We are all Family
Mary Peace Ramos stayed home with her mother who was ill and did not go to church that day. Her mother was resting in the bedroom when Mary Peace noticed the orange and red light flickering in the skylight near sunset. At the same time she peered through the window to discover the next door neighbor’s house completely engulfed in flames, the people across the street began screaming a warning from the front gate of their small wood-frame and brick house…
Mary Peace Ramos stayed home with her mother who was ill and did not go to church that day. Her mother was resting in the bedroom when Mary Peace noticed the orange and red light flickering in the skylight near sunset. At the same time she peered through the window to discover the next door neighbor’s house completely engulfed in flames, the people across the street began screaming a warning from the front gate of their small wood-frame and brick house. As Mary Peace and her mother fumbled to find the gate key, acquaintances and friends from several blocks around jumped over the eye-level metal bars of the fence and began pulling everything her family owned from their house including the refrigerator, the beds, and even jumbled heaps of clothes from the clothesline. By the time the firemen arrived and doused the flames, the house was almost empty. The roof of their home was a charred mess and water dripped down the walls and pooled on the cement floor, but most of their belongings suffered no smoke or water damage.
The Harvest Day worship on May first is my favorite church service in the Pentecostal Church of Chile. This year, representatives from the United Church of Christ, the Revs. John Thomas, Lydia Veliko, and Felix Ortiz, were with us to celebrate the abundance of God’s creation as farmers brought the first and best fruits to the church altar, including everything from chickens, ducks, and goats to onions, apples, and potatoes. Bakers, craftsmen, tailors, carpenters, and popcorn vendors walked down the aisle with their offerings, too. In the middle of the joyous cacophony of choir music, excited children, and squawking ducks, my friend, Richard asked me for the keys to the Shalom Center pick-up truck. “The Ramos’s house is on fire,” he said and ran off to help carry the loads of furniture the neighbors had rescued to the nearby home of another church family. A few minutes later, there was a pause in the worship service to pray for the Ramos family with the invitation to give a special offering. One of the elders drove me to the Ramos’s house after the Harvest Day worship ended. Mary Peace said one relief filled word as she stepped towards me; her arms open for my embrace, “¡Tía!” “Aunt!” I gathered her family into a circle in the water-logged living room with the acrid stench of burnt wood sticking to my nostrils. As we prayed, the Ramos family lifted their hands, weeping in praise and thanksgiving for lives spared. Two of their neighbors died in the fire next door.
Before the winter rains began some weeks later, volunteers from the church had rebuilt the Ramos’s house, roomier and painted in cheery colors. The neighbors, who had helped rescue their belongings, returned each item once the house was ready, even the five thousand peso bill (about ten dollars) that had been lying on top of the refrigerator. I spent an afternoon hauling beds and clean clothes (another neighbor washed and ironed their ash flecked, rumpled, clothes) back to their house in the pick-up truck. Mary Peace’s mother still has nightmares about the fire, but her family has been accompanied every step along the way to spiritual and physical recovery by the women and men of the church. We are family, “en las buenas y en las malas” (in the good times and in the bad times), as they say in Chile.
Those rains came without the cold temperatures due in winter. In Chile, this combination spells disaster. The precipitation that should accumulate as snow and ice on the folds of the Andes Mountains runs downhill filling rivers, scraping away the topsoil, and tumbling trees and boulders in its path. This year, the Mataquito River, its banks denuded of trees that would have absorbed some of the water, turned into a swirling chocolate brown torrent that swept into the village of Licanten, a few miles from the coast of the seventh region. Within a few hours, the pastor of the Pentecostal Church of Chile in Licanten called the central office of the church to report that the water was climbing up to the second story of the boxlike house where he and his wife were attempting to escape from the flood. There hadn’t been time to evacuate. Two days later, with much of the town still seven feet under water and none of the municipal services restored, I received a phone call from my friend, Mónica, the head of the regional CONAMA office (Chile’s equivalent of the EPA). “Where are the Christians in this time of crisis?” she asked me accusingly, her voice weary and strained. The Pentecostals in Chile are often criticized by the wider society for apparently showing little concern for the practical needs of earthly life while concentrating mainly on the life to come. I had no answer.
But the church family did. In worship services up and down the country, people took off their winter coats, necklaces, new shoes, and even wedding rings and placed them in offering plates and at the altar. Mónica called me back the next day. “Three trucks and half-dozen cars have arrived from the Pentecostal Church of Chile filled with goods, and the local church pastor will be sharing it all with the wider community!” One of the trucks was filled with onions, potatoes and other foods from the offerings of the farmers during the May first Harvest Day worship service kept in storage for just such a need during the hard winter months and the other trucks with clothes, shoes, refrigerators, stoves. This time I did have an answer for Mónica, “See, we are all family, after all!”
We are all related. In the Pentecostal Church of Chile, we call each other “sister” and “brother” and though we are not related by blood, we are all part of the same spiritual family bound together by God’s love. Children refer to adults that they particularly admire and respect as “aunt” or “uncle.” As in most families, petty gossip, sibling rivalries, and indiscrete snooping are pushed aside when disaster strikes by solidarity, sacrificial giving, and love.
Elena Huegel is a missionary with the Pentecostal Church of Chile (IPC). She serves as an environmental and Christian education specialist.