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imagesby Paul Askin

The Canterbury earthquakes are old news for many I know. News bulletins have long since moved on. Some of the current headlines from around the world are stories of shocking suffering and tragedy, made all the worse because much of the pain is the result of human hatred and conflict, it didn’t have to happen. However for people living in the wider Christchurch area, the earthquakes are far from old news. For the great majority of us, the impact is still in our faces every day. Road works and detours, demolitions and construction activity, bare land instead of familiar landmarks, a desperate housing shortage and exorbitant rental prices, ongoing conflict around insurance claims rather than settlement, tiredness and jaded nerves, this is our daily reality.  The Canterbury District Health Board, the Mental Health Foundation, and other organisations have been active in survey and research work to give an accurate picture of how well we are doing. 800 interviews conducted across a statistically accurate cross section of the community in Feb/March this year produced the following key findings:

  1. More than two thirds (67%) reported that they are still grieving for what’s been lost in Christchurch
  2. 65% of Christchurch city residents reported feeling tired in 2014 – a 10% increase on 2012
  3. Less than one half (48%) of respondents reported regularly sleeping well
  4. Almost half (44%) of those surveyed say they’re still struggling to come to terms with all that has happened as a result of the earthquakes
  5. More respondents agreed that it felt like their life has been normal over the last 12 months (66%in 2014, 60% in 2012, so only a 6% increase over 2 years)
  6. Significant difference between those who had the insurance settled and those whose insurance is not yet settled
  7. About a third of those who were settled with insurance however were still stressed and frustrated with outcomes
  8. 33% of those interviewed don’t socialise as much
  9. 50% not keeping physically active since the earthquakes
  10. 25% not eating well
  11. Fewer people got pleasure from simple things
  12. 355 out of the 800, that’s 44%, had more health problems post earthquake

Here’s a perceptive comment from another recent report on the health and well being of Canterbury people:

Natural disasters like the Canterbury earthquakes have a major impact on people’s mental health. In fact, international literature suggests that psychosocial recovery after a disaster can take five to ten years.

A key reason for this is that there’s often a double blow – the shock and effects of the disaster itself, and then secondary, recovery-related issues such as dealing with broken homes, insurance claims, poor roading and the loss of community facilities.

These secondary issues – sometimes called ‘manmade stressors’ – can be worse than the disaster itself, particularly if the recovery is long, as they erode wellbeing over time.

A current campaign on billboards around the city asks are you “all right?” This campaign promotes the following five factors that are good for health and general wellbeing;

  • Connecting
  • Giving
  • Keep Learning
  • Be Active
  • Take Notice

However when looking at the ability of Christchurch people to be doing these helpful things, we find we are doing worse in each area than we were prior to the earthquakes. Mental health services, both Government and NGO, are under huge and unprecedented pressure, especially in the areas of child and youth services.  Mental health service providers report:

  1. 35% increase in new patients
  2. 40% increase in child/youth patients
  3. 400 patients per month needing mental health services.

Compared to pre-quake demand, this is a very high number. Also of real concern is that many of these people are new to Mental Health services having never been into care before.

All Right? manager Sue Turner says the results make sobering reading.

“While there is positive data,” she says, “it’s clear large numbers of Cantabrians are still finding life difficult due to the earthquakes and related stressors. Many are still struggling to come to terms with all that has happened, most of us are still grieving for what we’ve lost and fatigue is really starting to set in.”

Glenn Dodson, CEO of Stepping Stones Trust, (part of the Southwest Baptist group of community ministries and the largest NGO provider of mental health services in our region) reports that his organisation and others are seeing people who have coped so far, now presenting with significant addiction problems, mental health issues and relationship difficulties.

Wyatt Butcher, Mental Health chaplain at Hillmorton Hospital says the increase in patient numbers combined with the shortage of accommodation in the city means patients are unable to be discharged to safe housing. This in turn creates a log jam effect for inpatient mental health services and places extra stresses on those who provide care to the most vulnerable.

Wyatt suggests that with the increasing secularity and materialism that pervades New Zealand society that we have lost the Christian understanding of suffering and loss. We have come to believe the Fly Buys promise of getting the “rewards we deserve”. Consequently when things go horribly wrong we are ill equipped mentally and spiritually to cope.

Glenn quotes Dr Rob Gordon, Australian Consultant Psychologist for Red Cross in Emergency Recovery, who talks about three “normal” disorders. Looking at them, I’d have to say I’ve experienced all three at times, and my wife would probably say it’s rather more often than I’d care to admit. Here they are :

  1. Cognitive Disruption: loss of the ability to think, prioritise, plan or make decisions in an otherwise competent person.
  2. Emotional Overload: loss of the ability to regulate or manage the emotional response to trivial, frustrating or routine tedious problems.
  3. Action Impotence: loss of the ability to act or undertake simple tasks such as filling forms, asking for help or going to appointments or meetings.

It’s interesting to trace the origins of the “All Right?” project. The Greater Christchurch Psychosocial Committee mandated its development after the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, wrote a briefing paper on the likely psychosocial effects of the earthquakes and how to mitigate these.

He wrote: “A comprehensive and effective psychosocial recovery programme needs to support the majority of the population who need some psychosocial support within the community (such as basic listening, information and community-led interventions) to allow their innate psychological resilience and coping mechanisms to come to the fore.”

I think it is fair to say that a great many Christian believers in Canterbury have contributed an enormous amount of listening, compassion and community led interventions, encouraging the growth of resilience and coping mechanisms. This is a marvelous contribution worth celebrating, but, like many other community members, we believers are still dealing with our own reactions to the quakes and their aftermath. We are represented within the survey results and statistics I’ve quoted, we aren’t some favoured exception.

So what about the way ahead for us in this region, and what can our fellow believers in other parts of the country contribute to aid our progress forward?

Dr Rob Gordon has identified four types of support which reduce distress:

  1. Tangible support – money, transport, material aid
  2. Identity support – similar issues, community recognition, availability of friends
  3. Advice and information about issues, entitlement, resources and services
  4. Psychological support – help to think, decide, problem solve, recognise own states

For me personally and the church in Kaiapoi, our situation is that 960 homes are still in the process of being demolished and new subdivisions are growing. Over the last 4 years, visits by teams from Te Puke Baptist, phone calls which still come from Thames Baptist asking how they can pray for us, generous gifts from Crossroads church in Palmerston North, and many other expressions of encouragement and solidarity from around the country, have been invaluable supports to us. And many churches in wider Christchurch gladly tell similar stories.

In our region one of the key things Baptist churches have determined to do is to work together in unity through the power of the Spirit for mission at a whole new level. As we put wheels on this commitment, we will benefit more and more from the various forms of support we are able to offer one another, and to all the people in our spheres of influence.

There’s another factor which I believe is very important in our recovery, not just back to the state we were in before all this happened, but toward a better future than our past. One thing every community and society needs to be able to do is make some kind of sense out of tragedy and suffering. We believers place our ultimate hope and trust in God who loves us and cares for us. This truth frees and liberates us from our own cares and concerns, however great they are, enabling us to connect with God’s purposes and plans in the world. Back in Jeremiah’s time the believers were exiles in Babylon, a very foreign and hostile environment. Three agendas were at play:

  1. The Babylonian agenda was assimilation, entice the exiles to give up their old identity, become Babylonians, and enjoy sharing the fruits, power and success of the great city.
  2. The Jewish agenda was one of quiet and stubborn resistance, maintaining a tribal identity against the odds, living in one place but always longing and dreaming of another, using the city for what they needed, not contributing to it, all the while despising it.

We face the very same temptations; be assimilated into our dominant culture, or be tribes, faithful remnants, hanging on, looking forward to God’s judgement on a sinful world and our release to something far better.

Imagine the shock of the believers in Babylon when God gives them his agenda: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

I’m convinced that grappling with what it means for us to “seek the peace and prosperity of our city,” and then doing what we hear God say to us, can be a huge factor in our well being and recovery as we look ahead.

Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York says that, “while secularism tends to make people individualistic, and traditional religiosity tends to make people tribal, the gospel should destroy the natural selfishness of the human heart and lead Christians to sacrificial service that benefits the whole city.” He goes on to write, “Christians should seek to live in the city, not to use the city to grow great churches, but to use the church’s resources to seek a great, flourishing city.”

This kind of understanding has obvious and immediate ramifications. For example, I’m told that all the churches in Canterbury together will be spending more than $400 million dollars in the rebuild. That’s a huge amount of money and spending it could easily become a huge distraction from more important and foundational issues for church communities. Architects, building plans, permits, consents, potential design awards can become all consuming; taking away from the imperative of the Gospel message. There are lots of different ways in which this money could be spent. What does the Gospel say to us about how we spend our money, how we interface with our communities, who we spend our money on, and what kind of buildings we construct? And as I read it, the Gospel clearly says that there are things much more important than money. The Gospel is never at the mercy of money, payouts, budgets and buildings. “Silver and gold have I none,” was Peter’s honest comment, but it didn’t stop God working.

For us, I believe this is a time for fresh, innovative action, built on a thorough understanding of the Gospel and it’s implications for us now and in the years ahead. It’s our task to stir one another up to use the gifts God has given us. We must not waste our sorrows, but use them to catalyse ourselves into a new era of fruitfulness for the Gospel. Jesus talked about new wine in new wineskins, and that’s our need.

For those of our wider family of churches in other parts of the country, you can support and encourage us, both through expecting the best of us in our progress forward, and through your own God inspired examples of courage and creativity as you too respond to the leading of God in seeking the peace and prosperity of your communities and cities.