji, August 2018


How can you support this work?

Give a Christmas gift card to a loved one! The Whole World in Your Hands gift card will support our partners to prepare vulnerable communities and reduce disaster impact.

Buy it now online.

Shop online for other gifts that fight poverty and build hope at www.everythingincommon.com.au

Teetering on the edge of drought, one of our sheep farmers in Victoria knows the importance of planning and preparing for disasters.

His decision to give more than $5,000 to our Disaster Risk Reduction appeal came the day before his property received heavy rainfall that steered his family away from the brink of a calamitous season.

“This farmer told me he knows first-hand how vital it is to prepare for and prevent weather related disasters,” recalls UnitingWorld Australian Partnerships Team member Alexandra Bingham.

“I’m so encouraged by his willingness to faithfully invest in helping our global neighbours prepare for their challenges even while knowing he faces those same risks personally.”

Alexandra also visited Richmond Uniting Church this month, another community with an emphasis on both local and global mission. “They have a weekly focus on local and global outreach, providing grocery parcels for local people as well as giving very generously to our water and sanitation projects in Papua New Guinea,” Alexandra says.

“It was really wonderful to be able to share with the church, which includes a number of generous donors, how their gifts are being used to save lives among our partners.”

A BIG THANKS to all our committed donors and church congregations who’ve caught the vision of ‘enough to share.’ If you’d like to share a regular gift and become a Global Neighbour, get in touch with us at 1800 998 122 or info@unitingworld.org.au

I travelled with my family as part of an Exposure trip through UnitingWorld to Fiji. One of the most meaningful experiences for me was going by speedboat to the island Ovalau, significantly damaged by Cyclone Winston in February of 2016.

Talking to our guide James Baghwan, we came to understand that the majority of the people on the island barely had the means to provide for their family’s basic needs. They don’t have the capability to move somewhere else, even to the main island, where they would be better equipped during times of cyclones. Even if they did, most are living on the land that their ancestors did, and so have significant cultural and historical ties to the land, which provides them with a sense of identity.

Cyclone Winston was expected to completely miss the island, and so the people were unprepared. You can imagine the chaos, panic, and terror they would have experienced in the mad rush to secure what little they had with heavy materials and find a place where they might be safe. The damage was strong enough to beach a ship, lift up and move water tanks as well as destroy houses and buildings.

James told me people would probably have run up the mountain and lay on one of the ringing roads, holding onto whoever or whatever they could. They would have stayed like this for many hours, desperately hoping and praying that they wouldn’t be blown away or hit by debris, all the while listening to the terrifying sounds of everything they knew being ripped violently apart.

We can only begin to imagine the fear, panic and desperation they would feel and how psychologically damaging this would be. Their whole lives dictated by this fear, trapped in this cycle of working to repair what is lost only to see it destroyed the next time and have to begin again.

This fear would only be intensified by the threat that global warming places on them – of bigger, more powerful, more unpredictable cyclones. Add to this the sheer frustration they must feel watching the powers of the world – who could do something to help them or to help prevent global warming – yet who debate that it exists.

After this conversation, I began to wonder: in the midst of all of this, how do people on that island find true peace and happiness, when they are under such threat and have so little? And the people that we met did seem happy and were welcoming.

And it reminded me of a Bible passage from Matthew 6:19-24: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Thanks to sixteen year old Hannah for allowing us to share her reflection with you.

If you’re keen to find out more about what the Pacific church is doing to protect against cyclones and how they’re working to save lives in disaster, read more about the project or make a donation here.

 

The first I knew of 16 million people inundated by floodwater were the photos from a friend on Facebook.

Outstretched hands, bare shoulders, muddy torrents: they were the first of what I expected to be a mainstream media deluge. Instead: silence. Families across Nepal, India and Bangladesh have been drowned, buried alive and starving for almost a month now, it turns out, and the media vacuum is profound.

This is South Asia’s annual monsoon nightmare – the natural disaster that no longer makes the news. Yes, we #prayfor the victims of terror attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona, but at the same time a bus full of school children in Nepal is buried alive by a landslide. It’s the second in a week, and these families are just a handful of the sixteen million people in the last month who are losing everything to forces they can’t control. There are no hashtags; only the prayers of the families themselves, who sleep in the rain while their bellies growl for food and their hearts long for the dead.

I guess there are a few factors at play in the world’s collective shrug in the direction of the disaster. The numbers – so huge it’s hard to imagine. The inevitability – South Asia ‘always floods’. The media – it feeds the appetites we offer up, and we have little interest in floods. We don’t even know what we don’t know. We’re preoccupied with family, work stresses and the routines of every day life.

In the midst of it all, perhaps some pray for the less fortunate, a blanket offering for anyone doing it tough, and idly wonder at times why God doesn’t intervene more often in a crisis.

The fact is, God does. I think of my friend who is part of the Church of North India. I’ve not only visited her in the urban settlements where she works beside those who’ve fallen through the cracks in her society, but over the last few days I’ve watched on Facebook as she wades through flood waters to deliver dhal and black plastic to families who have seen their homes washed away. God is present in and through people like Nita, who act out what it means to be God’s light and love within the world.

Although we may not be able to gag Mother Nature, we have been given the means to prevent these disasters before they become sixteen-million-life tragedies. After all, we know that monsoon rains will reliably take the lives of men, women and children in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, year after year, simply because they live in low lying areas, in homes that are badly built, beside rivers that will swell and swallow them whole: they’re too poor to move elsewhere. It won’t be flooding that kills these people and their livelihoods. It will be the lack of evacuation plans, poor communication, homes built on the side of mountains where they shouldn’t be, and outbreaks of disease. In short, it’ll be poverty, and the lack of opportunity that comes with it.

You know what we need to save these lives? We need vision. And if it all looks too hard, too big, too far away and too hard, who better to take on all that but a community who passionately believe that life is possible from death? We can beat this giant. We already know that $1 invested to reduce risks and prepare communities for disaster saves $15 in recovery efforts after a cyclone, flood or earthquake hits. That’s not just lives saved, but good economic sense – an achievable, smart investment.

If there’s anything I believe as a follower of Christ, it’s that transformation is possible. Not just individual lives turned around, but whole systems shaken to their core. Institutionalised human slavery – ended. Children valued and universal education won, wrought from a world where babies where routinely discarded on mountainsides to die. Diseases eradicated. Women’s rights championed. In all of these cataclysmic wins, Christians have been at the forefront with a vision for things that must, at the time, have seemed impossible.

So it is with saving lives before natural disasters strike. As a changing climate increases the severity and frequency of extreme weather, especially in our own Asia/Pacific region, we’ll need to be smarter and more determined about the ways we protect ourselves – and especially our most vulnerable – from tragedy. Allowing sixteen million lives each year to sink beneath muddy waters simply isn’t an option.

When we’re tempted to ask why God doesn’t intervene more directly in natural disasters, perhaps the better question to ask is: why don’t we? Big change, bold vision: this is our call, this is our identity. And as droughts, floods, cyclones, and famines increasingly stalk our world, this is the challenge we’re called on to meet – before disasters become tragedies.

UnitingWorld has launched an appeal to support partner churches in the Pacific as they build critical resilience to disasters and climate change. Donate now: https://www.unitingworld.org.au/stop-disasters-becoming-tragedies/

Almost exactly two months after our son died in 2004, some 250,000 people were killed by a series of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. It was described at the time as the worst tsunami event the world had ever seen. I didn’t watch any of the footage. That kind of graphic imagery simply wasn’t needed to help me share a tiny fraction of the pain and loss countless families were experiencing around the world in that moment.

Death, especially unexpected death, doesn’t just leave us gutted. It leaves us helpless and angry. In the outpouring of grief and gifts following the Boxing Day Tsunami, as well as in the expressions of love we received after Hugh’s death, there was a common theme: if only we could have done something – anything – to prevent this cavernous loss.

Here’s the astonishing fact. Often we can. We just choose not to.

Massive-scale loss – of life, homes and livelihoods in natural disasters – is preventable. So are the deaths of individuals like Hughie, babies who die at the rate of 2000 a day from complications arising form dirty water. Each of these lives matter no less than Hugh’s.

Preventable.

We’ve heard a lot about how to prevent the deaths of children from disease, but natural disasters seem to fall into a different hand-wringing category altogether. They’re so random! So mercilessly destructive!

True, and an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale underneath the Indian ocean is always going to create havoc. But here’s the thing. The sheer number of lives lost and ruined by natural disasters can be dramatically reduced.

Here’s how:

  • Investing in early warning systems and planning for evacuation, especially in isolated regions and areas where poverty is widespread – co-incidentally often the places where natural disasters strike hardest
  • Training leaders in life saving responses before, during and after emergency, and giving them the resources they need to carry them out
  • Building housing and shelters in areas that are less likely to be hammered by storms, floods, quakes and the slow death march of changing climate
  • Planning for water and food supplies that can survive sudden shocks so that people don’t fall critically ill or lose their means of making a living after disaster

In the years following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which killed almost 16,000 people, all these steps were put in place. It cost billions of dollars. But the result is that people live with a great deal more security – not certainty, but security – about their chances of surviving natural disasters, short and long term.

It’s simply not the case for others in the Asia/Pacific region, where 70% of the world’s worst natural disasters wreak their unholy havoc. These nations are too poor, too under-resourced, and too far from the media spotlight to thoroughly invest in the kind of changes that would increase survival rates. They only hit the headlines once their men, women and children are washed up on beaches or buried alive beneath the mud.

And that’s when the world suddenly digs deep to give, to grieve and to ask one another: “How can Mother Nature be so cruel?”

There’s actually a better question to ask, but few of us will confront it head on. It’s along the lines of “How can human beings be so short-sighted?”

Classrooms being ‘built back better’ in Fiji

If we know how to save lives today, why do we wait until it’s too late?

Of course, the answer to that question is as complex as humanity itself. Some of us are genuinely unaware of how effective Disaster Risk Reduction is, how to go about supporting it, or how it’s desperately needed in parts of the world where poverty already robs people of so much. Some of us are only moved by the plight of our neighbours once we see them clutching their children and wading through waist-deep water, or burying their loved ones. And all those reactions are human.

But here are the facts. Just $1 invested in preparation before a disaster saves $15 in recovery efforts later. That means the money you invest today is 15 times more effective than giving it after the disaster hits.  The economic kickbacks of preparing communities to plan, build and shock proof are astronomical. But the lives saved are even more impressive.

If only there was something we could have done? There is. Don’t let others die while we’re wondering.