Lending a hand in Wilcannia
It was hearing that people in Wilcannia felt they were being left alone in their time of need that prompted Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green to get off the phone and figure out a way to offer whatever help he could.
The tiny outback community in the New South Wales far west had recorded a cluster of cases of COVID-19 and been put into lockdown.
Its majority Aboriginal population (known to be at higher risk of serious illness from the virus), sheer remoteness, crowded and often poor-quality housing plus limited healthcare resources made it especially vulnerable.
The bishop’s offer to local community leaders to provide pastoral and spiritual support and to authorities to offer his services as an experienced police chaplain were gratefully accepted.
So early September, the 53-year-old bishop woke up before dawn to make the seven-hour drive northwest from his Forbes chancery to the stricken town.
Dressed in a blue surgical gown over trackies, polo shirt and wearing his large silver episcopal cross, the bishop is not only there to support parishioners and families of St John the Apostle Catholic Church and St Therese’s Community Parish School, but everyone in Wilcannia as he volunteers alongside the police, defence force personnel, community elders and volunteers.
The locals couldn’t be happier to see him bringing groceries and sanitary supplies, with a willingness to stop for a “yarn” or play a tune on his beloved bagpipes by their front door or outside one of the Government-supplied caravans recently provided for people’s isolation in Victory Park.
Nola Whyman, a member of Maari Ma Health, Wilcannia’s local community health service and a Catholic herself, said that she was very glad to have the bishop there. “With the fear and uncertainty around COVID-19 coming here, there is a need for people to be able to refer to their faith and the comfort that gives,” she said.
“The bishop just makes himself available in whatever capacity he’s needed as a volunteer, and if you want to talk about faith you have that option, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be about that.
“He’s just a really nice guy as well and it’s just the humanity of him that really comes across.”
Throughout the crisis, Bishop Columba has been urging everyone to get tested and be vaccinated for their own sake and the common good.
“People here have an amazing spirit and the joy they have during these hard times is truly inspirational,” he said.
With much of the community COVID-positive and hundreds of people in strict isolation, daily deliveries of care packages of groceries and other essential supplies quickly became an urgent need.
It’s hot and physical work, and the bishop’s admiration is great for the many volunteers who work all day every day under enormous pressures with unfailing cheerfulness and utmost respect for all.
“As I go around a surprising number of people ask me for a prayer and some for a blessing, a few for Confession, and that’s the really comforting thing for me,” he said.
“Mental health is still a great concern here, but now there’s a lot of help and great cooperation so things have settled down and while there is still fear and many tears there is much more laughter and smiles.
“They are used to having it pretty tough here, but their sense of community is really good and they have the most amazing spirit and faith as well. They’re looking after each other and doing the best they can in a terrible situation.”
Above all, Bishop Columba sees his role in his diocese’s current trouble-spot as a “ministry of presence”, especially as there is no resident religious minister in Wilcannia. “It can be easy especially during a lockdown to feel that I can’t do anything, but we can always think of something we can do to help other people.
“This is what the Church does; this is how we evangelise.”