The whole nation of New Zealand is climbing out from under the rubble emotionally as Romkje and I return to Europe. Among the relatively small population of around four million spread over a land the length of Italy, almost everybody has family or friends affected by the devastating earthquake which shook the nation’s second largest city last Tuesday.
Flags across the city of Auckland, 1000kms to the north of the quake zone, flew at half mast in solidarity with her twice-stricken sister city, as we drove to the airport.
The sight of the iconic Christchurch Cathedral with its crumbled tower and green copper spire prostrate across the square is heartbreaking for the city’s residents. Far more gut wrenching is the knowledge that under the rubble around the cathedral are the bodies of an unknown number of tourists who simply stepped inside to have a look at the wrong moment.
A year ago on our last visit to Christchurch, I had done the same, stepping inside to revisit the venue of a student mission I was involved with almost 40 years ago, with well-known English evangelist David Watson.
Last year we had also caught up with a number of friends, among them Don and Jocelyn Cowey who had pastored a fellowship in Holland in the ’80’s. Don was gathering raspberries in his garden on Tuesday when the quake came, and was instantly killed by a falling rock from nearby cliffs.
Our niece Louise, employed by Air New Zealand, happened to be sent to Christchurch that day and felt the frightening tremors at the airport. For the next few days, she found herself helping tourists and residents find flights to leave the city where water, power and sewage systems had been disrupted.
Quickly it became apparent that many foreigners were caught up in this drama–from the tourists forced to evacuate inner city hotels to Asian language students, some of whom texted their last messages to family members back home entombed in fallen masonry.
Extreme circumstances like this natural disaster focus life’s priorities like nothing else. Survivors telling their stories in the press repeatedly said they couldn’t care less about their houses; their immediate concern was for their family members.
In a country where sport is everything, it is not nothing to read the statement in the paper that ‘sport is unimportant’!
Christchurch is home to seven-times champion Super 15 rugby team, the Crusaders (I hope they change their name before some radical Islamist gets offended). Their match this last weekend was cancelled. The professional players got out on the streets with their fellow citizens, cleaning up the rubble and bringing wheel-barrows full of asphalt to fill some of the gaping holes left in the streets.
Fifteen thousand students who had converged on the city for the start of the academic year swarmed over the streets cleaning the rubble and debris. Even in Auckland, students set up stands to sell home-made cookies in support the recovery effort.
Gideon and Catherine Hoekendijk, pastors of a suburban church which meets in a school hall, told us over the phone that many of their friends and congregation had lost houses and businesses. Yet the ultimate realities of life had suddenly become very apparent, they said. An intense pastoral season lay ahead for them.
More than a dozen church buildings had been severely damaged, some of them historic landmarks. Six men had been delivering an organ in one when the roof caved in. Only four emerged from the rubble. An organist in another church was practising when the wall and stained glass window crumbled around her, leaving a large open gap to escape through.
This tragedy will probably prove to be New Zealand’s worst natural disaster with possibly some 300 casualties. The words of President Obama after the recent Tuscon shootings offer appropriate perspective: We recognise our own mortality and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth that what matters is not wealth or status or power, or fame–but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.
In Lamentations 3, Jeremiah stood among the ruins of his ‘cathedral’ and said: ‘But this I will remember, and therefore have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.’
Till next week,
Till next week,