Downside-Up in Chile

Downside-Up in Chile

How do you see the world? I mean literally, when you imagine this planet hanging out in space, where do you see North America?

How do you see the world?  I mean literally, when you imagine this planet hanging out in space, where do you see North America?  Often when I visit churches in the northern hemisphere, I place a plastic blow-up globe in the middle of my presentation materials with the South Pole at the top and the North Pole at the bottom.  It is amazing how quickly someone will come along and “correct” my “error” by flipping the world around while explaining, “It was upside down.”   Does the world actually have an “up” side and a “down” side?  From God’s perspective and from the perspective of outer space, either of the hemispheres could be above or below or even to one side or the other.  We don’t walk on our heads in the southern hemisphere, nor do dogs fall up and can’t come back down, as suggested in the song by Argentine children’s music composer, María Elena Walsh, “El reino del reves,” The Backwards Kingdom.   

Many things in Chile, this long thin strip of land along the coast of South America, may seem to be backwards to those who are used to living north of the Equator.  The word “backwards” often has a negative connotation such as “out-of-date”, “the wrong way”, “not modern,”  “lacking intelligence,” or “retrograde” so perhaps I should say that things appear “downside-up” or “different-wards” in Chile.

This letter is supposed to be read come Easter 2010 when those of you who live in the northern hemisphere will be celebrating the end of winter.  Think of how many Easter sermons you have heard which have to do with the spring season, new life, hope in the buds, the returning birds, and the greenness sprouting from the earth.  March and April mark the beginning of winter for those of us who live in the southern hemisphere so that Easter comes when the leaves are dropping off the trees and the harvest is nearly over.  I have decided to write this newsletter in November, our spring, when I can see the world coming to life at the Shalom Center in the Andes Mountains.  First, the bright yellow bushy flowers of the aromo trees bloom in contrast to the late snows and the blue-washed skies.  Then the ligueñes, orange golf-ball-sized mushrooms sprout on the roble trees.  I think ligueñes taste like cardboard soaked in snail goo, but people in Chile have enjoyed eating these mushrooms for thousands of years!   The snow melts fill the waterfalls and mountain streams, and the forest is filled with water-songs ranging from deep gurgles to thousands of pinging notes.   The “araña pollitos” or “chick spiders” (big hairy tarantula spiders) come out of their holes to find mates, and the parrots, hummingbirds, and condors come back from their different migrations.  I am on the lookout for the jewel-bright blue-green lizards that live on the coigue tree that hangs over the Welcome House and for the four-inch “ox-killer” beetles (their other name is “mother of snake” beetles!) a harmless insect that probably gets its name from its ferocious appearance. 

The environmental education camps for fifth and sixth graders are held in the spring, October, November and December, just before the students go on summer vacation (January and February.)  The children relish every minute in the wonders of the mountains coming back to life.  The schools and churches that participate in the Creacción program begin this special environmental education program in March, at the beginning of the school year, and the camps held every spring at the Shalom Center are the final activity.   I think that the Creacción camps can be summed up in the words of Marcos, one of the participants: “I would love school if it were always like this.  In two days, I have had the best time of my life!”

Spring also means preparing for all of the new activities planned for the summer.  The transportation schedules, registration forms, and staff assignments are confirmed while thousands of other details are taken care of.  Two new programs are scheduled for January 2010.  One is a course called Innovative Strategies for Environmental Education and includes education and curriculum design theory interwoven with a trip along the Mataquito River (visiting a paper mill, a town flooded by the effects of the melting glaciers, and local fishermen), a visit to a national park, and a camp with children.  The other course is in the STAR (Seminar in Trauma Healing and Resilience) program developed by Eastern Mennonite University.  Our hope is to train a core group of facilitators to lead trauma-healing retreats; the first will be with the family members of those who were detained, tortured and/or disappeared during the military dictatorship in Chile.  Both of these courses are filled to capacity and many will be able to participate thanks to scholarships provided by sisters and brothers both in Chile and in the United States.

While the northern hemisphere celebrates the new life of an Easter in spring, the southern hemisphere rejoices in the baby born in a manger on a warm summer night in December.  The strides of Advent toward Christmas bring days of hot sun, cold “mote con huesillos” (a traditional Chilean summer treat made up of re-hydrated sun-dried peaches and specially prepared whole wheat grains served in chilled, sweetened peach juice), and crazy Santa Claus figures in store displays dressed in winter reds singing “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”  Chileans call Christmas “Pascua de Navidad” (Christmas Paschal), and while signs everywhere proclaim “¡Felices Pascuas!” (Merry Passover!), children await the arrival of “el Viejito Pascuero” or “Little Old Man Passover” (Santa Claus). Perhaps the references to Christ’s death and resurrection on his birthday are an appropriate reminder of Easter to come, like the seemingly inappropriate gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the Wise Men.  Maybe an Easter where we bundle up against the cold and kick the leaves fallen from the trees is a suitable test of faith in the resurrection that is sure to come even after the darkest and coldest of winters.       

This Easter, as you pray for Global Ministries missionaries around the world and wonder at the “different-wards” of people, cultures and places, may your faith grow slowly and steadily just like the rings of the giant coigue tree the children call “Mother Hen” (because it protects us under its widespread branches).


Elena Huegel

Elena Huegel is a missionary with the Pentecostal Church of Chile (IPC).  She serves as an environmental and Christian education specialist.