Community, personal relationships crucial in disaster

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Nov 1, 2012

Bishop Victoria Matthews leads a prayer following the September 2010 earthquake. Photo/Anglican Taonga

[Episcopal News Service – Auckland, New Zealand] The best thing people of faith immediately can do after natural disasters is to provide a sense of community and connect one-on-one with their neighbors, according to New Zealand Diocese of Christchurch Bishop Victoria Matthews.

Matthews leads Anglicans in and around the city of Christchurch on New Zealand’s south island. The city and its suburbs are still recovering from a series of earthquakes and aftershocks since a magnitude-7.1 quake struck on Sept. 4, 2010. A magnitude-4.9 temblor on Dec. 26, 2010 and a magnitude-6.3 earthquake followed that on Feb. 22, 2011. The latter quake killed some 185 people and crippled the diocese’s cathedral in the heart of the city.

The bishop spoke to Episcopal News Service after news was received about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy while she was attending a portion of the Anglican Consultative Council’s meeting here. In the months since the September 2010 quake, Matthews said, she has learned much about where the church ought to stand.

Initially, the bishop said, she told clergy “first of all, make sure your family is OK,” but then to go out and talk to people, and then encourage those they meet to do the same for their neighbors.

Her advice to diocesan clergy was “get out, wear your collar and ask people how they are,” she said.

Matthews added that experts told her that it was better not to try to get people engaged in long conversations about the disaster “because that re-traumatizes people,” but instead to simply let people know that someone cares enough to find them and ask how they are.

And that work needs to continue long past the first anxiety-filled days, Matthews said.

Even now, more than two years after the first quake in this traumatic series, the diocese is still running feeding programs in eastern suburbs, where land was hard hit by liquefaction during the quakes. The eastern suburbs also are generally poorer than other parts of Christchurch.

The diocese is offering the feeding programs, not because people are hungry for food, Matthews said, but “because community builds resilience.”

She has been studying the concept of resiliency and she has come to recognize that “the church is one of the points of resilience for every community.”

But, if community is at one point on the resiliency scale, personal relationships are another point on the scale, according to Matthews. People must turn to their neighbors, she said, and ask “do you have two or three people – or even one person – that you have a really strong personal relationship with.

“Because if you have someone you can turn to when it’s really hard – and it has been hard – you will get through,” Matthews said. “But if you are isolated and no one reaches out to you to say I will be here for you, you won’t make it. It’s as simple as that.”

And, because of that simplicity, diocesan churches have engaged in what the bishop called an old-fashioned practice: “they’ve knocked on doors.” Members have made four rounds in the eastern suburbs, she said.

“We knock on doors and if the door is open to us, we say we’re just here to check on you,” Matthews said, adding that the caller asks whether the resident has what he or she needs, whether they are getting out enough and “are you able to get to the store to get your groceries.”

“In some cases, if there’s a discussion of faith, we offer to pray with them, but this is not evangelism,” Matthews said. “This is the people of God connecting with God’s people to the glory of God.”

“It’s done a lot of good so we shouldn’t ever forget that one-on-one,” she concluded. “Communities are great but the one-on-one is as important as anything.”

Matthews also suggested in these days after Hurricane Sandy, it’s important to remember that “everyone is feeling … inadequate and of course you are because it’s a hurricane … we are all inadequate.”

The bishop knows first-hand the trauma of disaster. She was in a public building three blocks from the diocesan offices when the February 2011 quake hit and, with others, got under a table. They later realized that part of the building they were in had come down.

On the evening of Feb. 23, Matthews was at the tent city set up in Hagley Park, the largest open space in Christchurch. She said she watched and talked with people as hundreds inched forward, in the rain, towards shelter.

Matthews’ home sustained much more damage in that temblor than in the September 2010 quake, and for a while she was uncertain where she would sleep and was searching for places to charge her cell phone.

A top priority of hers at the time was to find a church, “preferably with running water,” that is safe, and which can become the nerve center for a diocesan relief and pastoral effort.

“I want to open that up 24/7 as a place where people can come and pray and receive pastoral care – and a place which clergy can use as a base to go out into the highways and byways to offer pastoral care,” she said then.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.