I arranged a necessary face-to-face meeting with some colleagues from Paeroa at the Pukekohe MacDonald’s, the end of the Southern Motorway, at the top of the Bombay Hills. I planned to do this Friday January 27, the Friday before the Anniversary Weekend. As the meeting was to be at 1pm I thought traffic would be no problem. I was so wrong! On one section, a distance of 4 kilometres took 65minutes. Crawling along and sometimes stopping, I ruefully reflected that this was a scenario shared with me by many friends from overseas. They told of jams like this being a regular part of their commutes. I realized I was experiencing the daily grind of millions.
It set me thinking about New Zealand. It has a similar land mass to Britain but with a population of 4.5 million. I was driving on one of our major motorways which at that point, provided only 2 lanes of traffic each way and I was stalled. So much space, so few people but how come we were all jammed together?
Nonetheless, people from around the world are viewing New Zealand as a utopia (heaven). They are doing this in even greater numbers since the election of Donald Trump. According to Immigration New Zealand, in November 2016 when the US presidential election was held, 17,584 US citizens registered their interest to study, work or invest in this country, compared with 1,272 in November 2015. And some are already here. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal) has become a citizen. “Forget bunkers in the forest full of food tins and bottled water - it seems New Zealand, has become the best option for a new breed of American survivalist.” (Ben Collins – Wellington journalist).
Travel guides categorise New Zealand as ‘beautiful and safe’. When we began living in NZ we thought we had stepped back in time. For three months in 1987 we lived on Kennedy Rd., Napier. This is a beautiful road with its avenue of giant palms, along which old ladies rode bicycles with wicker baskets on the front. I believed this was the perfect, idealised English village I had often read about.
The image was shattered by the disappearance of the 6 year old, Teresa Cormack on June 20th, 1987. A few days later it was clear she had been raped and murdered. It all took place within 2 kilometres from where we were living. This prompted our support team to tell us to be sure to lock the doors and secure the windows every night. They shared with us accounts of violence, burglary and mayhem that changed forever our view that Napier was a tranquil haven of peace. Later in our ministry we were to encounter suicides amongst rural young adults. One of my colleagues said in his view New Zealand was the land of ‘the long black cloud’ – a cloud of depression.
There are two other things that have tempered my view of this gorgeous country.
Refugees – along with most other clergy I wish we would be more generous in the quota we take into our country. We accept refugees in on a percentage basis, 1.5 per 1000 of population - half the rate of Australia and beneath the rate of many third world countries. And I am a little uneasy about our food exports. In Australia with its endless acres, I would occasionally see the claim that our produce was feeding a hungry world. I’ve seen NZ referred to as the ‘Saudi Arabia of milk’. But, when I am in Asia I see our products on the high priced, specialty food shelves. Poor people don’t get to eat our produce. That’s the reality of our life and the cornerstone of our prosperity, so I should shut up and be thankful.
However, there is one area in which New Zealand is already a world leader. With our small English-speaking population, with an educated and tech-savvy workforce, a low incidence of corruption and all within clearly defined borders, we are used by many companies, (Google, banking, insurance, start-ups) as a test-bed for new products. We are, in fact a laboratory for new products and new concepts for the entire world. Now that’s exciting!
We are trying to use our Church and Centre as a laboratory for the bringing together of people of different races, cultures and religions. We are trying to be a test bed for new ways of relating across what are normally, barriers. As with any test bed, there are failures and false starts. I used to think this would be easy. Far from it. It is not just encouraging the Kiwis to accept the newcomers, I now realise the new-comers don’t necessarily accept the other newcomers, not even if they speak the same language. They import into NZ prejudices, hatreds from their home territories. How do we break these down? There is only one answer I know and that is the Christian gospel. I don’t mean preaching it, but living it, demonstrating it, allowing the spirit of Jesus to permeate our entire environment.
I have ahead of me a huge test-bed operation. In July, our Centre together with the Paeroa Carehouse, we will host our third, ‘Talk To Me Conference’. This will gather into our Church and Centre seventy or so young people and young adults, many different races, religions and cultures. We will work to create an atmosphere of welcome, respect, and dreaming. There will be no proselytizing. I have been asked what this has to do with the mission of the church. To my mind ‘everything’. I don’t think Jesus intended to create another segment, tribe or ‘ism’. Jesus came to bring all people together. The ruling religious hierarchy resisted this idea with all their might. It cost him his life. But, his spirit still calls us to commit to this task.
PS: Below is the aim of our 2017 ‘Talk To Me Conference.’ I am inspired every time I read it. But what does not inspire me is the fact that I have to raise $15,000. I think about this in my bed in the middle of the night but in the morning I have forgotten my solutions.
‘TALK to ME Conference 2017’ The aim is:
Bringing together young people and young adults from different countries, cultures, religions and races. A gathering to form friendships, establish trust for creative thinking to develop leadership skills for a culturally diverse world in a high-tech universe. To do this through discussion, brainstorming, play, art and music. A space to develop personally in confidence and leadership. Participants will come from across NZ and beyond. This is the third TALK to ME Conference. We are on a journey towards hope and understanding.