A Circle in the Shade

A Circle in the Shade

Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark

We were just finishing up a traditional Chilean meal, served on the spacious back porch of our hostess Norma’s house, surrounded by plum and cherry, peach and apple orchards.  We tasted all our new favorites: pastel de choclo–made of sweet corn meal, meat, onion, egg, and chicken; chicken soup; mote con cerezas for dessert–cherries with a special kind of wheat softened by being soaked in ash.  And empanadas–trays and trays of empanadas baked in the brick oven in the back yard.  We barely made a dent in those trays.  And now, the warmth of the sun and the abundance of food made us all a little snoozy.  We needed an infusion of energy and appetite.

The infusion arrived–in the form of ten teenagers, dressed in assorted school uniforms.  Norma held out a tray of empanadas; they were gone in a flash.  The laughter of the teens stirred us awake. We greeted the new arrivals, and then we all picked up benches and chairs and moved them into a circle in the yard, squeezing as many as we could into the little bit of shade.

 It was the fourth day of our twelve-day visit to Chile, part of the ongoing relationship between the Pentecostal Church of Chile, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, and the Brookfield Institute. In keeping with the mission of the Brookfield Institute, our trip was focused on healing and resiliency: “Roots from the Ruins.”  Later that day, we would see three of the blessing cabins the Pentecostal Church of Chile built to help folks whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake a  year before.  But first, we gathered in this circle in the shade to hear from these young people. 

We began with introductions–names, ages, and home churches.  The teenagers came from three different churches, all “daughter churches” of the large Pentecostal Church of Chile in Curico.  I was struck by the way the teens had seated themselves: they were from three different churches and, as their school uniforms suggested, at least three different schools, but they were all mixed together.

These ten young people had been selected to participate in a three month program for trauma healing and violence prevention.  This pilot project, funded by a grant from the Mennonite Central Committee, had been developed by Elena Huegel, UCC/Disciples mission partner along with a team of five young professionals from the Shalom Center and in consultation with Beverly Prestwood-Taylor, co-director of the Brookfield Institute. Since they were facilitating our trip, we were especially interested to hear from the youth.  Elena and Beverly had been teaching conflict transformation courses for adults in Chile for the past ten years, but this course had been adapted and prepared for this age group.  The group’s periodic gatherings culminated in a retreat at Centro Shalom, the Pentecostal Church of Chile’s retreat center in the Andes mountains.

We were impressed to hear the familiar language of conflict transformation coming, via translation, out of the mouths of teenagers.  We were even more impressed to discover they were doing so much more than simply repeating the words.  They got it.  They talked about learning to listen deeply, trying to put themselves in another person’s shoes.  They talked about the importance of valuing another person’s perspective rather than discounting it.  They defined “the ladder of inference”–how conflicts escalate as people make inferences on top of inferences, and they described learning to go “down the ladder of inference” to gather facts.

We asked them about the impact this program has had on their lives.  One young woman came to recognize her mother’s habit of comparing her daughters and discounting their experience; when the girl named the behavior, her mother was able to change.  A quiet young man with a gentle smile said his relationship with his father had been transformed.  Before, he said, there was a lot of tension and silence; now they talk.  Another girl described how the program had helped her deal with a family crisis.  I am the youngest in my family, she began, and so I used to be very immature.  The program, she went on, helped me to mature in my faith.  When her brother died–and then another brother soon thereafter, the skills s and maturity she gained through the program helped her heal.

These teenagers have also taken on positions of leadership in their youth group–a significant accomplishment, since the Curico church has about 700 youth.  They have encouraged the youth group to take more initiative in the church.  We volunteered to do clean-up after an event, one teen told us.  Before this program, we would never have done that.

Our time grew to a close–prayers in two language, gifts for our hosts and maple sugar candy for everyone, and lots of hugs.  The teens headed off to their homework, and we went on to our next visit.  But that hour in the shade stayed with us.  We shared in Elena and Beverly’s joy that these young people were already living the skills they had learned in the program. We marveled at the spirit of these teenagers; they emanated openness, warmth, and faith

Perhaps more than anything else, what I take from that circle in the shade is hope.  These young people are the future leaders of the Pentecostal Church of Chile–and they point toward a very bright future.  These young people remind us that every one of us–young or old or in between–is capable of learning new ways of interacting.  We do not have to remain stuck in old patterns of divisiveness and violence.  We can heal, and we can choose a new way.