Today is September 21, known in Taiwan simply by its date in numbers as ‘921’. Every year, on this day, we remember once again the huge 7.3 earthquake that hit Taiwan on September 21, 1999 at 1:47 am, exactly twenty years ago today. So immense was the tragedy that the event is forever engrained in the country’s consciousness, and remembered simply as ‘921’.
The facts speak for themselves, 2,415 deaths, 29 missing, 11,305 seriously injured, 51,711 buildings completely destroyed, 53,768 buildings severely damaged, widespread power and water outages, NT$300 billion (US$10 billion) worth of damage to infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, power stations, roads and bridges, and a total of 12,911 aftershocks in the month following the main tremor. The epicentre of the earthquake was in the town of Jiji, Nantou, up in the central mountains near Sun Moon Lake.
I arrived in Taiwan in January 1999, based at St. James’ Episcopal Church and Kindergarten, Taichung City. In September 1999, I started teaching. Our first classes of the new school year had only just opened. A group of us teachers lived on the 4th floor above the church, and that is where we were when the earthquake struck. In the darkness of that night, at 1:47 am, we were all woken by the prolonged shaking and by the noise of bookcases, ceiling boards, pictures and ornaments crashing to the ground around us.
Taichung is about 45 km (30 miles) from the epicentre of the earthquake, so we did not experience the total devastation that the town of Jiji suffered. At St. James’ Church, none of our buildings fell down, and nobody was killed or even injured. We all survived, though shaken mentally and physically. Soon, however, the number of large aftershocks became more frightening than the original earthquake; and fear of going back inside the buildings led us to sleep outside in the park for several nights, and then on the ground floor in one of the kindergarten classrooms for several weeks. We were joined by colleagues and friends who were too scared to sleep in their own homes, often located in high-rise buildings. When electricity was restored we could access the computers in the church office, but that was on the 6th floor. We had no laptops or mobile phones, everything had to be done in the church office, and we didn’t dare use the lift, so we walked up the stairs. Responding to messages from around the world, we were constantly on edge lest another aftershock should hit at any moment – and hiding under the desk when another one did. Eventually, it was felt safer to tell international friends not to contact us for a few weeks, rather than risk our lives going up to the 6th floor to answer them.
Seeing leaning high-rises or collapsed buildings, listening to people’s stories, and hearing reports of the devastation and loss of life in areas of Taiwan not far from us, it became impossible to comprehend the immensity of it all. It was easy to get angry with incompetent, corrupt builders for shoddy construction work or with the government for a lack of response, but underneath were deeper questions. Why should one high-rise building collapse when all the others on the estate of the same size and design were left standing? Why should one person die in the earthquake and another survive? Where was God in all this turmoil? Or was everything just down to fate or luck?
Looking back now, we know that God was with us – in our shock, in our doubts and in our questions; even when it seemed that God had forsaken us – or, if he hadn’t forsaken us and our community, he had clearly forsaken many others. God was there too in the quiet moments, in the silence of disrupted lives, in the unanswered questions, in the desire to ‘get back to normal’ as soon as possible.
T. S. Eliot, in his book of poems, Four Quartets, talks about the ‘still point of the turning world’.
Could there really be any meaning in such tragedy, or any calmness in the storm?
One of our beloved members and my good friend here at Advent Church, Janet Tan, sadly died recently; and at her funeral last month, her family chose the theme of ‘Turn, turn, turn’ based on the 1960’s song by the Seekers, reminding them of their childhood. The words are taken from Ecclesiastes 3:1: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” They made T-shirts at their family company with those words on the front. I wear mine often. It’s a fitting tribute to Janet; she gave witness that in this ‘turning world’, the still point is found in Christ.
Last month we also observed the tenth anniversary of Typhoon Morakot, Taiwan’s deadliest typhoon in recorded history. In August 2009, the typhoon brought many days of torrential rain to southern Taiwan causing catastrophic flooding, mudflows and landslides that left 673 people dead and 26 missing. Some of us from northern Taiwan went down to help in the relief effort. Ironically, today, September 21, as we remember the 20th anniversary of the 921 earthquake, here in northern Taiwan we have heavy rains and winds brought by another passing typhoon; even the annual kite festival held just up the coast has had to be postponed until tomorrow.
This past week, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati have both announced that they are switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Taiwan is left with only 15 allies in ever-increasing political isolation. Over 200 students from those countries who are studying here in Taiwan, mostly on Taiwan government scholarships, are left facing an uncertain future. The ambassadors from those 2 countries visited St. John’s University (SJU) in April to take part in our 52nd anniversary celebrations, with a view to possible technological partnerships with SJU in the future. The exciting start that we had with those partnerships will now not progress any further. This week too, I had only just finished editing the next issue of the diocesan Friendship Magazine (containing a report of those SJU anniversary celebrations) when the news came through, and now I’ve had to add a ‘Stop Press’ to explain. Politics aside, there’s no doubt that this is very sad news for those personally affected.
Such is our ‘turning world’ of earthquakes, typhoons and political crises. Finding the ‘still point’ is a challenge. T. S. Eliot’s words have been adapted by David Peace and Sally Scott (1989) and engraved on the glass door of St. Catherine’s Chapel in Norwich Cathedral: “Reach out to the silence at the still point of the turning world / Except for the still point, there would be no dance / Love is itself unmoving / only the cause and end of movement / timeless”. It also illustrates the lines, “Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis / Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray / Clutch and cling”, the illustration showing how the sunflower and clematis grow towards the light, that is ‘at the still point of the turning world’. I visited Norwich Cathedral last year, and loved that engraving on the door.
Today I looked at the readings given for my next sermon in a few weeks’ time. It includes Psalm 37:7, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” He is the ‘still point of the turning world’. That’s my challenge today on this 20th anniversary of the 921 earthquake, and every day. To ‘be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him’. My challenge – and yours.