Liz McMillan was at a community event in Ashburton District, New Zealand, about an hour’s drive from Christchurch, when she heard the news. A white supremacist had attacked Muslim worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand’s second largest city of Christchurch on the South Island, killing 51 people and injuring dozens more. The gunman, Brenton Tarrant, was headed to a third mosque when he was apprehended. That mosque was in Ashburton.

“It was something you never expect to happen in New Zealand, let alone South Island,” says McMillan, who holds several governing titles in Ashburton, including deputy mayor.

NZ LionsClubs Mosque 1 WEBThe shooting on March 15, 2019 was not the first major tragedy to hit the region in the 2010s. On September 4, 2010 a 7.1 earthquake in Christchurch caused extensive damage and numerous aftershocks including a 6.3 earthquake on February 22, 2011 that left 185 dead and around 170,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. In less than a decade the Canterbury region where Christchurch and Ashburton are located experienced both the worst natural disaster and the worst mass shooting in recent history.

Tragedy was becoming a Canterbury trademark.

Yet misfortune is not all the region and country are known for – they also have a lot of Lions. According to Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Lions are the largest service group in New Zealand. And among New Zealand Lions clubs, the Methven Lions Club in Ashburton is one of the largest, with 75 members.

“They’re a pretty big deal here, probably because everyone knows someone who is a Lions club member,” says McMillan.

When she heard Methven club members were helping victims of the mosque attacks, she wasn’t surprised. They did something similar after the earthquake.

NZ LionsClubs Sheep1 WEB“It was just kind of their nature to do something like that,” says McMillan.

Club member Mac McElwain explains that living in a country with just five million people, “you felt you were part of it (the shooting) even though you weren’t.” The Methven Lions Club wanted the Muslim community, which accounts for about 1% of the population or roughly 60,000 people, to know they were supported.

“It’s just not us,” says McElwain, a 73-year-old retired farmer and advertising man, referring to the hate crime. “It’s not what we do.”

Instead, what they did was donate money to the victims of the shooting. McElwain didn’t want to give the money to a large organization that had big goals and even bigger roadblocks to reaching the victims. He wanted to support a smaller organization working on the ground every day. In the newly formed NZ Gifts of Love and Strength he found the close connection he was after.

Yellow boat filled with people cuts through a waveVicki-Anne Parker established the charity to provide care packages and support to the mosque shooting victims and their families. When a father of one of the victims flew in from Turkey to visit his son, Parker noticed the man had no winter clothes and provided them. She brought food to the hospital and care packages to homes. She used the money the Methven Lions gave her to buy a commercial freezer and commercial refrigerator to store all the food that was being donated to the community. Then she asked McElwain if the Lions would do something else.

Having lost her home, her marriage, and several friends in the 2011 earthquake, Parker knew how important it was for trauma survivors to be able to leave it all behind, even just for a few hours.

“You’re taken away from prying eyes,” she says. “You can laugh. You can cry. You can be yourself. You can be an idiot without being judged.”

That wasn’t possible in Christchurch where reporters were following Parker to the victims’ homes. But in Methven, what McElwain calls a “wee country town” of around 1,800 people, Parker saw an opportunity. Close enough to Christchurch to be easily accessible, Methven is known for its hospitality, its mountain – and its Lions. It was the Methven Lions Club that helped transform nearby Mt. Hutt into a popular ski resort in 1970 by funding a feasibility study. More recently, the club helped McMillan build a skate park.

“They’re such an important part of our community,” says McMillan. “For me they’re kind of our go to people if you want anything done.”

When the Methven Lions themselves want something done, Immediate Past President Gary Rackham says they go to McElwain. The retired sheep and beef farmer is not only good at taking initiative, he is also good at following through, says Rackham. With his long-winded answers, it is easy to see the ad man in McElwain. His shoulder length gray hair makes it harder to see the traditional farmer. But they are both there, just like McElwain’s dual status as a newcomer and an old timer. McElwain left the area after the earthquakes but returned when he retired four or five years ago. Back in Methven he wanted to serve the community and get to know it.

“So, I joined the Lions Club and I got 75 new friends,” he says.

It was to one of those friends that McElwain turned to for help after accepting Parker’s request to show the shooting victims a day out in Methven. Parker told McElwain that the survivors of the Linwood mosque she was working with felt trapped. McElwain agreed that a trip to the country would be a nice escape for them. Only afterwards did he think: “Bloody hell, how are we going to do it?”

That is when he called Francis “Frank” Royston. An Irish transplant, Royston joined the Methven club 27 years ago, not long after moving to New Zealand with his Kiwi wife and three children. A big man – “about the size of a bear” according to McElwain – Royston has a gentle nature and a talent for getting children to open up. He also knows a lot of people in the community, people he was able to talk into helping with the visit. While the Lions organized the day, the citizens of Methven made it possible. The bus the Lions used to pick up members of the Linwood mosque was loaned to them at no cost, aside from fuel. The same was true of the jet boat ride on the Rakaia River.

The boat ride was the first thing they did on Saturday April 17, just a month after the shooting. It was also the most popular with the group of 30 or so people from the mosque aged from around 10 to 67. As the boat driver roared up the river performing tricks, McElwain remembers the kids and their caregivers squealing with delight. Most of the passengers got wet, but they didn’t seem to mind. When the ride was over an older woman approached Parker.

“Can I go a second time?” she asked. “This is the best day I can remember in my life.”

Former Linwood Iman Ibrahim Abdelhalim says the participants returned to Christchurch with positive attitudes and had only good things to say about the day. For Abdelhalim, Canterbury University’s first Muslim chaplain, the outing provided exactly what he has been trying to do for his community, a chance to move forward instead of backward.

“Our children, you put them in a good environment they can enjoy, this is our target,” says Abdelhalim. “Because if we go back to what happened and still insist for them to talk about that, it will be hard. It’s not making any progress.”

Many of the children lost parents or relatives in the attacks. Mothers were left without the emotional and financial support of their husbands. Helping them recover and be able to return to normal life has been very, very hard, says Abdelhalim, who has been teaching youth Arabic and the Koran for 20 years.

The Lions taught them different traditions: how to make pikelets, variously described as mini pancakes, crumpets, drop scones and squishy biscuits. Then they took the group sheep shearing, which proved to be just as foreign as the pikelet. According to Abdelhalim many of the children had never been on a farm.

For farmers like Royston and McElwain, milking a cow or watching dogs herd sheep is an everyday experience. Royston, who is almost 70, was surprised that the kids were as fascinated with the sheep as they were with the actual sheep shearing. McElwain was astounded when a kid said his favorite part was when “the man took the skin off the sheep.”

“In farming it’s absolute heresy,” says McElwain. “Because when you sheer a sheep if you draw blood, you’re not a good shearer, taking the skin off completely is something (else entirely).”

The child meant the wool. The city dwellers also were surprised “by the amount of shit that’s involved in farming,” says McElwain – and how that shit has a magical way of getting on shoes. Another first for many of the children was riding a horse.

They were seeing new things, says McElwain, but they had already seen things nobody was meant to see. The shooter not only opened fire on worshippers in two mosques, he also livestreamed the attacks. Sentencing Judge Cameron Mander described the act as “inhuman” and the shooter as one of the worst murderers. The shootings left the survivors traumatized, says Royston and, at first, they were quiet.

“Closed up like flowers,” says McElwain. “During the course of the day they kind of opened up and started to smile and laugh. They became kids again.”

This transformation impressed Lions District 202J so much that they awarded the club Best Project for the year 2019-2020. The attacks had shocked the country to the core, District 202J Governor Ella Buston wrote in an email. The shooting resulted in stricter gun laws in New Zealand and programs to buy back certain weapons.

“The Methven Lions Club organised (sic) the day out to enable the children and carers an opportunity to try and put the events of that horrific day and the aftermath to the side for a while,” wrote Buston.

By the end of the day it was clear they had. After tea and pizza at a pub the group boarded the bus back to Christchurch. That is when a few boys took over the Public Announcement system on the bus. There was no radio, no music, just a group of boys singing the R. Kelly pop song “I Believe I Can Fly” all the way back to Christchurch.

“It was really moving,” says Parker. “Although some of us put ear plugs in our ears.”

In the more than a year since then, Parker has moved on to working with other communities, but Abdelhalim says other organizations continue to help them. March 15th did not just affect Muslims, it affected all of New Zealand. Before August 2020 when the mosque shooter, Brenton Tarrant, was sentenced to life in jail without parole, the sentence had never been used in the country. Abdelhalim says there is New Zealand before March 15th and New Zealand after. That day altered everything, yet it is a day he tries not to dwell on.

“We can’t change anything that happened on the 15th, but we can change everything in the future,” says Abdelhalim.

The day everyone wants to think about now is the day in Methven. When Parker bumps into members of the community she says they still talk about “the best day that they ever had.” As for McElwain and the other Lions, they haven’t seen their visitors again and that is OK with them.

For McElwain, that their little town came together to help people they’d never met and would never meet again was what made the day so special.

“We very much had the view it was just a moment in time,” says McElwain. “A one-off thing we shouldn’t try to repeat.”