Experience and Relationship: Keys to Transformation

The mutuality of acompañamiento creates a safe space, a container where deep listening, trust, appreciation and encouragement shape the learning process.

From Menonite Central Committee Intersections journal

Marta confessed she was terrified of earthquakes in a talking circle at the safety and emergency preparedness workshop for the staff at the Shalom Center in the Andes Mountains of Chile. “I don’t remember having been in an earthquake, but you need to know that I won’t be able to care for myself, much less anyone else, if we ever have one during camp.” At 3:34am, just five hours after that confession, the sixth strongest earthquake in the world devastated central Chile. Through this significant experience and the safety of caring relationships—two critical elements for transformation—Marta was able to reach out beyond her fears to help others heal from their own traumas. Months later, when a tremor interrupted her class one day, Marta stood in front of her young students with an outward appearance of calm that covered her inward panic and led them in breathing techniques and a calming hand massage.

After the 2010 earthquake, Marta and other Shalom Center staff used the creative potential of safe relationships and of significant experiences, even profoundly difficult ones, to initiate processes of personal and group transformation. They organized Mediacción (a mediation, conflict transformation, peacebuilding, and trauma healing program for youth in two areas of the Maule Region of Chile) as a preventive response to the possibility of adolescents “acting in” with violence toward themselves or “acting out” with violence toward others after the collective trauma of the earthquake and tsunami.

In the year after the earthquake, the reported cases of bullying in schools nationwide had increased by over 50%. Youth participants in the Mediacción project came from rival high schools and different churches. Through previous community summer programs in Sagrada Familia, one of the project areas, Marta had already developed personal relationships with many of the young people and their families. Even though still healing from her own trauma, Marta dared to enter into pedagogical relationship with the youth while risking her own emotional involvement. Over the course of weekly meetings with the youth, she built on her previous relationships and created a community of trust.

The word acompañamiento in Spanish describes the kind of relationship that leads to transformation. Acompañamiento includes a strong physical and spiritual sensation of being in the presence of another person. This walking alongside is not only an emotional or intellectual exercise but a holistic commitment. The mutuality of acompañamiento creates a safe space, a container where deep listening, trust, appreciation and encouragement shape the learning process. The sanctuary of this relationship has room enough for trial and error, forgiveness and second chances. The transformative power of relationship “is found in connection, that profound meeting when the truest part of one soul meets the emptiest recesses in another and finds something there. . . . When that happens, the giver is left more full than before and the receiver less terrified, eventually eager, to experience even deeper, more mutual connection.” (Crabb 31)

C.S. Lewis observed: “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” The first-hand experience of the earthquake was brutal, not only for Marta, but for the youth with whom she was working. However, the experience by itself did not bring about their transformation. Rather, true learning and transformation came through a cycle of concrete experience, reflection and application.

The Association for Experiential Education describes experiential education as purposeful engagement “with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.”

Paraguayan author Merardo Arriola Socol suggests that the point of departure for all learning is the rich, significant and complex experiences where each person seeks to integrate and understand physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects through the process of reflection/action. (Arriola Socol 15)

As the youth processed their emotions, thoughts, physical sensations and spiritual struggles during and after the earthquake, they integrated previous learning into new actions. Eight months after the earthquake, the Mediacción participants from Sagrada Familia came to camp at the Shalom Center where we put their learning to the test through group problem-solving activities. During one particularly difficult exercise when frustration began to take over the group, participants suddenly stopped what they were doing, took a step away from the problem and self-initiated a circle process. For these teens, new behavior became action not only through relationships and dialogue, but also by testing their newly formed theories in new experiences.

Almost three months after the Mediacción program ended, we again met with the youth from Sagrada Familia. Under the grape arbor over the patio at Marta ́s house they told us how they had used their new skills to handle different challenges ranging from the death of a family member to conflicts at school. Most were sharing their learning with other groups, some had become involved in the student government at their schools, several had taken on leadership positions in their local churches, and two were selected as motivators (counselors) at the Shalom Center. The youth agreed that the two most important factors in their transformation were the committed friendships they had developed and the newly acquired conviction that every crisis is also an opportunity to grow.

Elena Huegel is the founder and chaplain of the Shalom Center in Chile and a missionary with Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She holds an MA from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University

Learn more

Arriola Socol, Merardo. Buscando la vida. Asunción, Paraguay: Fundación En Alianza,1994.

Association for Experiential Education: http://www.aee.org/about/whatIsEE  

Crabb, Larry. Connecting: Healing for Ourselves and Our Relationships. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing Group, 2005.

The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education. Available at http://www.infed.org/