Before you read this story, you might want to read one that I wrote a few years ago. Some of you will remember “One small step towards Reconciliation”; it is one of the stories in my book, The Earless Man from Chile recently published by Chalice Press. I share with you the continuation of this story, and unexpected gift received this weekend.
The date is important to this story as well as the place. Last Sunday was Sept. 13th, 2015. On Sept. 11, 1973 there was a military coup that introduced a military dictatorship in Chile. On Sunday, two days after the violent commemoration of the coup, the city government was rushing to clean up the streets of Valparaíso. On Sept. 18, Chile's independence day, there will be a military parade and everything must be spick and span for the celebrations.
The port city of Valparaiso was strategic in the overthrow of the democratically elected president; United States war ships were stationed here in support of the coup while hundreds of young men from this city were arrested, tortured and killed.
Playa Ancha is one of the hills surrounding Valparaiso, a world heritage site and one of the ports of call mentioned in the novel Moby Dick. Tucked between brightly colored wooden houses that cling to the hillside on spindly stilts is the Playa Ancha church of the Pentecostal Church of Chile. I have visited this church on numerous occasions enjoying many invigorating late night discussions around the table with the pastor and his family. Today I was here to say good-bye. I am leaving Chile in April of 2016.
After worship, a young man from the choir stood in line to say good-bye to me. I recognized Nelson from the hundreds of children that I ministered to in the Sunday School program of the Curicó Church, the mother church of the Pentecostal Church of Chile. He hugged me, and then he took a step back and looked me in the eye. "Tía Elena," even as an adult he used the familiar term of endearment which means ‘Aunt Elena.'" "I want to thank you. Because you invited my brother and me to Sunday School when I was nine years old, I have never left the church. Now I am far away from my family, here in Playa Ancha, but I am still a part of the church. Thank you." Then, as he paused, he took me by the arm, "Do you know that my grandfather really appreciated you?"
The Curicó church has over 3000 members. I couldn´t remember his grandfather. "Who was your grandfather?" I asked. "Brother José. You were important to him." Then before he continued, I felt as if the Holy Spirit whispered the answer to me. Of course I knew his grandfather. My eyes filled with tears.
"Did he ever tell you what happened between us?" I asked. This young man's grandfather, as a member of the communist party, was arrested when Chile's dictator came into power. During the many months that his family did not know where he was and whether he was dead or alive, the secret police tortured him with techniques taught to them by the United States military. This brother in Christ from the Curicó Church had secretly rejected my ministry, because, as a citizen of the United States, I represented the country that helped bring about the military coup in Chile and taught his people to torture. After worship one day, we experienced a holy moment of reconciliation.
Nelson answered: "Yes, he told us about it. He told us how he was finally able to forgive. It made a difference in our family. We all suffered because of his pain, but I wanted to tell you about my own moment of reconciliation."
I asked Nelson permission to share his story with you as once I shared his grandfather's story. "I came to Playa Ancha to go to the university. Every so often there were student body meetings where we voted on different issues affecting our participation in the university. There was this small group of girls in my class who never went to the meetings in spite of our invitations. One day, one of these girls and I arrived late to a class, and as we were not allowed into the classroom, we sat outside chatting. I asked her why she never went to any of the student meetings. She told me she felt horrible in those meetings; she was treated like an outcast. I listened attentively. I asked her if she could tell me why she thought she was discriminated against. She cried as she told me that her father had been a member of the dictator's elite body guard, trained by the special forces. As a child in school or on the street, she had been bullied and ostracized because her father was in the military. She said that it was even worse after the dictatorship ended. She believed what others had told her: she did not have a right to be a part of any democratic process. She was the bearer of her father's guilt and shame.
Nelson went on. "Then, I don´t know why, but I told her about my grandfather and my family's suffering. We cried together. To my surprise, she suddenly asked me if I could forgive her for what her father had done. I told her I would forgive her and her father because I believed that in doing so, I would set her free. I don´t know if I had the right to forgive on behalf of others, but I did so on behalf of my grandfather and my family. What I do know is that, even though as the children of the dictatorship we should remember our past so that it is not repeated in the future, we must also begin to live in a new present, building a future founded on forgiveness and reconciliation. Tía Elena, this is what you and my grandfather taught me. Thank you. "
Thank you, Nelson, for reminding me of the precious gifts I have received in these 20 years in Chile. We will continue to walk and encourage each other along this path of healing, seeking shalom, and the place where justice, mercy, truth, and peace come together.
Elena Huegel serves with the Pentecostal Church of Chile (IPC). She serves as an environmental and Christian education specialist. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, and your special gifts.