Churches rebuild with hope

This review first appeared on page 15 of the February edition of Touchstone, the NZ Methodist magazine.

The evocative title speaks of hope. Melissa Parsons’ aim is to tell the stories of how people in Canterbury churches experienced the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The book is based on interviews with 56 people from 95 churches. The stories recognise that the earthquakes were devastating in their effects but there is no hint of preoccupation with trouble or self-pity. Melissa gathers the stories under three headings: The Church Responds; The Church Grieves; The Church Rebuilds.

Whether referring to the initial earthquake of 4 September 2010 or the more damaging earthquake of 22 February 2011, those involved felt a sense of helplessness in being caught up in events over which they had no control. New Zealand is officially well-prepared for civil emergency, but in a massive natural disaster official emergency services cannot cope without spontaneous and freely-offered help from other individuals and organisations. In this situation the churches were among those stepping in to help. Boundaries between church and state became of secondary importance in a huge cooperative venture.

The immediate response by churches included distributing essential supplies such as food and water. This was generally well organised and not limited to helping only church members. The churches were well-equipped to provide pastoral care for people bereaved and stressed by the loss of homes and neighbourhoods. This included care for people from the international community many of whom were students in Christchurch. Drop-in centres and a “ministry of coffee” filled an important role.  Pastoral care was also offered to tow truck drivers and contractors demolishing buildings who were under considerable stress.

Churches were grieving because of the loss of much-loved members and the loss of buildings that were either damaged beyond repair or rendered immediately unusable. The churches of Canterbury have all determined that their identity would not be undermined by the loss of their worship spaces and undamaged churches have extended hospitality to community groups that  lost their usual venues

For some, earthquakes raise questions about God’s nature. Melissa mentions a range of theological perspectives including that, in the midst of disaster, God is present in people who love and care.

The churches have contributed in various ways to rebuilding the spirit of the people of Canterbury. The book ends with a summary of some of the things churches believe that have learned through responding to earthquake, Ten Top Tips for Disaster Preparedness and Disaster Response and a call to prayer for those involved in rebuilding.

This book is undoubtedly worth reading. It tells an encouraging story and Melissa is to be commended for telling the stories and capturing historical detail that might otherwise never be recorded.  Appendices include a list of the 185 people killed, out-of-town churches that helped through prayer and practical support and community agencies that helped often beyond what could be expressed. The text is also available as an e-book. - Reviewer: Rev John Meredith