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They Are Us: Lessons from Christchurch

April 9, 2019 by

The eyes of the world turned to Christchurch, New Zealand, in the aftermath of the deadly mosque shootings on March 15 that claimed fifty lives and injured as many others. All of us struggled to comprehend how such an act of hatred could be perpetrated in a country best known for sheep, rugby, and Middle Earth. Yet as the days following the tragedy unfolded, the reason we couldn’t look away changed, as we felt inspired and uplifted by New Zealanders using this moment of national grief to unite together as one community.

Memorial walk for Christchurch New Zealand shooting victimsChristchurch’s high school students organized community memorial services. “They Are Us” and “We Stand Together” were common themes.

To show support for our New Zealand neighbors, our Danthonia Bruderhof community here in New South Wales, Australia, sent three representatives to Christchurch less than a week after the shootings. On their return, I caught up with two of them, James and Karen Dunn, to get their firsthand impressions.

You travelled to Christchurch at a very raw time. What was the mood there?

James: The outpouring of solidarity, love, and compassion was so strong that our entire visit became an experience of true humanity – there was a complete lack of divisions, of groups. A kind of palpable unity overrode lines of religion and race. It was a demonstration of true diversity, of appreciating and respecting every human being, of people assuming the best and giving the best with zero animosity. We, who were total strangers, were welcomed like family.

Can you give any examples?

Memorial in Christchurch New Zealand

James: They were everywhere we looked – from non-Muslim women who followed the lead of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and wore scarves to cover their hair in solidarity with Muslims; to high school students arranging and leading memorial services; to the thousands of bouquets, handwritten messages, and candles laid on the sidewalks outside the mosques.

At one memorial service, attended by over twenty thousand people, we heard from an imam who had survived the shooting. He said that day he had “looked into the eyes of hatred and rage, but now I look out and see love and compassion.”

Karen: Later that evening we attended a dinner sponsored and hosted by volunteers from across Christchurch. It was especially for members of the Islamic community, many of whom were hosting family members arriving from overseas for funerals. At that dinner, three thousand people were served with love and care by people from different cultures and beliefs, people they had never met before.

Did New Zealanders regard you as onlookers?

Karen: Not at all. We lost track of how many times we were thanked for coming. We were welcomed into some of the places that carried the greatest pain. For example, we were allowed to go into one of the mosques where the massacre happened, and to a hospital to visit survivors. There, I met and embraced a mother who has a son the same age as one of my own. Her boy had been killed in the mosque, but there was no anger coming from her. I could only wonder if my response would have been the same had it been my son who was murdered.

Young woman from the Bruderhof speaking with a Muslim woman in Christchurch, New ZealandKim Ann Koppschall, who spent a year in Bethlehem and speaks some Arabic, with the mother of one of the shooting victims.

We went to New Zealand feeling helpless, and wondering if we would actually be able to comfort people, but the way we were welcomed into the collective silence and collective singing made it clear that everyone was there for something greater than themselves. Everyone wanted to respond to the pain of others, and in some small way to lessen it.

What are the day-to-day lessons you’re taking out of this experience?

James: A question I’ve pondered a lot since returning from Christchurch is, What needs to change to prevent this kind of hate-driven thing from happening again? I think the vision we heard articulated by one young man at a memorial sums it up pretty well. He urged those listening to work toward three goals: to create long-term solidarity with people who, on the surface, do not seem to be like you; to open our lives and homes on an ongoing basis; and to make a lifelong commitment to show love to everyone.

Christchurch’s Muslim community led the way in responding to the tragedy with love and forgiveness. We told everyone that we, as followers of Jesus, who longs to draw all people to himself, will be returning home to rededicate our lives to this vision of true sister- and brotherhood.

Follow Norann on Twitter at @NorannV.


About the author

Norann Voll portrait

Norann Voll

Norann Voll lived in New York’s Hudson Valley until moving to the Danthonia Bruderhof in New South Wales, Australia in 2002...

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