Sunday 20 April 2008

On Being in the Right Place at the Right Time...

(Written Saturday afternoon, April 19, 2008 - Wellington, New Zealand - Not for general publication; anyone wishing to quote from this piece in any way, shape or form must first obtain my permission!)

A tragedy engulfed New Zealand this week, as all eyes and hearts have turned to the traumatized and grief-stricken students and staff of the Elim Christian College after a canyoning disaster. (In the States Elim would be called a private faith-based high school.) The news continues unabated as the first of the funerals and memorial services for six of their students students and one teacher begin, and four separate investigations of the incident unfold with new details and stories on the front page of the newspaper and at the top of the news hour every day.

It is a good time to collect my own thoughts -- to write another chapter in my growing collection of unlikely personal adventures --because it is a very dreary, rainy day (again) in Wellington, the capital city of this wonderful country. I have actually enjoyed this place during the last two days, especially after some fairly intense and unique experiences of my own directly connected to the news I cited. I will take this opportunity now to reflect on what I got pulled into -- another example of what happens sometimes when God has plans for you to fulfill, even though one's intentions during a sabbatical are, naturally, to "get away from it all!"

The New Zealand media has made the outdoor education instructor Jodie Sullivan's name public as of yesterday -- not something I am actually happy to see yet. But I am realistic to know that it was only a matter of time until that happened, as I personally observed the "paparazzi" hounding the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Center and it's staff relentlessly while at their Centre on Tuesday/Wednesday.

Since that announcement occurred yesterday, and she has thus, unfortunately, now become a very public figure in all this, I feel it is incumbent to assure anyone among the pastoral and professional chaplain communities in New Zealand or otherwise, who might be wondering if such was deployed, that quality pastoral and crisis care giving has indeed been made available to her and to the rest of the OPC staff, at least during the initial involvement of that region's Victim Response team.

That's because, as unlikely as it may seem, I happened to be "in the neighborhood" and was invited to be a part of that team! I was called upon to provide some timely and professional crisis intervention and pastoral care directly among certain OPC staff and particularly for this OPC instructor who was leading this group of students and teacher at the time this very distressing tragedy occurred. What follows are the details - my own account of how this all unfolded - if you want to take time to read it.

First for some background: I imagine this incident might have made the world news, even in the States. -- it sure has been a focus of daily front page national news in New Zealand this week - but in case you haven't heard about this yet here are a few articles you can reference, as background, as well as those in the index to the right side of the page where these articles appear.

-This is an article about Jodie Sullivan, the "bubbly" instructor at Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Center now distraught over the seven deaths of the students/teacher from Elim Christian College in her group during this canyoning disaster. (They published a photo of her taken from her Face Book page.)

-This griping story is about Tony McClean, the Elim teacher who died in the canyoning disaster, was a hero. He had tied the international student with cerebral palsey to his own back in an attempt to protect the student's life, otherwise due to his physical strength might likely have made it across the torrent. His father, John McClean, the pastor of the Eastview Baptist Church in Howick, New Zealand, shares his perspective in this article.

I had launched out by car mid-day Monday on my own, after the deluge/gale was already in full sway in the Auckland region. My hope was to get away from the bad weather as fast as possible, while hitting some "high points"along the way in the North Island. Little did I know my high point this week was something I could not have possibly anticipated, yet directly related to this weather. I was hoping to still have a little bit of time in the South Island before it's time to return to Rotorua on Monday evening next week -- where I plan to join up with my friend (whom I've come to know via our professional chaplain's list serv) Chaplain Ray Bloomfield, to take in some of the natural wonders around that region, and to get to know each other better.

Next Wednesday is when Carole Anne and I need to commence a series of flights home to Indiana - which means we'll need to be "up" for approximately 35 hours straight - to attend my son Jordan's college graduation next weekend. Then we will finish packing up or distributing all our earthly goods before the "big move" to Canberra. (By the way, this trip alone has provided me with an excellent orientation for driving alone on the left hand side of the road, with a car with the steering on the right side, with blinkers and wiper controls reversed - without a lot of extraneous commentary coming from the other side of the car! I am proud to report to my wife (and other concerned friends and relatives) that I have managed to keep my head on straight and have precipitated no major incidents -- although I did have a heart-pounding "encounter" with at least one other driver who WAS on the wrong side of the road coming straight at me, before they jerked over at the last minute!

I am on my own because Carole Anne announced to me last weekend that she was staying in ONE SPOT while I traveled on. She would stay at our rental apartment at Waiwera, a half-hour drive north of Auckland we managed to "discover" -- located on naturally heated hot tubs with mineral springs and hot baths originally discovered 600 years ago by the Mouri's along the Hibiscus Coast -- to rest and heal her legs after six weeks of travel. (She has had two knee replacement surgeries, last June and October.) She urged me to get out there and try to have fun anyway - so I took her literally, without any reservations, in every sense of that word!

NZ has endured very bad drought over the whole country for at least four months, but now the approaching fall/winter weather brought rain - lots of it, as of Sunday - and it hampered my enjoyment of the countryside. So I thought if its going to rain I could at least enjoy some absailing and blackwater rafting and the famous glow worms in the caves of Waitomo. But those plans almost completely derailed as well. For the first time in years they had to cancel all adventures except the walking tour to see the glow worms, and even that got shut down for the next group after the one I was in -- due to high volume of water coming into the caves! I saw flooding coming, and water over the local roads as our bus returned me to my car.

So, I hightailed it out of there Tuesday afternoon, driving southward on very hilly and curvy roads (keeping to the left hand side of the road, of course, and dealing with other cars in the awful downpour and darkness, later on) for several hours that evening/night -- oblivious to the tragedy that was unfolding during that same time near where I arrived at the Tongariro National Park area, breathing a great sigh of relief. On this arduous trip I almost stopped once or twice, wondering if I was crazy, but I took my time and bolstered by a VERY strong intuitive sense that I needed to "get there" yet on Tuesday evening.

My plan for the next day was to try to hike on the mountains in that area if the weather cleared the next day, and then move on as far south as I could get, to avoid the constant rain being forcasted through the end of the week. I checked into a hostel that night, at the National Park village and luckily, because it was off-season, I had the four-bed room to myself, getting some good rest. I guess the Lord knew I needed that to prepare for what was ahead.

God had other plans for how I was to spend my time the next couple days. I was indeed able to enjoy a few hours of clearer weather hiking some beautiful trails there on Wednesday morning, before the drizzle commenced again, but was startled and appalled by a huge tragedy that the national newspaper (The New Zealand Herald) portrayed on page one, which I happened to pick up at the Chateau in the Whakepapa Village in the Park, and instantly realized with the map it showed on page one that I was at that moment within a few kilometers from the very spot where this tragedy occurred the day/night before with the students caught in the canyon and seven lives lost.

"Jeepers" I said to myself, "this happened RIGHT HERE!" Its a region where some of the waters come from a "fan" of creeks coursing down one of the three major mountains in the area, and right into the Mangatepopo stream's canyon, which then acts like a funnel. All this extra water drained into that canyon at once (for about 45 minutes or so, right at 3:30 pm on Tuesday afternoon) something that happens during other storms, but no one could ever remember seeing the water flow increase that fast before.

As I read the account, my heart went out to these students and staff of Elim Christian College, as I too, along with everyone else hearing of this, tried to absorb the immensity of this tragedy. Then I began to reflect on the impact this must be having on the OPC's staff and particularly, the instructor leading that group. I got in my car and took off, engrossed in reflection, then realized that for the first time I was driving on the wrong side of the road! Jerking over, I was thankful no one was coming the other way.

As I was leaving the area with my car, seeking the quickest way to Route 1 to go south towards Wellington late Wednesday afternoon, just a few km down the road I happened to see the sign to the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Center. Without hardly even taking time to think about it, the car just seemed to turn right in on its own, so without hesitation I drove up that road (about 3K) saw where the main entrance to the OPC offices were, but something prompted me to drive all the way to the end of the road, not really having any idea where it would actually stop.

As I rounded the last bend where the ford crosses the Mangatepopo canyon stream I encountered two national TV crews with satellite dishes, trucks and lights and whatnot all set up to make a live broadcast on the 6 PM news -- at the VERY spot where the stream in that canyon crosses a ford below the dam. It was filled with huge boulders, thus I realized in that instant this was right where some of these deaths occurred.

I took some of my own photos of this now sacred spot with my camera before the darkness was complete, then went back up the road to the entrance of OPC main office, met the executive director's wife, and introduced myself to her and a board member of the OPC who were at that very moment listing to the evening news reports in the office.

I shared that I was a trained chaplain from the States with professional pastoral care experience, and specific training in Critical Incident Stress Management, and offered to be of assistance if they would find that to be valuable. It was getting late, and the regional community's Victim Assistance team was already getting set up, engaged in their own response, but they welcomed me to stay and took me right in, since they did not have a chaplain/pastor engaged or on the spot. I offered to stay an extra night in the area and they encouraged me to return to meet other staff the next morning.

Thursday morning I returned when the staff were all in a meeting deciding how each staff person was to spend the day, so I spent that time reading about 110 emails that had already flooded in from other client colleges, schools, other outdoor education centers, various friends of the OPC and the Prime Minister herself, pledging their support and prayers. These messages were posted on large bulletin boards in the lobby area. The widespread outpouring of concern and support was palpable.

I also conferred with one of the OPC instructors who is also on the leadership of the local Baptist church, who indicated that their pastor offered to come if the need was expressed, and was on standby in case someone asked for spiritual counsel, then or down the road. While that is reassuring, certainly, and likely necessary, it proves the well-known crisis response principle that it is one thing to offer such and quite another to have it present, right there because someone "shows up." (Up until then no one would share that they wanted a pastor to come, so he didn't.)

Later that morning and into the early afternoon I found myself very busy partnering with the professional social worker on the Victim Response team, Jackie, who had already been working directly with the OPC instructor and two others of her colleagues who had each led their own group of students from Elim in that canyon on that fateful day and responded directly and immediately to her urgent plea for help when she issued it on the radio. (The Victim Response Team divided into diads and Jackie and I met together with various staff form the OPC who came in voluntarily to process their experience.)

Then at one point, three instructors came over together as a group, wanting to meet. I realized right then that Jackie and I would be working directly with the instructor and her peers most affected and conflicted by these events. As Jackie took the lead, and I prayed for all silently but contributed to the process as appropriate, we both led them through a personal recollection of the events as they unfolded, and supported and affirmed each of the three as they processed the experience, with all its personal demands, fear and horror. There is no doubt in my own mind, hearing it all, that if Jodie herself had not made the quick, wise decisions she did in the midst of the crisis, doing the very best she could at the time, that all twelve lives in her group, including her own, would likely have been lost.

We worked through a lot of very powerful emotional and some spiritual/faith agenda, as well, that was connected to this experience. One of the goals in such a process is to facilitate some good initial cathartic "release" -- necessary for this young woman and the other staff to keep going during such an abnormal time -- and that happened. This instructor was able to hear and accept a deep level of affirmation offered her in the midst of having to deal with what I perceived to be (naturally so) a tremendous weight of lingering "survivor guilt." However, it is apparent to me, as is often the case, that this is but the beginning of much more trauma counseling that will be needed in the longer term for her/them. These OPC staff, and Jodie in particular, will now have to tell their stories over and over again in the midst of what the press is today reporting to be four separate investigations. What an ordeal she and the rest of the staff now have to go through. And it will take years. A "new normal" will have to be found.

Our discussion also dealt with a number of practical matters that day-- anticipating the pressure of the press and how to protect herself and allow herself to maintain some space. Jodie's parents came to join her, but they agreed with her that she should stay with her peers and go through this process. An outdoor education specialist from the South Island of NZ whom the staff knew, and who was experienced in trauma counseling, was on his way to join them for a while, as of Thursday evening.

We did however provide crucial initial emotional/spiritual support and good old crisis counseling. I was invited by the group of five to close the session with a prayer, and I chose to frame it as a blessing on each of them. Afterward, I was surprised by the level of appreciation expressed for my presence and my volunteer role there that day, including some from the key staff I had not directly consulted with. I also told Jodie - and I really meant it - that I looked forward to coming back some day to take advantage of some of the training that they offer, and would hope that she could be my own instructor!

It felt right and good to be able to personally support the lead social worker, Jackie, who happens to be of Maori descent herself and also is a person with a deep Christian faith (a member of a local Baptist church) who had been involved from near the beginning of the rescue operation, even as they recovered the bodies. I listened to her process her own experience of all this, as a caregiver but with her own needs and perspectives. I was aware that she was doing a great job of functioning in all this, throughout two intense days without much sleep. We worked well together. Jackie gave me her card and insisted that we keep in touch. I've made a new friend in a very sacred place.

Before I left the OPC I drove down to the ford across the stream where I had first arrived the day before. There I found three OPC staff, one of whom had worked heroically himself during the rescue operation, all deep in solemn reflection at that spot, as a bouquet of flowers one of them had formed and laid there on the rocks. I have a photo of it, trying to capture that sacred moment.

To sum up, I felt privileged and honored to be able to offer my own time, personal gifts and "presence" -- certainly initially as a stranger and a foreigner -- but brought near by God, to help bridge the gap, as a valued member of the volunteer care team. It is now apparent that I will never get to the South Island on this trip, but that can wait for another time. I believe I started some lasting relationships by taking the time to be involved in this way. It was enough to know that I was in the right place at the right time. No amount of money can ever buy that feeling - and it serves as another affirmation that at least for now I can be happy and at peace anywhere in the world pursuing the calling God has given me to fulfill.

Yes, there is no doubt that I am doing the right thing being "over here" in this part of the world instead of back "home" -- at least for now. I got word this week from the good folks in Canberra that Carole Anne and I will have the opportunity to house sit for a family for a few months until we can sort out our own housing situation - so we plan to move the first of June to Australia, on faith, even though my special business class 457 temporary work permit (which the hospital has appealed to Australian Immigration on my behalf) has not yet officially been approved to go forward, and might not for a while (a matter for ongoing prayer.)

Do continue to be in prayer for the Elim Christian College students, families and staff, but also specifically for the staff of the Outdoor Pursuits Center as they cope with very deep emotional wounds and grief, and the arduous time ahead during unabating attention and investigation. And thanks be to God for the approach of this editorial I read today in the New Zealand Herald - where the refusal to blame is lauded.

It makes me wonder...could we have handled it this well in the United States?

Grace and peace,
Chaplain Clair


Update on April 27 -- It has been an extremely difficult experience for Jodie Sullivan, and I continue to think about her and pray for her situation. She attended all seven funerals and feels that her future is "up in the air" as this article published yesterday explains.

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