Mourn with Those who Mourn

When I was 12, my morning routine involved getting dressed upstairs before coming down to eat some snack or breakfast while my mom was occasionally watching the morning news or getting herself ready to drive me to school. One day during middle school, I had an orthodontist appointment before school that meant we would be leaving a little early and I’d miss the start of the school day, though overall still a mundane plan. My dad was boarding a plane at that time flying somewhere across America; that was another routine part of my life at that time. However, when I made it down the stairs, the news was showing a confusing image of smoke pouring out of a skyscraper in New York City.

That early in the morning on the west coast, we didn’t know how the rest of the day would unfold, so I still went to the orthodontist. I sat in the chair and listened to the news reports that had been switched on instead of the normal relaxing music. I wondered when I would see my dad who had been sitting on a tarmac when all flights were grounded.

The world changed on September 11, 2001, but life went on as normal in so many other ways.

As an American, I’m disturbingly numbed to reports of shootings because they happen so frequently in my country, but here in New Zealand there have been less than a handful of gun related incidents in the whole country since my arrival in September. Repeatedly, my Kiwi friends have boasted that they are far removed from the violence and danger of the rest of the world. When I saw the shooting report early Friday afternoon, I didn’t think much of it because those previous shootings had been such minor outlying occurrences. It wasn’t until one of my students in America messaged me concerned that I was okay that I realized it was a bigger deal that had reached international news status.

I knew some of the afternoon events had been cancelled at the church, but I let my student know I was safe and that I was still planning to go to youth group that night. About ten minutes later, I got the text message that youth group had been cancelled as well. I checked online for a news update and sent messages to my family and close friends that I was safe. Fortunately, I was able to let my mom know before she was aware of anything happening and even had time to worry. The first mosque is just under three miles from where I live, but I was home safe the whole time. I turned on the news to hear what the casualty reports were though it would still be several hours before any numbers were confirmed. I heard all the schools in the city were on lockdown, and I thought of the students I’d just seen at the local school when I taught a Bible lesson that morning. They would be huddled in their classrooms not knowing what was happening outside.

RCC had already been planning a sermon on the topic of grief, so Phil had little adjustment to do overall, but the church clearly had to address what has now become one of the worst terrorist attacks in New Zealand history with the death toll at 50 by the latest report and 2 people still in critical condition in the hospital and an additional 48 others with gunshot wounds. One of the elders commented how this was an attack on the soul of the country; people here don’t expect this violence to come to their shores.

We ended the service in prayer – for each other, for our Muslim brothers and sisters targeted by the attacks, and for the country who lost its innocence on Friday.

After the service, Liz suggested we go into the central city and have a coffee; it was an intentional act instead of letting fear win in this moment. We drove through the park where less than 48 hours before Muslim worshippers had congregated after fleeing the shooter; lots of local residents were gathered there to bring flowers and pray together and show support for the victims and grieving families, and I could see them through the trees near the portion of the street still blocked off by the police. We also drove past the main hospital where Liz had been at a meeting when the first people began to come for emergency help. There was a light drizzle coming down on all the media camped out across the street from the hospital waiting for new updates.

A coffee outing is normal to me, but the world changed after March 15, 2019.

The Apostle Paul encourages the Romans to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. Just a few verses later he also encourages readers not to be overcome with evil but to overcome evil with good. This is a time for mourning for Christchurch, and I’ve also seen in the past couple days the nation rise up and take ownership of the victims. “They are us,” Prime Minister Ardern said of those attacked on Friday, and she firmly rejected the hate that motivated it. Just like I remember the outpouring of love for the families directly effected by 9/11 in New York, I’m seeing the start of people stepping up to overcome evil with good in my host city.

Though I’ve only lived here six months, this community has completely adopted me and wholeheartedly welcomed me, just as I know many of the refugees and immigrants worshipping in the mosques on Friday had been welcomed to New Zealand. My heart breaks for the loss that happened here, and I ask that all of you who pray for me regularly would add my city to your prayers as well. Please pray for the immediate families of the victims in their grieving and those recovering from wounds; please pray for the nation’s hospital staffs and police workers as they have never faced this kind of tragedy before; please pray for the residents of Christchurch as they come to grips with what this means for their city.

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