About 3.30pm last Friday, a gas explosion tore through the Pike River coal mine on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Nothing’s been heard from any of the 29 men trapped underground by that blast, and officials say volatile toxic gases mean it’s still too dangerous for rescue teams to enter the mine.
The Waiting: how do vicars on the West Coast help local people make their way through their own Garden of Gethsemane?
Marge Tefft, the Vicar of Holy Trinity Greymouth, is asking herself those questions, and she and her husband, Archdeacon Robin Kingston, have been talking to their congregation about that.
“We’ve been encouraging our people this weekend,” says Marge, “to seek God for guidance as to what to say – and what not to say, to do – and what not to do.
“Because every person we meet is different. Some want to hug – and some just want a nod of acknowledgment about what they’re going through.
“Others want to sit and just cry and cry and be held.”
Others, she says, don’t want to talk – but they do crave a quiet place, a change of routine, a chance to be in a different and good space.
“Some of those who have been coming in to the church just want to do their own thing. Light a candle. Pray. Sit quietly. Cry. They don’t want to talk.
“They’re locals, and they’ve got their own networks of family and friends.
“They just want… they’re grateful for that space.”
Marge and Robin – who was Vicar at Holy Trinity for almost 20 years – and who helped the Coast through the Cave Creek tragedy, have found themselves at the epicentre of a media storm.
“We’re just getting slammed,” says Marge. “Since Friday evening, we’ve probably done about 20 interviews.”
Mostly, those requests come from New Zealand media, hungry for new insights, new angles on the Pike River drama. But Australian radio, TV and newspapers want to hear from Marge and Robin too, and Robin has also been interviewed by the BBC’s Radio 4.
“We’ve allowed the media in to the church for the services,” says Marge.
“But a journalist asked me today: ‘Is anybody praying in there now?’ I said ‘No. But even if there was, I’d ask you to wait outside.
“This has to be a sacred place.
“’When people come out, and they want to speak to you, that’s fine.
“But inside is a sanctuary – and providing that seems to be really important.”
For both Marge and Robin, it’s a case of treading a fine line between keeping hope alive – and preparing for the worst.
Robin dwelt on those things in the sermon he preached at a special service at Holy Trinity on Saturday evening:
“We are praying for a miracle, but we’re aware that it might not be,” he told the congregation.
“This community can handle immense tragedy. We want to pray for the rescue of the trapped 29 miners.
“Every part of our being wants that to happen – but as we notice the situation with gases… we become ever more nervous, because this community understands mining rather well. It's very difficult to camouflage what we see, ” he said.
“I want to begin to look at what might happen – and if the worst was to come, how we as a community and we as a church are going to cope.”
In the midst of such anguish, who would dare to fathom the purposes of God?
And yet in small and mysterious ways, as Marge looks in the rear vision mirror, she sees evidence of God at work.
For instance: Marge has her service roster set up so she knows, three months in advance, who’s responsible for various tasks on any given Sunday. Like leading the intercessions, for example.
“Then this happens. I look at who’s down to do the intercessions for the 10am service last Sunday service… and it’s this couple who always have these incredible prayers, and who are so sensitive to what is happening in the moment. And those prayers – which were used on the special Saturday evening service – were just so potent.”
Same with the music. The person who was down to lead the music last Sunday is learning the ropes, and had asked to be excused before the explosion.
So Marge was already geared up to do that herself.
“We had our practice on Thursday, Friday this happens, so of course on Saturday I’m changing all the music. And because it was me, I could do that.
“We were able to find the right songs, ones that were appropriate, songs that honoured God, and still declared Him as worthy of praise, and yet also sought for Him to help us in this time of darkness.
“I just thought: ‘Lord – You’re working, even when we don’t know it.’”