‘Compadre, Alone We Might Lack Many Things But Together We Lack Nothing.’

By Fr G. Chris Saenz SSC

An American Columban, working with our seminarians in Chile, reflects on the spirit of the Chilean people in the aftermath of the major earthquake that hit that country on 27 February.

It must have been a missionary impulse that woke me at 3:30am on 27 February 27 in my hotel room in Kansas City. I was in Kansas for a relative's funeral and had a morning flight back to Boston. I awoke feeling a little unsettled. Suddenly, my iPhone buzzed, alerting me of breaking news through its CNN application. I read the caption and was stunned: Chile had been hit with an 8.8 magnitude earthquake! Immediately, I turned on the television to get more news. My heart sank when I heard it was in the south of Chile.

I had worked six years in southern Chile and I knew the affected areas and many people who lived there. My godson's family lives in Coronel, which is about 32 kilometers south of Concepción. I feared the worst because of Chile's history with terrible earthquakes. The place where I worked, Puerto Saavedra, holds in its memory the 1960 9.5 magnitude earthquake which produced a tsunami that nearly destroyed the entire town and killed 18 people. Years later, people still lived with post-traumatic shock of that earthquake. Any tremors caused people to shake, break out in tears and run to the hills. Now this recent earthquake will be another reminder of the fragility of people's lives in such areas. Many described the experience as being 'tossed up and down like an egg on a skillet'. The quake lasted for two minutes but for those who experienced, it was an eternity. A woman told me, 'I just held on to my child and prayed to God with all my might!' I feared for my friends' safety - physical, mental and spiritual.

Yet, I also know the Chilean people's spirit. Often criticized by other Latin American countries as being overly nationalistic and patriotic (many Chileans carry the Chilean flag with them when they leave the country) Chileans have a great sense of unity in face of great challenges. The fragile history of the earthquakes has prepared the Chilean people for such events. They have stricter building codes and better infrastructure than most Latin American countries and they react faster to tsunami warnings.

However, their spirit goes beyond these basic preparations. Over the next few days, I received word from my friends over Facebook or through phone calls about how they are struggling to bring back normalcy to their lives and trying to re-establish order. Communities organized to protect their neighbors' homes from looters and shared food resources. Some communities have set up a common food pantry and soup kitchen to help one another. As Oscar, my godson's father, said, 'Compadre, alone we might lack many things but together we lack nothing.'

I was greatly pleased to hear that a prison in Santiago donated a day of its food rations to those who needed them most. In a phone call to Maritza, a young woman who used to be in my youth group many years ago, I discovered that with her father Maritza was traveling to a nearby small town with food supplies for those in need. Maritza is a poor indigenous farmer who does not have much. Yet, she gives to others from her little harvest.

That is the spirit of the people in Chile! And, imagine all of this is being done by the Chilean people's initiative and is not part of the national or international relief efforts that has followed the earthquake.

In spite of this spirit and unity, there is still much that needs to be done. I talked to Sister Ana Maria, a friend of mine, who was with her family in Lota, near the epicenter. She was worried for her father, Alfredo, who is a diabetic. Unfortunately, because of the looters, most pharmacies were sacked and medicine is hard to come by. Alfredo needs his medicine and many others need their medical prescriptions. Also, food supplies, blankets, tents and power generators would greatly help. There are still strong aftershocks and many people have not returned home. Camps are still being set up. So any help with those needs would be greatly appreciated.

In closing, I would like to say that Chile is a country of great unity in times of crisis. The people give us an example of sacrifice and belonging. Hopefully, that example can inspire us to do same for those most in need in Chile. Please help in whatever way you can. God bless.

Father Saenz, from Nebraska, USA, was ordained in 2000. He spent some time in Manila while preparing for the priesthood and has contributed a number of articles to Misyon. You may email him at gchris.saenz@gmail.com