For university student Hattie Steenholdt, being in Mallacoota during Australia’s Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 was a visceral experience of climate change, and it’s strengthened her conviction that Christians need to do more about it.
At the time, Hattie Steenholdt said it felt like being “in a dystopian novel”. As bushfires raged through Mallacoota in the early hours of 31 December 2019, she and her friends in Scripture Union’s Theos beach mission team were hunkered down in the cinema-turned-refuge centre with hundreds of other adults, children, babies and dogs. During the 14 hours they spent in that hot, tightly-packed space they could hear gas bottles exploding outside as the fire passed through.
Hattie says that while for the most part she was aware that she was as safe as she could be in the circumstances, there were moments of panic as well.
“It was really helpful being there with a group of Christians. We had a couple times when we were just praying, all of us together, which was really calming and reassuring,” she says.
After the fire had gone through, the group opted to stay in Mallacoota for a few days before being evacuated on a navy boat to Melbourne.
“We had to figure out how we could help serve, but not get in the way,” says Hattie. “We were really conscious of not being a burden on resources.”
They helped in various ways, including volunteering at the op shop, helping with the clean-up and distributing masks to people who needed them. On New Year’s Day, they put on a BBQ for the community and created a place where people could come and simply talk about what they’d experienced.
“We were giving people a space to decompress and process what had happened,” says Hattie. “We wanted to let people react how they needed to react.”
It was confronting at times. “At one point a girl came and sat down with us and she was holding a piece of wood which was what was left of her house.”
Like many people of her generation, Hattie was already very aware prior to the fires of the issue of climate change and its links with extreme weather events.
“But you become hyper-aware of it when you’re in the middle of an event,” she says. “It makes it real when you’re really in it. What was most impactful was after we were out and gone [from Mallacoota], seeing that for months and months it was continuing to happen around the country. It was taking so much land and animals and people’s places.”
She says that this emotional connection makes it all the more frustrating when she hears people claim that there’s no relationship between human-induced climate change and the bushfires.
“It feels more imminent now, post-fire. I think, ‘I had such a visceral experience of this and I wish you could feel like I do’”, she says.
She admits that for many people, taking action on climate “is hard, because we have to make sacrifices for it, give up things. It makes our lives less simple”.
But this is our calling as Christians, she says.
"We’re called to be stewards." – Hattie Steenholdt
“To make it biblical, we’re called to be stewards of the earth, and yet we live in a time and a society that puts the self first … so it is countercultural to go ‘Hey, this is something big that’s going on and we’re all playing a part in it’. And you can feel insignificant, but little things that you can do do make a difference.”
Since the fires, she has been more conscious of the choices she can make as a consumer, for example, buying fewer new clothes and – even on a uni student budget – trying to buy better quality, ethically made items.
For the beach mission team, the experience of the fires was formative. “I think it has shaped a lot of understandings of nature and how we connect and interact with it,” Hattie says.
She’d like to see the church doing more on the issue of climate change.
“It’s a Christian thing to be loving and caring for the environment around you and the people around you, and Christ’s love is sacrificial. And if we want to be more Christ-like sometimes we’ve got to give things up.
“Christians tend to forget sometimes that church isn’t always meant to be easy or nice. Sometimes sermons are meant to challenge you.”