Three years on | The Salvation Army

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Three years on

Major Barbara Sampson reflects on the difficult transition for those that lived through the Canterbury earthquakes.
Christchurch's carboard cathedral
Posted September 25, 2013

It’s springtime in Christchurch—glorious, fragrant, heady. The blossom along Hagley Avenue is just breaking out, daffodils in the dell are blooming and newborn lambs frolick in the sunshine.

Articles in local newspapers or in the most recent ‘Recovery Update’ describe in expansive phrases the greening of the city, inner-city rejuvenation, crucial goals being met, cost-sharing agreements being set up between government and Christchurch City Council, certainty for the future being secured in a compact and accessible city. Colourful sketches and artists’ impressions reveal plans for the new bus interchange, retail and performing arts precincts, a metro sports facility, and a central-city playground named Margaret Mahy Amazing Place. A price tag of five billion dollars doesn’t sound too much when you say it quickly.

A few weeks ago, a Joyfully Unmunted Festival celebrated the progress of the inner-city rebuild, particularly focusing on the new transitional cathedral—more commonly called ‘the Cardboard Cathedral’. The architectural beauty and acoustic potential of Christchurch’s newest great space is drawing praise from both tourists and locals alike.

The word ‘resilience’ continues to be sprinkled through reports and articles as the region moves from demolition to rebuild. A recent Saturday paper listed Christchurch as Number 11 of the world’s friendliest cities. It all sounds great.

Someone quoted in the ‘Recovery Update’ said, ‘I would like to think that when they grow up my kids will go, “Wow, that was crazy—crazy like a bag of cats, that they demolished half a city and built a park around it—but we’re so glad they did.” That’s what I hope.’

Such expansive words and phoenix-like images of a city rising from the ashes of an earthquake give the impression that all is gloriously well in this great southern place. It seems like a bright new normal, fresh and spring-like is exploding before our very eyes with colour and creativity pouring back into the city, making Christchurch an even more welcoming and beautiful space than before.

We celebrate these positive images, but there is also another side, a human face, to this story that needs to be told.

My sister was looking after her four-year old grandson Noah one day recently, when he suddenly looked up from where he was playing and said, ‘The quakes destroyed a lot of buildings and changed everything for ever.’

Three years on from that terrifying early morning moment on 4 September 2010 that indeed changed everything for ever, people are still struggling with ongoing losses and overwhelming distress.

The losses of these past three years have been largely losses of community, of control and of confidence. They have gone on for far too long and have had the effect of leaving many people with a deep, deep weariness of body, mind and spirit.

There is anger and frustration at unresolved insurance matters, unexplained delays in EQC payouts, difficulties over resource consents for repair or rebuild, exorbitant rental costs, upset over the treatment of heritage buildings, distress over family homes and houses built for retirement having to be demolished, unmanageable power bills in damaged houses, too much traffic congestion on too many bad roads, young people opting out of life, more teenage pregnancies, greater use of K2 and other synthetic cannabis products, too much delay, too much displacement and disruption. Too much despair.

I heard a psychotherapist who works in private practice in Christchurch describe how the experience of the earthquakes and their endless aftershocks took her back to a trauma she had experienced as a two-and-a-half-year-old. Her mother almost died giving birth to this woman’s baby brother. As a small child absorbing the distress of her mother, she made a kind of inner vow that she would always care for people and not let them get upset. But the distress caused by the earthquake experience was so overwhelming in the clients she dealt with that her child’s vow tested her beyond what she could contain or control, and she herself caved in. She spoke of how the earthquake experience ‘split’ her open.

Something profound resonated within me as I heard this woman speak. The earthquake took me, too, back to a place of trauma, a place of abandonment that I felt at the age of 15 when my father died. At every significant aftershock I would cry out, until one day my husband told me I sounded like a little girl crying for her daddy. I told him that was exactly what I was doing—crying out for my dad who had abandoned me by dying far too early, and for my Father God who seemed to have gone AWOL as well. Abandoned once, now twice.

God used the slow passage of time and the beautiful commands in the early verses of Psalm 37 to help me pray again and to find a new place of rest. ‘Do not fret … trust … delight … commit … be still.’

God also enabled me to give names to two forces within me that rose up and banged against the inside of my chest at every significant aftershock: Sorrow and Dread. I found a name for Sorrow, a beautiful feminine name that somehow helped her to lie down and be still. I haven’t yet found any other name for Dread and he still lies close to the surface. When the recent seismic activity started up near Seddon, there was Dread banging his fists inside me again.

I am not alone in this long journey towards recovery. Three years on, people of every age, stage and wage are tired—tired of the struggle and its complex aftermath. We are living now in a time when almost everything we have known and been familiar and comfortable with has changed. Loss of complacency may be the one positive loss caused by the earthquakes.

We give thanks for the huge progress on rebuilding to date, and hold fast to the hope represented by new possibilities in the greening and rejuvenation of the city and its surrounds. But at the same time we need to continue to walk gently and compassionately with ourselves and all those affected physically, mentally and psychologically by the devastating earthquakes and their aftermath. Please don’t forget us. Please don’t stop praying for us.


It doesn’t pay to be loose around the edges
at a time like this
to be frivolous or slack
don’t frighten anyone with a sudden sneeze
no leaping out of a birthday cake

You need to focus, concentrate
hold your mind in a straight path
don’t deviate into arrogance or smugness
don’t think you’ve got it all sorted
or imagine you can ride this rocky road
on your own
there are forces greater than you at work here
power beyond your meagre capacity to understand

You need to twine your heart
like a piece of number 8 wire
around something solid and grounded
that will hold you calm on the roughest of days
and the bumpiest of nights

Be thankful
look at all you have become
even in the midst of all you have lost
Be attentive
listen to the Voice speaking
like stirrings of wind through the trees

Be present in the here and now
appreciate the texture
the sound, the taste and touch
of each precious and holy moment

Be still
rest in the One whose love you know

Barbara Sampson