Editorial : The Day the Earth Shook

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 54, Spring 2010

It was frightening. Saturday, 4 September 2010 will be etched in the memory of all who live in Canterbury and surrounding areas. At 4.35am, the earth shook for what seemed an eternity, though officially was for less than a minute. In that moment lives changed forever. Sweet dreams became nightmares.

I stumbled out of bed and at the urgings of my house guest went and stood in a doorway until the house stopped shaking. I’m afraid my shaking didn’t. It took a cup of tea at 5.15am to bring me back to calmness. I know many people were traumatized. Weeks later, thousands remain fearful of what might be if the earth shifts again. Many remain without water, some without electricity. The entire central city district, where there are lots of older buildings, was literally shaken to its foundations. Many buildings have subsequently been condemned.

At Sunday liturgy in Lyttelton, we reflected on the quake in the light of the day’s readings. ‘Who can divine the Will of God?’ (Wis 9/13) and ‘what sort of tower do we build?’ (Lk 14) seemed to be particularly helpful scriptures to reflect on. The most obvious thing we all agreed upon immediately – that there are some things in life that we have no control over, whatsoever. Earthquakes are one.

It has been pretty scary stuff. Yet we don’t know the half of it. ‘Like the London blitz’, said someone who should know. We acknowledged with much sadness the destruction we saw. The damage was shrieking at us everywhere we turned – $4 billion worth. More than 100,000 homes damaged. Hundreds of businesses closed. We were meeting in a classroom because our 145- year-old historic St Joseph’s stone church had been damaged and rendered unsafe.

For most, their electricity and water were still off. Many had breakages of precious items in their homes, and had family who were in a state of high distress. Spilt raw sewage had become a problem, as had access to clean drinking water and severely damaged roading. The after-quake tremors have not left any of us feeling totally safe. We were acutely conscious that many streets around Christchurch had been cordoned off. There were already ‘no go’ areas. Access has been impossible. This included the entire area inside the four avenues which surround our city centre.

The next question was – what hand did God have in what happened? Was this God’s Will, a question posed by the reading from Wisdom? The unequivocal answer accepted by all was that it was not God’s Will. It was a catastrophe of nature, caused by the plates under the earth shifting. God would never will such destruction on us. What a spirit of Wisdom might call for was for us to make the most of what had happened and try and see a positive light to it, in the light of our faith.

We looked at how faith could help us make sense of something as destructive as we were facing. We initially looked at the question from its converse side – what meaning would it have if there was no God? We agreed that we would be left without hope to the random events of nature. Our helplessness would mean we had no one to turn to who could offer hope. That did not seem very appealing. But the quake did challenge some people’s faith and their understanding of God. For others, faith became more meaningful.

Then we counted our blessings. The most obvious blessing was that the quake didn’t happen 12 hours earlier or 12 hours later. Image, people said, the destruction if it had occurred at 4pm on Friday – just before work finished. Thousands would have been caught in offices in the city, not to mention shops in the suburbs, in schools, in buses, driving on suddenly unsafe roads. With buildings collapsing and roads being damaged in an instant, what chaos would have eventuated. Many surely would have died or been badly injured. All would have been traumatized to varying degrees. We thanked God in our prayer that this hadn’t happened. That in fact, despite the destruction, we had been blessed.

We looked then at the community spirit which by Sunday morning had already snapped into life. It was amazing. People told stories of food and water being shared, of generosity beyond the call of duty. Volunteers by then had already set up meeting places for those who were displaced. People invited those without power and water to come and use their facilities. Others simply opened their doors to anyone in need in their immediate vicinity. Much of it will go largely unreported, untold. It just happened.

We also talked about what a jolt this was to our consciousness of the plight of the displaced in Pakistan, Haiti and Chile, who had experienced flood and earthquakes much worse than anything we had. That insight seemed to help us place what had happened in a better context. We spoke of these people as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Suddenly they were real because we now knew about rubble, falling buildings, infrastructure smashed, businesses and homes destroyed. We knew about the helplessness that comes when nature inflicts such a massive blow.

Nurtured by the Word and our reflection, our little congregation shared communion and prayed for our town, our city and other communities who face this sort of devastation more often than us. We all left feeling encouraged by this gathering of the People of God and particularly by the wisdom and faith shared. It was Church functioning at its best.

Jim Consedine

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