by Sr DOROTHEA WILKES, OCD
On Thursday, April 4, 2019, Sr Marietta, Sr Mareta and myself needed to go out to get passport photos at a place in Addington, as we have to keep them updated for identity purposes. All the passports were due to expire this year, and I decided to go with the sisters at the last minute, as it would save another trip out later. One sister had another appointment over Riccarton way at 5.20pm. Our good friend, Joy, picked the three of us up at 4.00pm. Whenever there is a need to leave our monastery enclosure, we go only for that reason and back home again. The following was indeed an unexpected “exceptional exception” to this, which we judged to be justified at the time, due to the gravity of recent events in Christchurch.
After we got our passport photos, we drove across to Riccarton via Hagley Park. Suddenly, we realised we were quite close to the fated mosque where horrendously, more than 40 people were killed and as many injured while they were at prayer. The gold dome came into view. All the news we had heard and seen crashed in on us as we looked at that dome very differently, indeed as never before. Joy asked us if we would like to drive past. As we got closer, we could see the flowers on the footpath outside, which we had seen in photos. An armed policeman standing guard came into view. Then a second further along. Joy then asked if we would like to get out and have a look. We did. By this time, we were at the gates to the short driveway and we could see people at the doorway of the mosque. The Muslim man who leads the prayers at the mosque saw us from the doorway and came down to greet us. We felt really drawn to go with his warm invitation to come in, hardly believing what was happening! There was a sense of something wonderful to be able to pay our respects and personally express our love and concern. What an extremely rare privilege for us to be there!! And not planned at all.
At the door, we were hailed by a welcoming group of people – Muslim men and women who warmly embraced us as we gave a quick explanation of who we were. We all gelled straight away. Courteously, we were asked to remove our shoes at the door, like Moses, which we did. They had a head scarf for Joy and for some other women there. Some of the men then asked us if we wanted a drink or anything? I asked for some water. This was promptly brought to us in seconds – bottles of water for us all.
It was such a loving atmosphere. We told them that we had very much wanted to write a sympathy letter, but couldn’t find their address! But here we were to do that – in person – on the way to an appointment! Only God could have possibly arranged all those little details for this to happen.
We were overcome to think we would soon be standing in the very place of such terror and bloodshed, which we had followed closely and prayed so much about. We also watched by link the moving Hagley Park Memorial Service with Prime Minister Jacinda Ahern and Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam (a thrill from my old days) – and thousands of people gathered to grieve together and support relatives and friends of the victims.
People crowded around us. It was peaceful and joyful. There were some lovely women too. We so enjoyed talking with them and vice versa. A young lady poignantly told us that her husband was killed and she was three months pregnant. Others spoke of accepting everything and talked of forgiveness etc.. Their quiet serenity spoke volumes. By this time we had entered the prayer room of the mosque.
It was a very moving moment. No words could describe what had happened there. The space was quite large and bare, but homely, and there was only a gray, but warm, lining on the floor before it would be re–carpeted properly. The podium was in place at the front for a speaker, behind which one man had hidden, saving his life. This reminded us that members of a visiting Bangladesh cricket team were impatient to arrive in time to hear preaching that day from that very podium. But they had several annoying hold-ups of a minute here and there along the way, which saved their lives. They arrived to see the most horrifying scenes unfold before their eyes.
As we moved further inside this room, still surrounded by smiling, peaceful people, I felt my tears running down with deepest sorrow and the shock of actually standing in this place. I thought I was dreaming! But realised I wasn’t when I couldn’t find my handkerchief!!! Oh no! How awful. The smiling, kindly prayer leader – in white robes and Muslim cap – actually noticed. He hastened over and sat me down on a white plastic chair. Kneeling in front of me, he gently wiped my eyes with snowy white tissues. Then he carefully dried my face. He asked anxiously “Are you okay now?” And I was thinking – is this really happening? A Muslim man drying my tears. And we were there to comfort them! It was the most tender, beautiful and unexpected gesture. I was dumbfounded and humbled and felt so silly that I’d forgotten my hanky. I thanked him profusely.
Only a great and humorous God could have possibly engineered such a thing – getting us there and allowing us to experience such a warm–hearted reception!!! You can imagine us telling the sisters later . . . . It was so funny and I don’t think I’ll ever live it down!!
It was now about 5.00pm, which signalled their prayer time. Some seven men, along with my solicitous “carer” stood facing the front of the prayer room. Then the Imam began the haunting prayer chant which filled the room. Another friendly lady beside us, whom we had just met, and who was a Muslim convert, translated the beautiful prayers for us.
By this time, we were watching the clock, having to be at the next place at 5.20pm and we were aware of the traffic! It was quite late for an appointment, which was another extraordinary co-incidence that allowed us all that time at the mosque!
But that wasn’t all.
We said good goodbye and walked down the short passage to the outside drive, where more things were in store. There were some people there – a man and a woman and a few others who asked if they could interview and film us. We asked what it was for and the like, and it turned out they were a Reuters news team. That was overseas stuff, so we complied – hoping it would all be “off shore”. Joy stood at our side as the interviewer directed, and they asked questions as we tried to think straight. We were still feeling a bit dazed after such an emotional experience in the mosque – to say the least. However they said our answers were perfect, which seemed like another little miracle in the circumstances.
Now we were really worried about the time and we walked quickly to the car, passing the two policemen, who were still standing patiently with rifles at the ready.
We said a heartfelt thank you to them for their bravery on that fateful day, and also for their long vigils at the mosque. They were very appreciative. Another thing was achieved, which we had so wanted to say.
So ended an amazing afternoon, which was a complete surprise and totally unplanned. Someone far greater than us had already worked out all the details of an event that will be the highlight of our lives for years to come!
Published here with permission.