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One small step toward reconciliation

November 2, 2005

There are many points of view here in Chile about the possibility of a war between the United States with its allies and Iraq. I have listened to Chileans with the opinion that the Muslims are gearing up to take over the world, and that we should do everything we can to eradicate this threat from the earth, and to others who feel strongly that the United States is once again playing the role of the global bully.  Some say that the Chilean president should call for a national vote to let the people decide what path to take, while others fear that terrorism will come again, as it did before, to their country.

During the past weeks, as an American living outside the United States, I have tried hard to be "quick to listen," and "slow to speak." (James 1:19) I have heard many different points of view on the current tensions, the threats of war, and the world situation.  Chile, with its position on the United Nations Security Council, is caught between a rock and hard place, or as we would say in Spanish, "between the sword and the wall."  On the one hand, many Chileans and the current president feel strongly that the United States should not go forward with a pre-emptive strike, and that its government should submit to decisions made in the global forum. Also, Chile does not wish to pick a fight with the Arab world by siding with the U.S. as it does not have the technology or security systems to protect itself from terrorist attacks. Will the United States have the solidarity or strength to protect all of its allies in case of a world war?  On the other hand, Chile has had good diplomatic, cultural, educational, and economic relations with the United States and is in the process of signing a free trade agreement to secure a partnership considered vital to the economic growth of the country. Shunning the United States could also be very dangerous economically and politically.  Just this week, it has been discovered that the CIA has been tapping the Chilean government's security phone lines and computer systems and has been intercepting communications to the United Nations and the delegation there.  Considering it's past experiences with the CIA, this violation of Chile's sovereignty has not helped to improve public favor toward the United States or the relationship between the two countries.

Schools opened this past week as March marks the beginning of fall and the new school year in the southern hemisphere.  I have heard elementary school students stand and read essays on the possibilities of war and their fears.  I listened to a group of teenagers at church praying and interceding for the governments, leaders, people, and children of Iraq and the United States.   I have sat around many different tables in meetings and at meals as members of the Pentecostal Church of Chile try to unravel the tangle of news, feelings, and memories.

I think back to an experience I recently had with a brother from the Curicó church. He came up to me after Sunday worship.  I never had had the opportunity to talk to this man, though I had often greeted him in church or when we met on the street somewhere.  So, I was a little surprised when he came straight up to me, and with a look of anguish on his face, blurted out something about war, the United States, and peace.  I didn't understand all of his words, charged as they were with emotion, but his tear filled eyes and his expression spoke louder than the words.  I can't remember now my exact response, but it was something like: "Yes, my brother, pray for peace, and pray for our sisters and brothers in the United States."   He was not able to say another word, but just nodded and shook my hand.

A couple of weeks later, he stopped me just outside the church.  I had been doing translation and interpretation work with a delegation from the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ during the annual meeting of the pastors of the Pentecostal Church of Chile, and so had been very visible during the whole week.  As the delegates walked on ahead, he gently touched my arm and asked if he could have a word with me.  "I come to beg your forgiveness, my sister," he said. "When I came to you a few weeks ago, I had intended to vent all of my anger and pain on you.  When you told me to pray for our brothers and sisters in the United States and to pray for peace that was not the answer I expected from you.  I was not able to say one more word to you then.  I had never thought that I could pray for the people of the United States and its government.  I must tell you that during all the years that you have been here in our church and in our country, I have not been able to accept anything you have done or said.  I have felt deep rejection of you, your country, and all that the United States represents.  Please, please forgive me."

I did not really understand what he was trying to say to me, but I kept silent and let him continue talking between tears and sobs.  "I was a socialist and a prisoner of war in my own country.  I know what it is like to be in a concentration camp, and the torture I suffered, no human being should ever have to live through."

At that moment, I began to comprehend.   This man, my brother in Christ, had lived in the flesh the results of the coup in Chile that over threw the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, and ushered in the violent and repressive dictatorship of Agusto Pinochet.  I suddenly realized that he also had to be very aware of the U.S. government involvement in Chile that brought about that coup and its horrendous violation of human rights. Most Americans do not remember that on the 11th of September 1973, the United States actively supported the bombing of the presidential palace in Chile, bringing about the death of the President while approving the establishment of the new dictatorship and its totalitarian regime.  Most Americans do not know that the U.S. Navy waited off the coast of Chile ready to invade if the coup was not effective, and that the threats of communism and the loss of benefits to US economic interests were deemed sufficient reasons to turn a blind eye to the resulting reign of terror.    Most Americans do not realize that Chileans feel inexorably tied to the United States because of this past history in the midst of the economic, cultural, and political results of modern globalization.  Most Americans do not know that all over Chile people set aside their differences on the 11th of September 2001 and showed their compassion, empathy and solidarity by participating in prayer vigils for the United States.  But, I do know these things, and struggle constantly to balance my deep appreciation of the values, opportunities, and privileges I have received as an American and the challenges of my Christian faith and calling as a missionary in Chile.   

My brother from the church searched to find words to finish his confession. "Please forgive me for not accepting you."  I reached out and hugged this older man and then whispered to him, "It is I who must ask for your forgiveness."  He looked at me, puzzled.  "Please forgive my country for its part in your suffering and pain.  Please forgive my people what they did to yours."  I could see his defenses coming off like a knight removing his armor.  He clung to me for a few moments, and we wept.  Finally he said, "I would like to tell you more.  Can we talk someday?" Someday, we will take the time, and I pray for grace to listen with compassionate ears and a humble heart.

It was, after all, one small step toward reconciliation, but in the midst of the confusion, fear, hate, conflicting information, propaganda, and growing tension, that encounter reminded me that God still breaths Shalom into creation.  My quest is to find Shalom as it breaks through the heavy curtains of sin wrapped around the world, and to live believing that "God's love and kindness will shine upon us like the sun that rises in the sky. On us who live in the dark shadow of death this light will shine to guide us into a life of peace." (Luke 1:78-79)

Elena Huegel
Curicó, Chile

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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