Messages of Hope

Month: March 2020

Support for the most vulnerable

Published / by Greg Elsdon

Support for the most vulnerable

The President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Dr Deidre Palmer, has today written to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison MP, seeking assurances that all people currently living in Australia, who have no means to return to home countries and no income as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, receive adequate income and healthcare support.

Dr Palmer asked that Mr Morrison’s Government provide support for the more than 1.5 million people who are living in Australia on temporary visas or bridging visas who are currently not eligible for support payments.

“Some of those on temporary or bridging visas work in industries that have been heavily affected by the coronavirus crisis. Many cannot access standard social security support, such as working age payments and disability support payments. They also are not eligible to access other government services.”

“These include many people who have applied for asylum in Australia,” said Dr Palmer, adding to calls from the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT) to ensure asylum seekers are not forgotten. 

In its letter to the Prime Minister, the ACRT expressed concern for the vulnerability of asylum seekers in our community who are already dependent on charities for the basic necessities. 

Dr Palmer noted that, “Many of these people are no longer able to return to their home countries with flights being cancelled and borders being closed. Many who are seeking asylum in Australia are unable to return to home countries because of the security risks they face. For some, their current visas will soon run out and need to be extended. We ask that such people be treated fairly, especially given the current global context”.

Further, the Uniting Church has asked that all people living on temporary or bridging visas in Australia have access to Medicare. “Access to Medicare will encourage them to seek medical assistance at the first sign they may have Coronavirus. If such people are unable to access health care immediately or face high costs for access, they are less likely to do so, further placing themselves and the broader community at risk”.

In the letter Dr Palmer acknowledged with gratitude the measures that Commonwealth and State Governments in Australia have provided so far to support people and businesses who are being severely impacted by the coronavirus crisis.

“In particular the Uniting Church welcomes the extra $550 a fortnight payment to people receiving social security payments,” said Dr Palmer.

“These extra funds will assist the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their jobs as a result of the measures needed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and are most welcome.”

Dr Palmer signed off the letter to the Prime Minister with the assurance that, “You remain in our prayers, at this very difficult time for our country and for those who have the responsibility of leadership.

Uniting Church members are encouraged to contact their local Members of Parliament to remind them of our duty to support the most vulnerable, particularly people facing destitution in our country as a result of these circumstances.

Points people can raise in their letters:

  • Thank the government for the steps they have taken to support people during the Coronavirus crisis.
  • Ask that they extend support payments to all people living in Australia at this time who need them. Note that many people on temporary visas are unable to return home and are not eligible for existing social security payments. No person should be left destitute due to the current crisis.
  • Acknowledge the government will need to implement reasonable measures to ensure the payments are made to those that genuinely need them. Acknowledge there will always be people who will seek to make fraudulent claims, but this should not be a barrier to extending support to those who meet the relevant criteria and are in genuine need.
  • Further, note that Minister Tudge has already been reported in the media as working to extend the visas of people who are living in Australia and are unable to return to their home countries. State your support for this outcome and request that such people be permitted to work in Australia.
  • Also, request that people living temporarily in Australia should be given access to Medicare at this time. Point out the serious health risks to these people and the wider community if they contract Coronavirus and delay seeking medical advice and assistance because they do not have easy access to healthcare.

Link to copy of UCA President’s letter to the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Scott Morrison MP.

200326 Letter to Prime Minister re support for vulnerable people during COVID-19 crisis.pdf

Pray, but stay away: holding on to faith in the time of coronavirus

Published / by Greg Elsdon

Pray, but stay away: holding on to faith in the time of coronavirus

by Rev Dr Robyn J. Whitaker

Plagues of global proportions might seem biblical, but coronavirus is creating new challenges for faith leaders. Last week in Australia, many churches, mosques and synagogues decided proactively to cancel their normal worship services. These were not easy decisions for groups for whom being a gathered community is central to their identity and practice.

On the weekend, the federal government announced new, stringent measures as part of a “stage 1” lockdown, which means faith communities can no longer gather to worship. In Victoria, funerals and weddings are also banned.

Australia’s largest Uniting Church, Newlife, was one of the first in Australia to move services online following the prime minister’s call to cancel gatherings over 500. Their lead minister, Stu Cameron, addressed the congregation online and called this “the most loving thing to do”. As a church used to multimedia worship, they are well equipped to move online.

Traditional churches such as St John’s Anglican Church in Toorak face different challenges. They have cancelled Sunday services but are keeping the historic church and garden open as long as possible for personal prayer and reflection. Their priest, Peter French, is more concerned about how they will continue to care for the dead and grieving as St John’s often sees over 1,000 people during the week for funeral services.

Weddings can be postponed, but funerals are another matter. French said:

We’re working closely with our local funeral directors and are deeply conscious of the need for love and compassion for the grieving even if we can’t physically gather together in the traditional way. Funeral services for the foreseeable will look very different.

Italy has banned funerals of any kind. Bodies are being buried or cremated with only a priest or celebrant present. This leaves grieving loved ones in limbo, waiting until they can hold a proper funeral service.

The PM’s announcement on Sunday evening now makes clear that Australian church and religious organisations are also prohibited from holding funeral services. Sitting shiva in the traditional way or gathering in other rituals to mourn the dead will not be possible for the foreseeable future.

Not all faith communities are responding in the same way. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a long-held tension between science and faith for conservative faith communities. Conservative Christian churches such as Margaret Court’s Life Church have said the “blood of Jesus” will protect their communities.

Such claims are rooted in a prosperity theology that naively claims God will protect and bless the faithful (usually financially), coupled with a simultaneous distrust of science. This distrust is because scientific theories, such as evolution, are mutually exclusive to a literal reading of the creation stories in the Bible, particularly Genesis, and are therefore seen as a threat or in conflict with faith.

At the other end of the ecclesial spectrum, the Greek Orthodox Church has thus far continued to serve communion, claiming that one cannot contract an illness from Holy Communion, because bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. Scientists might disagree.

Worst of all are those seeking to benefit from the fear that such a pandemic evokes. Televangelist and Trump adviser Paula White at first dismissed the seriousness of coronavirus and is now opportunistically asking for cash donations for a hospital for the “soul sick”. Citing Psalm 91, a psalm that speaks of God’s protection in a time of difficulty, she asks people for donations of $91 as “seed funding” for God’s blessing. Others are promising healing through the television. Preying on people’s fears in this way is contrary to Christian tradition and theology.

Christians were famous in antiquity for staying to care for the sick and dying during significant plagues. After all, to risk one’s life for the sake of another is a very Jesus-like thing to do.

Christians are, of course, not alone in these brave acts of service. This kind of self-sacrificial service is central to many of the world’s religions.

But the dynamics of the current pandemic are different. Staying close to others might threaten their life more than one’s own. It poses a new kind of problem: how do you “love your neighbour” when you aren’t supposed to be near them?

The challenge for all communities is how to foster community and support one another while keeping physical distance. Many faith communities are live-streaming services or sharing pre-recorded sermons. Others are encouraging small groups to meet in homes or meeting in real time via software such as Zoom.

Pastoral care is more complicated. Some faith communities have set up a pastoral care roster of weekly phone calls to check on both the physical and spiritual needs of members. Others are delivering care packages and meals to the doorsteps of elderly members or have a buddy system, asking members to commit to checking in with one another every couple of days or youth to help older folk with technology.

At the heart of any religion is community: people gathering together to worship, pray, caring for one another, and eating together. There is therefore something antithetical about asking members of faith communities to show their love by keeping away from one another. It is a difficult and counter-cultural thing for many to do. Yet, it is what most faith leaders in Australia are asking of their communities as they trust the advice of scientists and experts that this is the best way to show care for the most vulnerable in our community.

In this time of great anxiety, leaders of all faiths have both an opportunity and responsibility to step up with words of comfort and compassion, drawing on the depths of their sacred traditions and texts.

The lasting effect of coronavirus on faith communities remains to be seen. Will people flock back to their synagogues when finally allowed, joyful at being able to be together again? Or will habits be broken and connections lost as people discover other ways to pray and nourish their spiritual lives outside of Sunday church?

Perhaps the creativity these new circumstances demand will lead to a wider range of faith expressions and fundamentally change the nature of faith communities in the 21st century.

Whatever the future looks like, creative and new forms of care and worship are emerging. It is hard to imagine these won’t leave a lasting legacy on faith communities.

Rev Dr Robyn J. Whitaker is Senior Lecturer in New Testament, Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity.

This article was originally posted on March 23, 2020 12.10pm AEDT at:

World Day of Prayer 2020

Published / by Sandy

The following is a talk presented by Rev Sandy Boyce, for World Day of Prayer, March 6th, 2020, at Noarlunga Uniting Church

I wish to add my acknowledgement of the Kaurna people, the traditional custodians on whose land this church was built and to continue to work alongside Aboriginal people for reconciliation and justice.

Thank you for having me speak at this World Day of Prayer service, prepared by a group of women in Zimbabwe. My memories of a visit to Zimbabwe in 2001 recall the faces of people that expressed love, compassion and kindness – and joy. I was in Zimbabwe to visit some of our Uniting Church Volunteers in Mission who were in placement with our partner church, the Methodist Church of Zimbabwe. Three were from SA. Rae, a social worker, who spent time as a volunteer with the AIDS Ministry team. Lisa and Murray, who spent their time at Matthew Rusike Children’s Home, established in 1950 to care for orphans and vulnerable children. Murray had an agricultural background, and along with the Lisa, helped with the productive garden and animal husbandry and the children with their school work. Another Australian volunteer was also at Matthew Rusike Children’s Home. Together we all went to a local wedding that the volunteers had been invited to – literally on a village street, with fantastic choreographed dancing featuring the bride and groom and their wedding party. At the reception, the guests sat outdoors at tables and chairs lined up along the dusty street. We were seated as guests of honour next to a PA system for the loud music. It was also used to announce all the gifts people had brought. This was not the time to have brought a Cheap as Chips present when we would have been shamed for all to hear over the PA system!

And behind these great experiences lay the shadows of grinding poverty, of runaway inflation, of stores with empty shelves, in a country where good agricultural land and gold mining might have led to a different outcome.

It was heartbreaking, and confronting to be a visitor who had ‘passport privilege’ and financial means and opportunity to leave at any time, unlike the people whose saw no signs of hope or change on the horizon. The enthusiastic joy we saw at the wedding was what people could do with the little they had.

Zimbabwe’s political and economic crises have resulted in high poverty rates, with 72% of the country’s population now lives in chronic poverty. In the space of a year, the number of people in extreme poverty in Zimbabwe rose by a million in 2019, to 34% of the people living on less than $1.90 a day. A recent UN study says poverty has reached unprecedented levels in Zimbabwe, with more than 70% of Zimbabwean children in rural areas living in abject poverty. An El Nino-influenced drought and Cyclone Idai has reduced agricultural production over several seasons, worsening the situation across many rural areas. The economic contraction has caused a sharp rise in prices of food and basic commodities and one tenth of rural households currently indicated they are going without food for a whole day. There is less than 100,000 tonnes of grain in reserve, after a poor harvest; Zimbabwe consumes 80,000 tonnes of maize every month. The World Food Programme says it needs a further $300m to meet hunger needs in the country. The unemployment rate has been estimated at 90%.

All of this has caused additional issues for the most vulnerable in Zimbabwe:
Human trafficking: Zimbabwe is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and sexual exploitation.
Child protection vulnerabilities including child marriage, where 32% of girls in Zimbabwe are married before the age of 18.
Gender-based violence (including sexual exploitation and abuse) – where 35% of women aged 15-49 years have experienced intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime
Disability discrimination: people with a disability have lower education and employment opportunities, are often unable to access health services, and are at greater risk of sexual exploitation and abuse

Despite these challenges, the Zimbabwean people are generous and resilient. They remain optimistic and are working to improve their nation. The Uniting Church partner church, the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe (MCZ) and its relief and development agency, the Methodist Development and Relief Agency (MeDRA), play a vital role in serving their communities and advocating for the people in national politics. UNICEF has called on the government of Zimbabwe to recognise child poverty as a national policy priority and protect children from its most devastating effects throughout its reform agenda

The Bethesda story (John 5:1-9a) reminds us of the way that social and economic and even religious systems meant to assist the needy often keep them in poverty. People often need to doubt and challenge the system, and to look for help outside of the ‘system’.

John’s Gospel tells us about a time when Jesus went to Jerusalem for a religious holiday. The setting was the Sheep Gate where there was a pool. In Hebrew it was called Bethesda. It had five porticoes, which were filled with many invalids – the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. (John 5:2–3). Jesus bypasses all the centres of power of Jerusalem with religious leaders and the temple, and goes to a place where no-one has power, with conditions of absolute poverty. This hospital-like place around the pool would have been dank and smelly, and filled with people lying around, waiting for a miracle, hoping for wholeness and new life.The people lay in wait for an angel of the Lord to stir up the water; and it was believed that whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had. Before the days of medical science, people relied on conjuring up divine intervention. Those who were desperate and destitute, who had run out of options, and hope, gravitated to a place or to people who they thought could help. Bethesda was such a place. Would Jesus have heard the voices of many people crying out, or had they succumbed to hopelessness and simply learned to be silent in the face of despair. Jesus met a man who had been been sick for 38 years. The Greek word that describes him as a paralytic literally means, “dried out”. Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well?” Well, clearly that would be a good outcome, but perhaps the man had given up even seeking that solution. He had become dispirited, defeated, and dried out in his body and mind and soul.

Instead of waiting with the man and helping him into the water so he could be healed, Jesus asks him to get up, pick up his mat, and walk. The story says that at once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. (John 5:8–9) And he walked away from those still waiting for their miracle.

The Bethesda account has an interesting political implication (1). The paralytic and the other invalids at Bethesda had been taught that “the system is the solution”, and so they were prepared to wait. The man in the story had waited for 38 years. The system, represented by the fickle Bethesda Pool, was a solution only for some, while the others had to wait their turn for as long as it took. By telling the paralytic to get up, pick up his mat and walk, Jesus taught him to bypass the system and to challenge it. To recognise that ‘reality’ in which people must learn to survive is a product of the system, and that there is life outside ‘the system’. As we make connections to our own world, the Bethesda story reminds us of the fact that social and economic systems meant to assist the needy often keep them in poverty. Those who live in poverty will need to doubt and challenge the system, and to look for help outside of it.

Income and wealth disparities have increased in the last decades, in Zimbabwe and in so many other countries, and in Australia where we have super rich and increasing numbers of very poor people. The structures that accentuate such inequality have been strengthened. The ‘have a go, get a go’ philosophy and trickle down economics are myths, as is the idea that if only one worked long and hard, one would overcome adversity because economic mobility is for everyone. Petrol in Zimbabwe is now the most expensive in the world so bus fares have shot up to $7 where it used to cost $1, so those going to work cannot afford the new prices. So there’s no income in the family.

I went to a particular church in Harare at the invitation of one of the Volunteers in Mission who had been going there with friends, but was concerned at what we would call prosperity theology. God blesses you and you get rich. Wealth is a sign of blessing. No, wealth is a sign that some people have benefitted from the system at the expense of other people.

The reasons for the continued high poverty in Zimbabwe include where people live. A recent World Bank report, Spatial Patterns of Settlement, Internal Migration and Welfare Inequality in Zimbabwe, suggests that entrenched poverty is a result of what are called deep rural spatial poverty traps. In 2017, extreme poverty was 13 times higher in rural than urban areas. During colonial times, communal areas were designated as locations where African farmers could live and farm; the most productive land was designated for white commercial farmers. A sizeable proportion of the rural population live in these communal lands that are densely populated and far away from the main road network. They are poorly connected to markets. These areas suffer from the highest poverty rates and the proportion of the extreme poor living in communal lands increased in 2017 from 2/3 in 2012 to 3/4 – and continues to escalate.

‘The system’ is controlled by power and privilege, and not for the benefit of the poor. Looking outside the system, at grassroots movements for change, and new start up companies, here’s a great example of what can be done.

The power outages in Zimbabwe are extensive, and many women deliver babies by candlelight and torches and the light of a mobile phone. Sophisticated equipment relies on electricity, compromising maternal and infant care. The United Nations Population Fund describes Zimbabwe’s maternal death rate as “unacceptably high”. Power generators are out of the question because of the cost of fuel, with a 300% inflation rate last year. In 2019, the state-owned Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) introduced 18-hour load shedding after reducing electricity generation due to low water levels in Lake Kariba, its main source of power. That means the power is out most of the day and comes on overnight when people are sleeping. Well, not anymore – people have adjusted their routines to get up and do the household chores overnight when the people is on.

We Care Solar, a California-based NGO, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are working with the government to install solar power systems in clinics and hospitals nationwide. We Care Solar provide compact rugged solar electric systems called solar suitcases which provide bright lights and foetal heart monitoring. More than 4,000 health centres in Africa and Asia have been equipped with this technology. Since 2016, We Care Solar has supported 136 maternal health facilities with reliable lighting and electricity in Zimbabwe and aim to install the solar system at a total of 1,000 clinics, as part of the Light Every Birth campaign.

More grassroots movements for change and start up companies and NGOs may provide the change that is required, rather than waiting for systems – financial and political – to make the change for the benefit and well-being of all people.

‘Rise up, pick up your mat and walk’ invites us all to think about ways that empowerment comes to people in our time and place, and for people in Zimbabwe, so that all may flourish. May it be so.

Today, your understanding, prayerful and practical support and solidarity, will be welcomed by the men, women and children in Zimbabwe. Thank you.

(1) Fritz Wendt, Addressing Poverty when the System Fails

Pardon me for getting “religious” about climate change

Published / by Greg Elsdon

by Professor Michael Clarke

As an ecologist who has had the privilege of studying Australia’s unique fauna for 38 years, it has been deeply disturbing to witness the carnage wrought by this season’s bushfires on our people, land and wildlife. Adding insult to injury, scientists are now being criticised by Tony Abbott for getting “religious” by arguing that there are, in fact, links between global emissions, record-breaking drought in parts of the continent, megafires and climate change. Then, never one to be outdone, Donald Trump in Davos chastised scientists for being “perennial prophets of doom” — who should, instead, put their faith in technology to solve the big problems.

The broad consensus among climate scientists tells me that we humans have poured out so many pollutants into the atmosphere that we are now on the verge of altering the planet’s climate irreversibly. This climate crisis is leading to the potential extinction of hundreds of species and the suffering of millions of people. So, for a former Prime Minister, who professes a faith, to dismiss the science because it has “almost a religious aspect to it” disturbs me both as a scientist and as a Christian.

The most recent estimates by ecologists indicate that 70 nationally threatened species have had at least 50 percent of their habitat burnt by the current megafires — including the Long-footed Potoroo, the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, and the Kangaroo Island Glossy Black Cockatoo. In Victoria alone, 12 species of frogs, 27 fish or freshwater crayfish, 11 birds, 22 mammals and 12 reptiles are of immediate conservation concern. One hundred and sixty-eight species of plants in Victoria have had at least 50 percent of their habitat burnt.

But these species have not suddenly become threatened just because of the current fires. We are seeing the cumulative effect of slow, steady, incremental habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation. This is death by a thousand cuts, with the megafires delivering the final lethal blow to species already on their knees.

The current bushfires may be unprecedented, but no one should be claiming they were unexpected. Climate and fire scientists have been warning us for years that the catastrophes we are now enduring would become more frequent due to climate change. So irrespective of whether or not an American president means to demean these scientists by calling them “prophets of doom” — they were right, which is a pretty fair test of a prophet in my book.

As a scientist, I find it ironic that some leaders reject the warnings of vast numbers of scientists about the dangers of inaction on climate change, while at the same time admonishing us to put our faith in technological fixes (developed by other scientists). The latter is naïvely optimistic; the former is simply irresponsible.

Frustratingly, it is also a distraction from the main challenge we face — which is moral, rather than scientific.

I genuinely hope scientists will contribute massively to helping the world address the climate crisis, but if history teaches us anything, it is that science and technology are not deployed in a moral vacuum. Everyday, we all make choices about the kinds of technologies we do or don’t employ, and those choices have consequences for the planet. Scientists can inform us about the likely consequences of that deployment, but what we do with that information comes down to our values and the values of those who lead us.

As a Christian, I deeply regret that many of us who claim to be followers of Christ have not taken seriously enough our responsibility to care for this precious planet, its people or its wildlife. There are at least three core principles of my faith that I can’t reconcile with any complacency towards the threats posed by climate change.

First, depriving future generations of the beauty and privileges we have enjoyed violates a basic commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” My generation’s negligence amounts to theft from future generations. Such flagrant disregard for the needs of our children and grandchildren simply can’t be concealed behind some misplaced optimism that God will bail us out at the end of the Age.

Second, a core tenet of my faith (and others) is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It may be true that Australia acting alone to reduce emissions would not have prevented the current — or future — bushfires. However, as one of the world’s most affluent nations, we have an opportunity and an obligation to lead and set an example for others (“From those to whom much has been given, much will be demanded”). If we can’t take serious action on climate change, who can? Our nation’s creative accounting practices in claiming historical carbon credits, coupled with excuses that our emissions are comparatively trivial by global standards and invoking the “drug dealers defence” to justify our coal exports (“If we don’t sell coal to China, somebody else will”), is to me, morally bankrupt — especially while also accepting extraordinarily generous donations from the governments and citizens of developing nations like Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea to aid our bushfire recovery.

Aid agencies such as Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children, who support the most vulnerable people on the planet, recognise that inadequate action on climate change is also a justice issue here and now — not just an economic inconvenience or technological challenge. These agencies deal daily with the suffering of environmental refugees, whose homelands can no longer support them, and they are calling on governments to be bolder in reducing emissions.

Third, and finally, I think we have a responsibility to be wise stewards of the extraordinary gift the Creator has entrusted to us. Our nation’s behaviour often reminds me of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son who squandered his father’s inheritance. My hope is that, like the prodigal, we will come to our senses and acknowledge our reckless ingratitude and the trashing of our precious inheritance. I hope we will seek the Creator’s forgiveness for our callous disregard for the suffering of those with whom we share the planet, and be part of the solution.

Originally posted 3rd February 2020:

Michael Clarke is Professor of Zoology at the Research Centre for Future Landscapes, in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University. In 2007, Professor Clarke was awarded the D.L. Serventy Medal by the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union for his outstanding contribution to the scientific literature in ornithology. In 2010, he was an expert witness in fire ecology at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. In 2014 his research on fire ecology with Professor Andrew Bennett was one of three finalists for a Eureka Prize in Environmental Research. He served as the Head of the School of Life Sciences at LaTrobe University from 2011-2019. He is a fellow of ISCAST — Christians in Science and Technology.