The horrific massacre that shattered Christchurch on 15 March sent shockwaves through every corner of New Zealand. It caused unbearable grief for victims, their families and others in the vicinity, while those of us not directly affected were distraught that such cruel brutality could occur in our beautiful, peaceful country.
The most common refrain in the immediate aftermath of the shootings was “this is not who we are”. But the outpouring of grief reflected in countless sympathetic posts on social media, visits to mosques by many who had never visited before, huge attendances at vigils, and other public expressions of solidarity were very much a reflection of the caring Kiwi spirit that makes me so proud to be a New Zealander.
Coincidentally, I spoke that afternoon at a citizenship ceremony in Hamilton Gardens, at which approximately 130 local residents from more than 30 countries were presented with certificates confirming that they are now New Zealanders. I began by thanking them for the huge contribution they had already made to our city, especially in the fields of health services, education, hospitality and so on, and I noted – as I always have done at such events – how proud I am of the way our wonderful city (and nation) embraces and celebrates our multicultural diversity and respect for the rights and beliefs of others. To emerge from that ceremony to news of the shootings heightened our collective sense of shock and horror at what had occurred.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the courageous police, ambulance offices, paramedics and other first responders that afternoon, along with Christchurch Hospital’s medical teams who worked tirelessly in such stressful conditions, teachers who cared for children while schools were in lockdown, and so many others.
Hamilton’s vigil for Christchurch the following evening at Claudelands Park was a unifying and cathartic experience, and a lovely demonstration of public compassion.
Several thousand people of all ages, cultures and walks of life came together to express our grief and shared sense of loss, along with support and caring for the people of Christchurch, and Muslims hurting throughout New Zealand. While condemning the repugnant attacks, all the speakers (who were excellent) emphasised the need to reject violence, and reassert our commitment to kindness and inclusiveness.
There was a standing ovation for the president of the Waikato Muslim Association, Dr Asad Mohsin, who delivered one of the most heartfelt and gracious addresses I have ever heard.
Thanks to Hamilton’s Community Gospel Choir for their beautiful music, and to everyone who came along to show how keenly we felt for all who were suffering. It was a privilege to be there.
While watching TV news coverage shortly before I left to attend the vigil, I spotted my daughter among the crowd who had gathered for a vigil in Hyde Park, London. Seeing her with several hundred other young Kiwis gathered in wintry darkness on the other side of the world, with pain etched on their faces and eyes welling with tears for their country, affected me deeply.
Kia kaha and arohanui to the people of Christchurch, and to our Muslim brothers and sisters throughout New Zealand. Warm thanks to everyone who has supported them through these dark days.
Some have said New Zealand will never be the same again – but we can be if we are united and determined to apply important lessons from this event. Let us honour the memory of the victims by committing to embracing all members of our communities in friendship, kindness and mutual respect in the years ahead.
May they rest in peace, and may this tragedy never be repeated.