Army chaplains offer a ‘ministry of presence’ amid trauma
Three Sydney priests have swapped clericals for camouflage to join the 3000 Australian Defence Force reservists providing support to firefighters and communities in the grip of the bushfire crisis.
Fr Kene Onwukwe, assistant priest of Sacred Heart, Mosman, and Fr Andrew Feng, parish administrator of St Christopher’s, Holsworthy, are chaplains with the army reserve currently working full time alongside soldiers supporting exhausted firefighters in the bushfire relief efforts.
Both joined the Reserves as part time chaplains in February 2018 and since 7 January have formed part of the historic deployment. Along with Fr Francis Ghanem ofm, parish priest of the St Joseph Edgecliff and St Francis of Assisi Paddington, they signed up for a full time deployment this month to help firefighters and communities battling the fires and their immediate aftermath.
They’ve been pitching in help mend fences, clear roads and set up camp sites but most of all their role is providing a “ministry of presence” says Fr Kene.
Fr Kene spoke to The Catholic Weekly from Kiah, near Bega in southeast NSW, which had lost its Catholic church to the horror fires on 4 January, and had also travelled with his military unit 5 ER (5th Engineer Regiment) to the towns of Cobargo, Wonboyn and Bega providing pastoral support to the Rural Fire Service, soldiers and military officers and their families as well as the local communities.
“We lead a daily prayer service, talk to them, pray with them and for them and visit families who have been affected by these bushfires,” he said.
Fr Kene also shares in the daily routine of his unit which currently includes sleeping in a public high school gym by night and pitching in to clear roads, mend fences or whatever else needs doing to help the fire-ravaged communities access the damage and make the first steps to recovery.
Outpouring of gratitude
“However mine is primarily a ministry of presence, to provide encouragement and support,” Fr Kene said. “What has stood out for me is the amount of appreciation for us from the local community members, those who have been most affected,” he said.
“We are not out here to stop the fires, the RFS is doing a great job at that, but we support them in any way we can, often in little ways, and people are enormously appreciative of our support.”
A few encounters stand out, including with a man whose family’s home had been razed to the ground. After visiting and praying with them Fr Kene gave the father his bible, and the man suddenly broke down.
“He was a man of faith and he told me he that all of his many bibles had been burnt and now the only bible he had was the military one I gave him,” Fr Kene said. “That touched me.”
Fr Andrew is part of the 1st Close Health Battalion, a military medical unit which has been working in Bateman’s Bay, Eden and Cooma supporting struggling local clinics and hospitals.
Before this latest deployment he also provided pastoral support for the army after Christmas in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains areas.
He said his first time living full-time in the field amid intense heat and smoke and at night, sleeping in freezing cold tents, had its challenges but that the most heart-warming aspect was the welcome the army receive wherever they go.
“Morale can become very low in these communities and the firefighters need support as well,” Fr Andrew said.
“People say to us, ‘We thought we were forgotten but now you are here’.”
He is also impressed by the “suffering and sacrifice” of the soldiers he is assisting. “I respect them now more than ever and am honoured to be able to serve the people who serve our nation,” he said.
Sister Benedetta Bennett rsj who welcomed Fr Andrew to Our Lady Star of the Sea church at Eden, the picturesque town on the state’s Sapphire Coast which was disfigured when the NSW/Vic border fire raced through in the first weekend of January, said that the locals are “very resilient and good at looking after each other”.
Sr Benedetta had been evacuated at the time along with many others, and now enjoying a respite in Sydney, says she was impressed by how people made sure their neighbours and other locals were able to flee to safety.