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Christchurch: three years on

Salvation Army care van in central Christchurch
185 people died as a result of the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Christchurch on 22 February 2011. But this is a tragedy that also saw people rally to help and support one another.

In the aftermath of the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes, The Salvation Army’s response included the provision of 27,000 meals at welfare centres, 20,900 chemical toilets, three mobile shower units, 6500 care packages, 11,066 food parcels, 8631 vouchers and debit cards, and 253 respite holidays for stressed families. Twelve hundred Salvation Army personnel from New Zealand and Australia visited 100,000 affected households, providing material, social and spiritual support.

Last year, The Salvation Army’s work continued its focus on residents’ physical needs, but a lot of effort also went into supporting residents whose resilience was diminishing due to the ongoing frustrations and stress of damaged and unhealthy living situations, financial pressures and uncertain futures.

The region’s Community Ministries centres faced significantly higher demand than before the quakes, as rising costs of living and housing made life tenuous for many low-income families. The emotional toll on these families cannot be overstated, according to local Salvation Army social workers.

In response, Salvation Army community outreach teams continued to provide assistance to families in quake-affected areas. The teams worked to build community cohesion by establishing small neighbourhood support groups in areas where demolitions and migration of residents had brought social dislocation and isolation.

In a similar vein, the Army’s Schools Support Programme continued to provide practical, social and emotional support to 13 primary schools and their wider communities across Christchurch.

Another programme, DALTA (Deliberate Acts of Love to All), utilised volunteers to work on sections and properties of families struggling to cope after the quakes. Many of DALTA’s volunteers, who were previously unemployed, entered the work force or began vocational studies as a result of this programme.

With the rebuild gaining momentum, a Salvation Army initiative that uses its vocational training arm, Employment Plus, to train unemployed people for infrastructure reconstruction is also pace. ‘U Build 4 the Rebuild’ has run 12 courses so far, and has an average 86 per cent rate of participants being placed in full-time work.

The Salvation Army, together with other social service agencies and the Christchurch City Council, have also been working on an affordable housing project in Hornby. The development, comprising 44 units, will be completed in early 2015. It will initially house families and individuals forced to move from their homes and awaiting long-term accommodation, and will eventually provide affordable housing for the elderly. The Army is contributing $3 million to the $12 million project.

Major Ivan Bezzant is Divisional Commander for The Salvation Army’s work in the South Island. He grew up in Christchurch, but was living in Wellington when the quakes struck. Ivan remembers the overwhelming emotions he felt as he watched the terrible tragedy unfolding in Christchurch—especially after the deadly February 2011 quake. ‘I was very caught up in what was going on in Christchurch, because this is home for me,’ he says.

When he and wife Major Glenda Bezzant were appointed to Christchurch in January 2012, Ivan came home to a city he didn’t recognise. ‘I could not have imagined the devastation. The inner city was just gone. It was like a ghost town, with curtains still flapping at the windows of empty homes and hotels. I don’t think the media reports did justice to the plight of people out in the suburbs. You could never have imagined what it was like until you drove around and saw for yourself.’

It was devastating to watch so many of the city’s landmarks come down, he says, including AMI Stadium. Ivan used to live near the stadium, describing it as his ‘boyhood second home’. ‘There would be days when I would walk around and feel quite depressed, for no other reason than just being in a city that I’ve known so well—and it’s not the same anymore.’

As a counter to the hardships, Ivan has the highest praise for those who served the city through The Salvation Army. ‘I describe that service as “courageous”, because not only were they trying to help other people, but the Sallies in the town were also going through their own stuff.  ‘As an organisation, we flew people in for months to help with our disaster response, and every night we made sure they had a hot meal and a good bed to sleep in. But we had Sallies going home to gas cookers and to digging latrines in their back yards. Some of the things our people went through in those first months were just courageous—there’s no other word for it!’

Ivan says it’s been so easy to collect for The Salvation Army’s annual Red Shield fundraising appeal over the past two years in Christchurch as a result of the service given since the earthquakes. ‘That’s because Christchurch people know us. They see the Sallies out in their community. We were prepared to get out and meet people–it’s an inspiring story, really.’

However, the courageous service of Salvationists has taken a toll. Ivan remembers sitting in a staff meeting 12 months after ‘the big one’ of 22 February 2011 and seeing first-hand evidence of the trauma that people were still experiencing every day. ‘There were tears because it had been two days since we’d had a shake, and there was fear that because it had been two days, that there would be another big one coming,’ he recalls.

Some of the practical aftershocks facing the people of Christchurch are well known. Three years on, there are still outstanding insurance claims, for instance. But the emotional aftershocks are still resonating too. ‘There’s already a sense that this year there will be a lot of tiredness and even depression here,’ Ivan says. ‘People have lived on adrenalin for so long and now they’re exhausted. They’re tired of road works—it used to take 10 to 15 minutes to drive anywhere, and now it can take up to an hour. There’s still uncertainty.’

The earthquake did more than shake up bricks and mortar; it shook the foundations that people had built their lives on. ‘There’s a growing sense in this city that there’s more to life than just meeting our physical and psychological needs now,’ says Ivan. ‘Even the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Centre (CERA) is talking about the importance of meeting people’s spiritual needs. So you do sense that there is an opportunity for a move of the Holy Spirit in the community. The churches are positioning themselves for that—and the Army is amongst that. We’re seeing new people coming along to Christchurch City Corps and at other corps, too. There’s an exciting expectation for great things.’

Ivan is convinced there’s been an upward lift in people’s spiritual lives as a result of the quakes. ‘We promote the importance of “passionate spirituality” within The Salvation Army in New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga,’ he says. ‘Well, over the past two weeks, I’ve been at two different Sunday meetings and both officers talked about faith. We’ve been in our storm—we’re in our storm—but we respond with faith. And I really do believe that the level of faith has increased around the city.

‘We’re in a great time of opportunity. The Salvation Army is realising that these are incredibly challenging days, and yet they must be lived out in hope and with a sense of expectation of advancement. I look around the city and I see the evidence of this. Our corps are planning for advancement—for increase, for growth. The opportunities are there for us as a city and as an Army.’

By Jon Hoyle & Christina Tyson