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46 Days After the Earthquake and Tsunami in Chile

April 23, 2010

Last Wednesday I took a very precious load in the pick up truck towards the town of

Dichato, across the great bay from the port of Talcahuano, the city of Concepción and various other ports, industrial cities and fishing villages.  I had been to Dichato many times before, enjoying lunch or supper in one of its beautiful and inexpensive restaurants next to the calm waters of the beach or adventuring out on a boat ride along with other Chilean tourists enjoying the cool breeze on a hot summer day.

To put into perspective the value of the cargo I carried, perhaps you can remember the worst kind of childhood nightmare.  Did you ever dream that you went off to school forgetting to put on your under clothes?  Do you remember the embarrassment and frustration of the dream?

In the hours before dawn on the 27th of February, when the first earthquake left the central part of Chile quivering in fear, those who live on the coast knew: if there is an earthquake and you are not able to stay on your feet, then evacuate immediately to higher ground.  The danger of tsunami is eminent.

In Dichato, after those more than three terrifying minutes that seemed infinite, the local people immediately began to warn the tourists who where enjoying the last weekend of summer vacation before the start of school.  Without a moment to lose, everyone including small children and the elderly ran in the light of the moon to the hills around their town. There they waited as the water receded a kilometer or so from the beach, a calm signal of the destructive force to come.

When dawn finally arrived, they looked down to the valley where the only thing left of their quaint town was a flat plain of rubble, sand and water.  Most were not able to rescue even a family photograph.

One of the first persons from the Pentecostal Church of Chile to arrive in the disaster zone was Alejandra Benitez, a facilitator at the Shalom Center and nurse at the municipal clinic, who accompanied her father, the pastor of the church in the nearby city of Tomé to which the mission church in Dichato belongs.  After climbing over mounds of debris and carefully avoiding pits of water left by the five immense waves that flowed one after the other over Dichato, they found the little mission church still standing among the piles of cars, washing machines, beds and refrigerators.  Almost none of the homes of the members of the church where left standing.

Later, Alejandra was finally able to find the sisters and brothers of the church.  They were up in the hills preparing to camp fearful of the constant earth tremors and homeless. It was the one of the elderly widows who broke Alejandra's heart.  Dressed only in a nightgown and an oversized pair of borrowed fishing boots, this sister took Alejandra aside and asked her, head down in embarrassment, if she could please get her some underclothes.

That was the reason I was driving the pick up truck full of underclothes. Even though weeks had gone by and Alejandra had been able to get a first set of clothing for everyone, with the first cold winds of winter whipping up the bay, we knew that in Dichato warm, dry underclothing was essential.  A sister from the church in Curicó had purchased the clothes in Santiago with offerings from Chile and other parts of the world, and I had the privilege of transporting the load. 

The pastor's wife made up packages according to the needs she already had listed and visited with the families.  The next day, Alejandra and I met with the children, youth and adults of Dichato to begin a process of emotional first aid.  In the coming months, the Pentecostal Church of Chile through the Shalom Center will be carrying out different training workshops in trauma healing and resilience development preparing leaders to accompany the members of the church in Dichato as well as their community and in many other communities affected in the sixth, seventh, and eighth regions. 

After this gathering, Jacqueline, a sister of the Dichato church and secretary of the local fisherman's association, handed me the following letter.  (Sister Jacqueline later told me that of the 500 fishing boats in the association, they were only able to rescue 7 boats. Most of the townspeople depend on these boats for their livelihood.)  I asked her permission to translate and send the following letter knowing that the gratitude that it expresses includes all of you who have shared your resources, time and gifts to relieve the pain and help in the process of healing and rebuilding communities in Chile.

Dichato, April 10th, 2010

Dear Sister Elena,

I greet you affectionately and through this letter we want to express our gratitude.

That what happened in our country on the 27th of February, 2010 will mark our lives forever.  The tsunami destroyed our beautiful seaside town, more than 1600 families are homeless, and amongst them members of the Dichato mission belonging to the Pentecostal Church of Chile in Tomé.  I remember that day as if it were yesterday; the dawn was a difficult one, but the love of God and his immense mercy was manifest in our lives giving us a new opportunity.  It is true that we lost our homes, but God freed us from death; He gave us life.  It is true that we are downcast, full of anguish, fearful perhaps, each one of us with our own experiences, each one with our pain, some of us starting on our path, and others of us almost at the end.  The future is so uncertain under these circumstances, but we trust in God, our provider who sustains us.  To this living God, full of love and mercy, we are grateful for having placed you in our path.   

Chile is a long country sandwiched between the sea and the mountains, and we know that there are many brothers and sisters who worship God as we do.  But God looked at us with tenderness and proof this is that He sent you to us.  God sent you to this little corner, to this group of brothers and sisters who so needed a friendly hand, a word of encouragement, and a show of the concern and love of the family of Christ.

Lamentations chapter 1, verse 11 says: "Her people sigh as they search for bread."  So we have come here today, searching for the bread to satisfy our spiritual hunger.  Sister Elena, we give you infinite thanks just for being present here with us today.

The world today needs women who are courageous for the Lord.  Women, who like you, fulfil the Lord's commandment to give food to those who are hungry and water to those who are thirsty, to cover those who are naked and to visit the oppressed.  Thank you on behalf of all the sisters and brothers of Dichato.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you today and always.  We, the sisters and brothers of Dichato affected by the tsunami, wish you the peace of our Lord. Representing the sisters and brothers of Dichato,

Sister Jacqueline

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

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