Contribution by Rev Richard Geering – Chaplin with Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN)
Walking into Martin Place on that Wednesday was different, the day after the Sydney siege ended in 3 deaths. I live in Sydney. I am familiar with Martin Place. But today, this is not usual. A large crowd began a floral tribute yesterday. A single bunch of flowers laid at Martin Place station becoming an amazing floral tribute caused by something deep in the heart of my city. I am here to be God’s presence to people.
Walk in my shoes with me. I am a disaster recovery chaplain. The Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN) has been activated by the NSW government, and I am here to help people grieve and mourn at the loss of two people at the Sydney siege. The day before the siege a friend died from cancer. We would later read of other events around the world. Such terrible things as Christmas approaches, the time to remember Jesus coming as God walking with us in our messy, painful hurting world.
I walk past Angel Place from Wynyard Station, the first scent is the smell, of the flowers. “Sydney is fighting back [against terrorism] with flowers” was commented to me during the week. The size of the flower bed is enormous already. A week later it will take several large trucks and a large number of volunteers to remove the flowers.
Walking in my shoes will often mean being silent. Psalm 19 reminds me that God is always speaking, just not with words. DRCN chaplains will be placed in camera shots during this time, maybe a sign of reassurance that God is present for a shaken city. Signs matter, words matter, symbols are everywhere. The quietness, the stillness, the silence of this normally busy pedestrian thoroughfare highlights its sacredness today. The NSW Government and the City of Sydney wants to give people time and space, there is no hurry. This floral tribute against evil in our midst is unprecedented.
Walking in my shoes is also uncomfortable as I watched the tension of the siege on TV. I won’t be laying flowers, but friends of mine will, and one friend’s tribute, two coffee cups with roses, will make National TV. Another friend, a school teacher, will lay her wedding bouquet. This has stirred up people. And some look to the Church for solace, others look in other places. Police still have a visible presence on the site on this Wednesday. I will be walking in places others don’t, it is intense work.
Police Chaplains were present during the siege; they sat with the families during the siege. They were with the two families who lost loved ones. The first DRCN team was on the ground Tuesday afternoon. I am part of the next shift. DRCN will have more teams during the rest of the week. This is one of the largest and longest placements the DRCN have an official group to show the love of God at the sites of a major tragedy. The group is ecumenical and inter faith; I am there for my city of Sydney. We are here to listen, not to talk, not to tell people how, and just be with people in their grief.
Meeting the small group of chaplains reminds me that the workers are few, but My God is already at work in the heart of my city. People are lining up for flowers, there are five flower sellers, and they will sell out by the end of today.
I will be with another chaplain at the Lindt Cafe at the top of Martin place; other DRCN chaplains will be at this main flower site. Walking in my shoes is uncomfortable; the feeling of unease is everywhere. It will be a long day. It will be a day of tears, flowers, of sharing with people who come.
As I move up to the post I will hold for most of the day, I hear The Sydney Threshold Choir who recently sung at an aged care facility I work at as pastoral care worker. I feel as if God is welcoming me into His presence, into His work of reconciliation. I will see people, hear people talk of wanting “good will among all the people in this city”. This amazing choir welcomes me, it helps settle my nervous shoes.
Moving about the site, quietly walking slightly away from the fence where flowers are being placed, my shoes are walking on holy ground. I have walked this pavement near Elizabeth Street many times, but this time is vastly different. It is a sacred place, been made sacred by death. The fence marks the edge of the Police investigation. There is a religious quiet. Reverently people place their flowers. A few take photos of their tribute. Others are angry at intrusive cameras lurking with intent not far away.
But here this police fence, protecting a crime scene so that evidence can be gathered, is a wire fence with black plastic: my God can use anything to create sacred places. The fence will move so that more flowers can be laid later in the week as though the sacred takes back its ground.
I see the Lindt Café staff from another store lay their tribute. I feel my words would be insufficient, unnecessary, intrusive, and even disruptive. I stand back. Later another friend would remind me that ministry is about opportunities and going with the Spirit’s calling: sometimes forward, sometimes back.
Something amazing is happening before my eyes. During 2014, the Church was found wanting, as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse heard of people who have been let down by the Church. But today, I will find people who thank the Church for being present, for not being pushy, for standing back and allowing people their space and time. This is a ministry of presence, of stillness, of few words.
Some lay flowers, another uses chalk, sacredness moves to the street pavers. Onlookers step back into the busy Elizabeth Street bus lane. Soon Police and City of Sydney Rangers will ensure that no one is hurt, but the space can remain. I noticed later in the week that people will try not to tread on the chalk on the pavement. This will wash away in a storm later, but for now the divine has touched earth. My shoes walk around the marked ground with everyone else.
“Is this over the top? Is this all too much? It was just two people after all, the news from Pakistan is clear that a school has been attacked and many children have died”. My uncomfortable shoes shuffle. The answer to the person’s question seems to come with the arrival of a group of Muslim women. They arrive at Martin Place station with a wreath they made. They feel safer with a chaplain standing with them. A Red Cross volunteer tells me to stay close as they are frightened. They wait for more of their group to come. They are frightened because of fear reprisal attacks. #illridewithyou for me means much more as I wait with this group of Muslim women; hold their heavy wreath at times, step back from group photos.
My shoes walk with purpose. This is about healing the city. This memorial is about reshaping the way the city’s heart works. This is about bringing together the people who make up this international city. It is about the Christmas message is a different way. “This floral tribute is a sign that this city stands together no matter what happens: We won’t be defeated” another friend observes.
In the first Christmas story there is the often neglected massacre of the innocents, Jesus escapes to Egypt, but other baby boys are killed. The question comes why did God seem to abandon these baby boys? Why did God seem to allow this siege in my city to happen? Why? Other people have been reminded why they came to Sydney: and now the hate killings have caught up to them. This incident has stirred people.
I saw my answers standing with people who had come to share their loss, to share the hurt caused by the injustice of hate killing. A sea of tributes laid by an ocean of grief. God walking into a troubled world, God willing to bear the pain of injustice, God choosing to be with my city in its grief: it is the only time in 43 years I have been asked “where is the church where people are praying?”
And so through the day I move. After 10 hours the team agrees we cannot go on, we are exhausted. People still come at the end of their work day, God is present with them. 10,000 people came that Wednesday to Martin Place. My shoes are going home, physically tired. Mentally maybe. Spiritually I spent a day being God representative. I was working in a place that others made sacred, my work was to be a quiet presence in the background there if needed. People thanked me for God’s presence.
Do you still want to walk in my shoes? My next shift would be a few days later.