This story is part of The Resilience Project, a Stuff and Sunday Star-Times investigation into how people have survived life shocks.

Carmina and Jon Salud saw New Zealand as God answering their prayers.

The couple was yearning for a fresh start after losing their jobs in the Philippines in 2008. They had worked full-time at their church when it was hit by financial difficulties. Relationships with colleagues became tense, and the Saluds were forced to resign.

The couple had given up well-paid jobs in law and IT industries and felt betrayed.

“It was so scary. We were hurt,” Carmina Salud said.

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After tensions cooled the Saluds continued worshipping at the church. It was two years before Jon found another job, and another three until the couple decided on a fresh start in New Zealand.

“We took it as ‘What is God trying to tell us?’”

The Saluds family is four of more than 2.62 million New Zealanders who identified as religious in the 2018 Census.While the number of religious people in New Zealand appear to be declining, those spoken to by Stuff say their faith has helped build their resilience through life’s challenges.

The Salud family, children Caleb and Caitlin, with parents Jon and Carmina, settled into New Zealand from the Philippines after asking God for a fresh start.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

The Salud family, children Caleb and Caitlin, with parents Jon and Carmina, settled into New Zealand from the Philippines after asking God for a fresh start.

Within six months of starting the application process, the family gained permission to move. Jon’s IT skills were on a skills’ shortage list. Carmina’s background in law landed her a job at the Ministry of Justice, where she has worked for 11 years.

The family are members of the Central Auckland Church of Christ which, like their church in the Philippines, is part of the International Churches of Christ organisation.

Central to Carmina’s ability to overcome challenges is the connections she makes through churchgoers, who she draws wisdom from.

North Shore resident Carmina Salud leans on her church community when times are tough.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

North Shore resident Carmina Salud leans on her church community when times are tough.

“When we moved here, the church here became our family. It’s not just about being obligated to attend , it’s about the relationships.“Looking back, all those experiences, even bad, you just need to hold on to it. Have the faith.”

. According to the 2018 Census, almost half the population, 2.26 million, indicated they had no religion. Christianity is New Zealand’s largest religious group, despite affiliation decreasing steadily since 2001. Its five denominations, including Anglican, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian, totalled 1.31m.

Affiliation with Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism is growing. Hinduism and Islam recorded increases between the 2013 and 2018 censuses, while Sikhism has doubled its numbers in the two previous censuses.

Emeritus professor of religious history Peter Lineham said the number of religious New Zealanders began to decline “very severely” from 1960, possibly because of the trend of people wanting to be more individualistic. People were less likely to belong to an organisation and more willing to pay to go out and have fun.

“You wouldn’t dare be rude about religion 100 years ago, [but today] nobody would turn a hair if someone says they aren’t religious.”

He said churches are typically made up of elder generations who value local connections, whereas young people are more likely to seek their friends for help.He believed about 20 per cent of the population had some sort of contact with a religious group each month. South Auckland is the most religious part of New Zealand due to an “incredibly strong active community” within Pasifika churches.

Agnostics might pray during a crisis, but people of religion sustained themselves with “an internal mechanism to enable them to be more resilient”.

Owen Pomana received a lifetime ban from Australia for years of drugs and gang-related crime, but since finding God he has dedicated his life to helping feed those in need across Auckland.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Owen Pomana received a lifetime ban from Australia for years of drugs and gang-related crime, but since finding God he has dedicated his life to helping feed those in need across Auckland.

He believed churches had a significant role in keeping the spirits of their members high remotely during Covid-19.

The need for local church groups for religious people was comparable to the role local neighbourhoods had during the lockdown.

“We don’t seem to take as much notice of local neighbourhoods as we used to. It had to re-discover itself during the pandemic when we were all at home.”

Owen Pomana doesn’t remember much about religion from his time at a Catholic boarding school except for his “terrible” attitude towards church, including breaking into the school’s presbytery to get drunk on wine and eat the communion wafers with icecream.

Now of the Christian faith, Pomana works fulltime delivering food to between 80 and 120 homeless Aucklanders a day, an effort organised via his Facebook group Humanity NZ.

Pomana uses scripture from the Bible to live like Jesus did, by feeding the poor and helping people.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Pomana uses scripture from the Bible to live like Jesus did, by feeding the poor and helping people.

In the early 2000s, Pomana’s life was very different. After his relationship broke down he booked a one-way flight to Australia, taking with him only a bag of clothes, $500 cash and a broken heart. A week later, Pomana was homeless.

For 10 years he was in and out of prison. Too ashamed to ask for help, he became a sex worker, which came with the promise of a hot shower, someone to talk to and a bed for the night.

Pomana recalled the pit of his downward spiral following a “bashing” by members of the Hells Angels, where he attempted to shoot himself while “smashed on ice [methamphetamine]” after cursing to a God he didn’t believe in.

“The gun didn’t fire.”

After an introduction to a pastor Pomana started to understand the meaning of the Bible’s stories, a language that had previously been incomprehensible to him. He credits his faith for getting his life back together.

“The Bible is an instruction of how to live life.”

Emily Speller relies on her relationship with God to help her make sense of life’s challenges.

David Unwin/Stuff

Emily Speller relies on her relationship with God to help her make sense of life’s challenges.

As a newly married couple in 2017, Emily and Aaron Speller should have been enjoying the prospect of a long and healthy life together. But six months in, Emily, now 25, was diagnosed with a neurological disease, with the effects of her condition expected to hit her at middle age.

“That was quite hard. It was a gutting moment.”

Her father-in-law has cerebral palsy and Emily feels confident having witnessed how a marriage can work while dealing with a medical condition. The Reformed Baptist believes God placed her in her marriage to Aaron, an Open Brethren, to help her build strength and see positives in her situation.

“Even when a bad thing happens, there is a purpose behind it that is bigger than what I see. When it’s too big for you, God’s got it.”

Despite following different denominations of Christianity, the Spellers enjoy debating the scriptures to find mutual understanding. “It’s a bit like politics,” Emily said.

Resilience played a part in the aftermath of New Zealand’s worst shooting in modern history, when 51 died and countless were injured in the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019.

The Women’s Organisation of the Waikato Muslim Association lead co-ordinator Aliya Danzeisen.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

The Women’s Organisation of the Waikato Muslim Association lead co-ordinator Aliya Danzeisen.

Lead co-ordinator for the Women’s Organisation of the Waikato Muslim Association Aliya Danzeisen said Islam analogy dating back 14 centuries helped. One of the key teachings, which helped the Muslim community, was the importance of brotherhood and sisterhood.

“We actually treat each other as brothers and sisters. We have responded in ways of supporting each other as a family would, but it’s a bigger family.

“Where people have been successful in overcoming challenges in particular are very helpful. It gives you ideas .”

The teaching had similarities to that of tangata whenua and New Zealand’s core value of “we’re going to get this right”.

“Resilience is built into New Zealand as a nation.”

Retired Massey University professor of religious history Peter Lineham said many religious people feel “spiritually needy” when they go through challenges.

Chris Skelton/Stuff

Retired Massey University professor of religious history Peter Lineham said many religious people feel “spiritually needy” when they go through challenges.

University of Auckland senior lecturer in theological and religious studies Dr Caroline Blyth believes a decrease of those practising religion wasn’t a reason to panic, as people are looking elsewhere to find what they once have looked for in religious communities.

The concept of spirituality is growing in popularity, she said, adding that the idea of spirituality is becoming a lot more broad as people find deeper meaning and emotional pleasure from the likes of music, art, crystals, aromatherapy, surfing, or anything that provided a boost to the person’s mental and emotional well-being.

“It can be anything that gives someone a sense of connection to the world. People will always need something to help them get through life, to give them hope or to give them strength to make positive change.

“If it’s not an organised religious institution, there will be other means.”

Makalita Maka has come through financial struggles, cancer and an abusive relationship. Today, she's a proud homeowner and works with Pacifika youth, encouraging them to study and build careers.

Kavinda Herath/Stuff

Makalita Maka has come through financial struggles, cancer and an abusive relationship. Today, she’s a proud homeowner and works with Pacifika youth, encouraging them to study and build careers.

Makalita Maka has survived a marriage breakdown, cancer and financial hardship, but today the Invercargill Christian woman writes, she is healthy, happy and helping Pasifika youth chase their dreams.

Every single morning when I wake up, I remember that today is a new day. I was born and raised in Tonga and I had a happy childhood, but when I was 14, I was sent to New Zealand to live with a relative for a better life.

It was good for a time, but later I was passed from relative to relative. I had financial struggles throughout my time in New Zealand and I had to work to support myself while going to high school and learning English.

Later, I lost my sister, became a young mum and my marriage was a roller-coaster. Throughout the journey that I’ve been through in life, there’s been a lot of anger and hurt. I have eight children. It’s been a journey with them, too.

I’ve had a couple of operations, but I’ve pulled through them. I was brought up believing in God and I hung onto that faith throughout my life. My faith has always kept me going.

I would remind myself every morning that I was loved, and He would help. As a coping mechanism, I always put what had happened the day before in the back of my mind. I had hope that this would be a different day.

When I left my husband, I was in a dark place. I struggled for a year to get out of bed and care for the children. I knew that I had to deal with it. I had to find the courage to remind myself that I was loved.

It was a hard time but having my children and seeing the smiles on their faces got me out of the dark. The love and care they had for me helped me get through. When I started to treasure the little things with them I began seeing the light.

Counselling was a way for me to unload what had happened to me over time. It certainly helped. It’s almost like a weight had been lifted. It was a relief because I was able to talk about it.

Rejoining the workforce gave me a sense that I was able to help people, even though I had to slowly build back my confidence. Getting my Bachelor of Commerce and helping my children apply for their scholarships gave me the knowledge I needed to support young Pasifika adults.

I have worked for many organisations, including Pact and Habitat for Humanity, but I will always have space in my heart for Pacific people because I understand where they come from. When people go camping; that’s almost how we lived on the islands.

I got to a stage where I realised this was my calling. The role I am in now is helping and supporting people, giving them confidence and helping them look at the world differently.

I’m trying to encourage them to look for something more for themselves. I want them to be able to achieve what they want. It’s using the knowledge that I have to help them lift the standard of living for their families.

There are lots of barriers within the Pasifika community, but I’m hoping to get them earning while doing a job they’ve aspired to. Going through what I’ve been through, I am so proud that I’ve been able to do these things.

I feel so blessed and grateful that God has given me the opportunity. I’m proud of my children because they’ve made the decision to continue learning and seek what they want in life.

It’s a blessing to have got to this stage. I’m a grandmother (of five) and hopefully, still looking young. I am thankful for the help and support of all the people God has sent into my life.

Additional reporting: Louisa Steyl.

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