The windshield wipers were busy swishing the rainwater away as we bounced through mud puddles and rocky creek beds. I couldn’t believe we were really going to try to make it to “Campo Alegre” (Happy Field) a commune belonging to a Mapuche (southern Chile indigenous group) reservation where the Pentecostal Church of Chile has a small congregation.
The windshield wipers were busy swishing the rainwater away as we bounced through mud puddles and rocky creek beds. I couldn’t believe we were really going to try to make it to “Campo Alegre” (Happy Field) a commune belonging to a Mapuche (southern Chile indigenous group) reservation where the Pentecostal Church of Chile has a small congregation. We had come south for the semester conference of Pastors, and earlier in the morning when I had seen the sunshine reflecting off the brilliant white cone of the Villarrica volcano, I had chosen to tag along with the three men who had planned to make their way out to the country church. Soon after buckling my seatbelt, the volcano had disappeared behind the clouds, and the road had turned into a tiny, gutted, and washed out lane.
The dogs were the first to greet us, barking and chasing the car as we drove up to a house put together with rough boards and a tin roof. It only took a couple of seconds for the faces to peek out the windows and the door to open. A man ran out to greet us with a tattered umbrella and ushered us to the front door. My muddy shoes left tracks on the spotless wooden floor. When I was introduced as the “missionary,” brother Sergio and sister Viviana could hardly contain their excitement. Sister Viviana took me straight to the kitchen, clasping and unclasping her hands, and beamed a smile as warm as the wood fire burning in the stove. In two shakes of a cows tail (I counted them on the cow in the field just outside the window!) we were settled with the traditional Chilean cup of tea and fresh baked bread and feeling right at home.
The conversation, as usual, started light and polite. But, as I have discovered to be true in most of God’s great family, the church, it didn’t take long for us to “entrar en confianza.” (to feel confidence in one another.) Soon I was asking questions about the Mapuche uprisings this year due to the loss of tribal lands. Timber companies and hydroelectric projects have claimed forests that by tradition have belonged to the Mapuches. Brother Sergio spoke with concern at the rising tide of violence, but also clarified that only a small number of his people supported violent reactions. Most desire a peaceful and fair settlement. When I looked out at his field, I could see the evidence of one of Chile’s greatest environmental problems: acute erosion of fertile lands due to overgrazing, deforestation, inappropriate farming practices, and the steep inclination of most of the Chilean territory towards the sea. Stones popped up all over the field, and the grass was short and patchy in spite of the rainy season. As I listened to the rain on the roof and looked out at the field, he told me of the severe economic problems his family was facing this year. No one was buying the little wooden key holders and plaques he was making to sell at the market, tourism to the volcano had been slow, and his fields and cows were not producing like they used to. In spite of the difficulties, every word was spiced with love for the land and gratitude to God for the many blessings of family, church, and unexpected guests.
“The rain will stop at twelve noon. It is the shepherd’s break to check on the sheep, and you will be able to go see the river and our fields beyond the marsh,” said sister Viviana. Sure enough, at noon I borrowed a pair of rubber waders and a baseball cap and headed outside. She called from the back door, “be sure you return in a half hour or so since it will start raining again!” What joy to slosh in puddles smelling the muddy grass! What fun to wade through a gurgling stream and pick out glistening pebbles! A bull snorted at us as we crossed the pasture to a bamboo thicket. “This is my sanctuary,” said brother Sergio with his eyes misty and a little bit of a croak in his voice. “When ever God and I need to talk, I kneel in a clearing in the middle of the thicket. God has never yet failed to answer me there.” I could see it was a private kind of place and understood why he didn’t invite us inside. “This is the cow we will try to sell at the market this year.” “This is the marshy area where our commune hopes to set up a salmon pond.” “This is the field were we can see the volcano during the day and the stars at night.” “Here is a bird’s nest. Three eggs means they are recently laid and fresh to eat. Four eggs means leave them to hatch.” What a privilege to have the tour of the commune lands with a Mapuche brother as a guide.
In a half-hour we were headed back to the house, just as the wind picked up and the rain began to dot our jackets. Sister Viviana had lugged fresh water from the stream; their well had caved in during an earthquake earlier in the year. She also had a sheep tied to the shed and arranged a knife and a bowl of water. Brother Sergio slaughtered the sheep carefully so as to not waste any part of it. Soon the meat was grilling on the fire along with potatoes. The table was set with a clean though patched cloth and a mix match of cups, glasses, and plates. It took me a while to find the outhouse, but discovered it to be as clean and orderly as the house.
In just a few hours, Brother Sergio and Sister Viviana had showered me with gifts: a warm welcome, trust, a tour, lunch, their faith, their stories. I felt honored but so undeserving of their generosity. Ever since I have been in Chile, I have struggled with issues surrounding gifts: giving, receiving, sharing, traditions, rules, when, how, what kind . . . In Campo Alegre I faced the dilemma again: I had my arms full of gifts and had nothing to give in return. Once again, I experienced GRACE: a wildly joyous gift given freely with no strings attached. All I had to offer was my desire to be present and my open arms willing to receive. To live GRACE is to live humbleness and gratitude. My spirit was as full and overflowing as that stream dancing with fresh rainwater.
The parting gift shattered the last bit of self-control I had been hanging to through out the visit. Sister Viviana, with eyes brimming and voice trembling, searched my face and chose to trust me with the weight on her soul. Just a week before, the doctors at the main hospital in Temuco had diagnosed her with breast cancer. Chemotherapy was out of the question; too expensive. In a few days, she would be going back to the doctors for any other solution. Even as she wept, her eyes and her voice claimed her faith in the healing power of her Lord. Brother Sergio tenderly reached out to hold her and then broke down himself.
The rain didn’t stop again, but the clock and the shadows warned us that it was time to go. The three men, brother Sergio, Sister Viviana, and I knelt in the living room to pray as is the custom when leaving a home belonging to brothers and sisters of the church. One of the men reached out to anoint Sister Viviana’s head as he prayed for her healing. She whispered, “my Lord Jesus, let me live.” Tears streamed down my face as I pleaded along with her, and I felt in my spirit a swirling mix of sorrow, joy, doubt, and trust. How is it that I can feel so many opposite feelings at the same time?
Sister Viviana held me in the doorway saying over and over, “Thank you for visiting my home and me. Please come back. You will always be welcomed here.” I didn’t even have words to comfort her or to give her in return. All I had was a hug and a kiss that welled up from that overflowing cup inside me. The last picture in my head is of Brother Sergio and Sister Viviana embracing each other, waving vigorously, and shouting good-byes with tears, raindrops, and grateful smiles shining on their cheeks.
I will carry their gifts in my heart, as I have once again tasted the pure sweetness of grace. I have grown.
Elena Huegel is a missionary with the Pentecostal Church of Chile (IPC). She serves as an environmental and Christian education specialist.