Massachussets Conference delegation visits the Shalom Center in Chile
In February of this year I was privileged to be a part of a People-to-People pilgrimage to Centro Shalom, a retreat center of the Pentecostal Church of Chile, which is one of our Global Ministries partners. I had an amazing experience as did the rest of our delegation from Massachusetts. I am so thankful for the opportunity.
My name is Angela Knapton. I am a member of Hadwen Park Congregational, UCC in Worcester, MA (www.hadwenparkchurch.org). I am currently the chairperson of the Massachusetts Conference’s Commission for Mission & Justice and in February of this year I was privileged to be a part of a People-to-People pilgrimage to Centro Shalom, a retreat center of the Pentecostal Church of Chile, which is one of our Global Ministries partners. I had an amazing experience as did the rest of our delegation from Massachusetts. I am so thankful for the opportunity.
Our church had a special service to share with our congregation the experiences of myself and the three youth who went on this trip from our church. I put together the worship service and wrote the sermon that week. I wanted to share that sermon with you. Thank you so much for the work you do, which enables people like me to have a chance to have an experience like the one I had in Chile. I am forever changed….
It may seem hard to believe, but I had a really hard time trying to decide what to tell you about our trip to Chile. It is not that I don’t have stories to tell. It is that I have too many.
I could tell you about the killer bees – there were hundreds of them. (Excuse me.) Or perhaps the tarantula’s – I saw one that was as big as my hand. I could tell you about the dirt and the fact that my suitcase will never be clean again – not to mention the 7 pairs of socks I threw away on the mountain – they were that dirty. We could talk about cut-throat UNO – or playing tag at midnight in the Dallas airport. And, I could even mention the three inch long grasshopper that got into my pants one fateful morning. But those things aren’t why you helped each of us go on this journey. God is – so let’s talk about God.
Over the past few years I have felt my faith slowly slipping away. My BELIEF never wavered. But my faith did. My faith that God would take care of me. Faith that in following God I would find the right path. Faith that everything in life happens for a reason, even if we don’t understand it. That faith that I have held strong in my heart for the first 25 years of my life has been slowly slipping away like sand through my fingers. I’m sure many of you have had that feeling, when the punches are coming hard and fast. When you can’t catch your breath before the next one hits. When you want to give God a Hawaiian good luck sign and ask, “What gives?” Well, that is where I’ve been.
You know the bible passage where Jesus explains that faith can move mountains? Well, I’m here today to tell you that mountains can move faith.
It all started in a yellow van with an elderly woman, who Ryan introduced you to last year as abuela – which means grandmother. She was one of our cooks for the week, and she – like everyone I met in Chile – was amazing.
Picture the van. Taxi-cab yellow. Dust flying all around. No air conditioning. The streets have turned to mostly dirt and rock by now. You are bouncing around. It is quiet, because all of the kids are in the other van. You are surrounded by mostly Chileans – and you haven’t learned to communicate with them yet – so you just look out the window and take in the scenery. Vineyards are everywhere. Then you pass an apple orchard. Now Cherry trees. Next huge stalks of corn. And then the mountains begin to rise up all around you. The van begins to climb. Soon the road narrows and you wonder how that bus is going to get past you. As it does it covers you in your first real layer of dirt and you feel like you are a part of the land. You can see snow capped mountains in the distance and you think to yourself – “Where has this been all my life?” And then it just overtakes you and you begin to sing. “Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee, How great Thou art, how great Thou art! Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee, How great Thou art, how great Thou art!” By the time you are done, you realize that abuela has been singing with you in Spanish – and your eyes fill with tears. You think, “That is how your soul can sing – I understand now.”
The next day, Elena (our UCC and Disciples Global Ministries missionary who serves the Pentecostal Church of Chile at the Centro Shalom) let us know that we would be hiking down the mountain to a river in the afternoon. I began to get nervous. The hike in to camp – especially with the dust – was not easy for me. And that wasn’t even steep. I think Elena must have seen the panic in my eyes, because she pulled me aside later in the day. She wanted me to know that it was completely up to me whether or not I wanted to go on this hike. She explained that where we were going only a handful of the campers and visitors would ever get to see. She also wanted to make sure I understood that the hike was difficult. First a 20 minute hike up the road to the path and then about 45 minutes of hiking down the mountain. Then hiking back up the mountain there were some very steep places. Elena told me it was my decision.
I cannot explain to you the battle within myself. I hate to admit that I cannot do something. I also knew that the only way I would get back up that mountain, was on my own two feet. I didn’t want to – but I knew I was going to have to sit this one out.
The afternoon came and Elena again pulled me aside. “I don’t usually do this,” she said, “but what if I drove you up to the trail in the truck so that you could save your energy for the hike down the mountain.” She was giving me another option. I knew in my heart that I had to take it.
So, I rode to the trail in the truck – and as I watched Tony, Maggie & Tim arrive sweating 15 minutes later, I knew that I would have never made it down that mountain if I had had to hike the whole way.
We had to partner up and go single file as the trail was narrow and steep. Going down, I had a sense of exhilaration. Having good balance I didn’t find it difficult and relished the easy going, knowing the uphill hike would be a lot harder for me. Then, about half way down, we came to a particularly steep part. It was higher than me and almost vertical (those guys back there can attest to the fact that I am not exaggerating).
I panicked. I knew I could get down, but would I ever get back up? I stopped. I was embarrassed because that meant everyone had to stop. I told Elena that I didn’t think that I could do this coming back. John, the Global Ministries long-term volunteer serving at the Centro Shalom, told me he would go back with me if I wanted to turn around. Jorge told Elena something in Spanish which she translated. “You can use the bamboo to pull yourself back up. Jorge will help you if you need it.” Then she added, “It’s up to you.”
I looked up at the sky – so blue. I looked out at the mountain on the other side of the river. I looked into the encouraging eyes of Jorge. I knew I could not stop.
Once we arrived at the river, I knew it was worth it. The water was freezing – as it is fed directly by ice & snow melt from the mountain tops. It was also crystal clear and beautiful. Boulders that looked as though they were just under the surface – were in reality up to 10 feet deep. I sat in awe.
About 20 minutes later we began the trip back up the mountain. I was the last to leave and had three Chileans there to help me. Moyito, who was our fill in nurse and Jorge & Andres – the two master builders who were in charge of the construction at Centro Shalom. As we hiked, I slowly fell behind until I could only see Mary (the second oldest person on the mountain, after abuela) up ahead. Soon, it was just me and my new Chilean friends. I had to stop to catch my breath often. Moyito would ask, “Agua?” and I would say si or no and we would continue on for a few dozen feet. About three quarters of the way up, when I began to get frustrated with my inability to just move forward at a steady pace, I stopped at a rock and sat down. I looked up at the sky, I looked at the mountains all around me and I got teary eyed. In my mind I could hear, “When through the woods, and forest glades I wander; and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze.” I tried to slow my breathing and began to chant, “I can do this. God help me do this. I can do this. God help me do this.” Andres pulled out a bottle of juice and offered it to me. “Energy” was all he said. With a gracias I accepted his gift and wiped the tears from my eyes. Then we continued on and I just kept chanting, “I can do this. God help me do this.”
I am proud to say that except for a steadying hand from Jorge two or three times, I walked, crawled & pulled myself back up that mountain. But, I didn’t do it alone. I had the support of Moyito, Andres & Jorge. And as I finally saw the road ahead, I began to sob, because I knew that without a doubt that I had just experienced a footsteps moment. Jesus had carried me. Those last 20 feet to the road were flat, but they were the most difficult because I was crying so hard. The emotions in me were so strong. Embarrassment at my inability to keep up with the rest of the group. Relief that I had made it safely. Elation that I did it at all. Gratitude for my Chilean friends who kept me going and were so patient and kind.
I got to the road and Elena came to me and held me tight and I couldn’t believe how hard I was crying. In that moment the hole in my heart that had been growing, with a scary car accident, the death of a 26 year old friend, my difficult relationship and then the death of my father & the reality of almost dying on the operating table and more began to fill. My love for God and the beauty of God’s creation – not only the trees and the river and the mountain – but the people that fill it – all these things filled my heart until I felt like I was about to burst. How could I have ever forgotten that Jesus is always by my side? How did I loose sight of the fact that God is in everything that surrounds me? How in the world was I able to distance myself from God – when God was inside of me the whole time?
As I began to calm down, I asked Elena to thank my three new friends as gracias just didn’t seem to cut it. Then I thanked her. She told me of a friend of hers who once climbed down that same mountain. The woman was older and had bad knees. Elena said that it took her half a day to climb back up the mountain, but she made Elena promise that she would make sure that anyone who wanted to do it, had the chance. I told Elena to thank her for me too.
Now, I’m still trying to work through the emotions I uncovered on that mountain. I’m still in a place where I look up at the sky and say, “God, what is my purpose?” But, I can tell you that now the girl who rarely prayed and didn’t even cry when her liver was about to explode, can now cry in the middle of her nightly prayers.
My trip to Chile has opened my heart to so many things. So much of what I work toward in Justice & Missions has been an idea. Something I knew in my head. Because of Centro Shalom, those things now reside in my heart. We must protect our planet with every part of our being. It is God’s greatest gift to us. We must keep our hearts open to new ways of doing things, to new people and new cultures. We are all connected by God. I have learned that through God ALL things are possible. You can connect to people even when they don’t speak your language. You CAN climb a mountain, even if you never thought it was possible. You can feel at home somewhere you’ve been for less than a week. You can love people you know practically nothing about.
Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned in my heart is that we, people everywhere, are more alike than we are different. And, it is our differences that make us beautiful.
So thank you everyone for the opportunity of a lifetime.
Gloria a Dios, Gloria a Dios, Gloria a Dios!