This morning I sat in front of 44 preschoolers, aged two-and-a-half to four years old, who had little grid on what happened in our country just two days ago. Our Sunday School lesson was on the fruit of the Spirit—goodness. I read them the light little story about how Suzy Strawberry made fun of Lucy Lemon because she was “tart”. Wendy Watermelon intervened, Suzy apologised, and they all decided to be good to each other, despite their differences in colour, size, and flavour.
The story didn’t feel so “light” for all the adults in the room.
I first heard about the tragedy in Christchurch as I was driving home on our Friday afternoon. I often tune out the news, but this time the Life FM broadcaster’s voice was different, this time it was unscheduled, and this time it was far closer to home than we’d ever thought possible.
Being American, I’ve grown up with seeing this sort of news. But also being Kiwi and living here for seven years, I’ve had this sense it would never happen here. New Zealand is a place renowned for its safety. And for many of the victims, it’s why they came here in the first place. It’s a safe haven, a place of refuge. But it wasn’t for the Muslim community in Christchurch on Friday afternoon.
Later that evening, I stumbled on an illustration by a Wellington-based artist, Ruby Alice Rose. It was a simple cartoon of two girls—of obvious different backgrounds—hugging, with small block letters below: This is your home and you should have been safe here. I was struck by the simple honesty of it. She wasn’t trying to gloss over things, she wasn’t saying “well, at least…”, she wasn’t brushing over the gravity of this tragedy in this time with these people. She was just plain honest.
Brené Brown writes that “empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling”. If you’re like me, you haven’t personally experienced something of this magnitude before. But if I’m brutally honest, I have my own questions. I have my own rage that things were not as they should have been on that day—just like the painful, heartbreaking days in my own life, some more recent than others.
My other option is that I could philosophically explain tragedy—I’ve done it before. But in explaining it without feeling it, or skipping to the end (where there are no tears) without grieving it, I would miss the opportunity to be honest with my own pain. I would miss the opportunity to give empathy. I would miss the opportunity to connect with humanity—and God.
After teaching the preschoolers in the first gathering, I went into the second “grown-ups” gathering. The worship team started playing our national anthem, literally our prayer for God to defend New Zealand. Tears sprang to my eyes in the first couple verses, but I could barely get the words out when we got to this:
Men of every creed and race,
Gather here before Thy face,
Asking Thee to bless this place,
God defend our free land
From dissension, envy, hate,
And corruption guard our state
Make our country good and great,
God defend New Zealand.
Tonight, I keep thinking of cartoon fruit characters and those 44 preschoolers who heard God cares deeply about everyone, with all our differences in “size, colour, and flavor”. They may only remember that I read a story while having a bright yellow minion cap on my head (I was Lucy Lemon, obviously). But this morning I got to see a tiny snapshot of what we pray for every time we sing our national anthem—our country, although grieving—still good and great.
Although one Sunday School lesson doesn’t make everything better, knowing we’re not alone in our pain does change everything.
It’s the only way we can move forward.