The other day, as I was listening to one of my favourite songs, “Bridge over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel, I was thinking about my childhood days in my hometown of Napier. Each year we would go down to Eskdale for school or community picnics. As soon as the car was parked under the trees, we kids would rush down to the river and have fun in that gentle, largely shallow section of the Esk River. Now, many years later, little could I imagine that this river could rise so quickly and to such a height that it could devastate the whole valley and force families to climb up onto the roofs of their homes and wait anxiously for help. I also think of many other sections of the country - Hawkes Bay, the East Coast, Thames-Coromandel area, Auckland city and Northland – where many communities have had to deal with widespread devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle and other severe weather patterns. Then, I would remember the words of the song, “When you’re weary, feeling small … Oh, when times get rough and friends just can’t be found.” And among so many other things they need, the people of many parts of Aotearoa-New Zealand await new bridges… “Like a bridge over troubled water….”
The recent experience of these compatriots reminds me of what has marked the historical experience of Columban missionaries over the brief 100 years since our foundation. Columbans have lived through great floods in so many different countries.
In a letter published in The Far East on November 1, 1931, Bishop Ned Galvin, one of our founders, wrote from China, “May God pity us and our poor people – we are in a dreadful plight these past few weeks. The Yangtse is fifty-three feet above its normal level today, and the flood waters have reached a height far above all previous records.” He goes on to talk about the collapse of many buildings, the inhuman cruelty of bandits exploiting the situation, and the difficulty of housing 800 people who had come to the Columban sisters for help. Bishop Galvin also tells about the capture of Fr Hugh Sands. He would be held for nine months, during which time he would meet Mao Tse-tung, who was a young officer in the Communist Army at that time.
Yangtse floods featured in the Far East Magazine in 1931. Photo: St Columbans Mission Society
This remarkable report would be followed by many more accounts of floods down through the years and from other countries where Columbans would work and live – the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Chile, Peru, Myanmar and Fiji. Of course, the more recent stories have come from Pakistan, where fellow New Zealander, Fr Dan O’Connor, has spent most of his missionary life. He told of how people were overwhelmed by the vast scale of the floods that hit the Sindh.
Flooding in Pakistan. Photo: St Columbans Mission Society
These experiences remind us that there are biblical undertones to our missionary calling. Whether we are reminded of Noah, who survived the great flood by building the ark or Moses, who led the people out of slavery in Egypt by passing through the waters of the Red Sea or the images conjured up by the prophets, floods are very much part of the experience of the ancient people of Israel. Floods speak to the imagery of baptism whereby we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ. The liturgical or traditional prayer for blessing the waters of baptism reminds us of the waters of the great flood.
Our missionary vocation is fundamentally a baptismal calling. We are all called to be missionary disciples of Jesus Christ. I suppose we could say that we are all called to be “bridges over troubled waters”. Indeed a central dimension of our missionary calling is to be a source of new life and hope to people who are the victims of natural disasters or human circumstances. As the final verses of the song go,
“Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.”
Columban Fr Tom Rouse, New Zealand
- Read more from the current Columban eBulletin.