One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

By Fr G. Chris Saenz

Father Saenz, ordained in 2000, is from Omaha, Nebraska, USA, where the Columban headquarters in that country are located. He spent part of his formation period in the Philippines.

I’ve learned that mission is one step forward and two steps back. This insight hit me on the night of 11 September in our Columban Parish of Santo Tomás Apóstol in La Pintana, an area in the southern part of Santiago de Chile. At 2am I received a frantic call from our parish coordinator, Elizabeth, screaming and crying, ‘Father! They broke down the gates! They broke down the gates and now they are invading the parish!’ This is the story.

Columban priest John Boles
Columban priest John Boles defends his church during September disturbances in Chile.

11 September in Chile has a different meaning than in the United States. In Chile, the military dictatorship of Pinochet came to power on 11 September 1973. It is a date remembered with pain and anger. Every year 11 September invokes this memory that leads to riots and looting in certain areas of Chile, La Pintana, an inner city reality marked by poverty, violence and drugs, being one of the main hotbeds. Today many of the youth, who did not live during the military dictatorship, use 11 September to vent their feelings of impotence and deep anger against society. They often target institutional and public areas.

The main target in our parish is the Santa Isabel supermarket located next to our church. Each year the youth begin to gather around 9pm seeking to confront the police barricaded around the supermarket. They begin with by yelling profanities at the police. They blow up the transformers cutting power to the area, and burn piles of wood and rubber tires in the streets. Eventually, they rush the police barricades throwing stones. The police respond by firing tear gas. The mob grows to 200 or more, all trying to break into the supermarket.

This year the youth did not reach their target. The police repelled their attacks. Becoming more frustrated, the youth vented their anger on the parish.

Every year the parish asks for volunteers to guard the buildings. The received wisdom has been that if people are seen in the compound this will discourage possible looters from entering. This worked successfully in the past. The parish priest, Columban Fr John Boles, from Stockport, England, stayed in the main parish building, where the offices are, with Pedro Moon Byoung Jin, a Korean Columban lay missionary, and five other parish volunteers. Fr Michael Hoban, a Columban from New York City, and I kept guard in the parish house. As the outside assaults began to escalate we knew it would be a long night but never imagined the following events would occur.

As the night progressed I heard the shouting and the retaliatory firing of tear gas. At about one in the morning there was the sound of heavy pounding. I imagined that the youth were banging on the big metal gates of the parish which were locked. Even though my view of the gates was obscured by the main church, I was confident they would hold. Father John witnessed about 15 young men pushing and pounding on the gates for about an hour. Eventually, the gates began to give way. Suddenly about 50 more youths joined in. Father John described the scene as like ‘ants swarming in’. Our small group quickly locked the main parish building and ran for refuge to the fourth floor.

That is when I got the phone call. The mob tried to break the protective gates of the main parish building and threw rocks at the windows on the fourth floor. ‘They have remarkably good aim’, said an astonished Father John. We protected ourselves by shielding ourselves behind overturned tables. I called the police and informed them of the situation. They responded that they were doing what they could. I could hear shouting and breaking of materials. Eventually, I heard car alarms. The two cars in our compound were being broken into.

Father John and the parish volunteers informed me that once the mob realized that people were inside the main parish building they turned their attention to other unoccupied parish buildings. They broke down the doors and windows of our classrooms and kitchen and stole the refrigerator, oven, other kitchen supplies and hand tools. They took out and burned wooden benches. Some delinquents even tried to set fire to the kitchen. I maintained constant contact with our group by cell phone. After an hour the mob left. Father John and the volunteers quickly rushed out of the parish building and came to the parish house. I ran outside and was greeted with the sting of tear gas in the air. My eyes, throat and nose burned. I opened the house gates and let in our battle-weary group. Some were crying and all were bewildered. We locked ourselves in the parish house. Soon we heard pounding noises. The mob had returned for another round of looting. Eventually, all calmed down again around five in the morning when a police car arrived to assess the damage. We drove the volunteers to their homes and tried to get a little sleep so we could begin the next step of recovery.

What is the one step forward? Since the Columbans arrived in this parish seven years ago, we have worked hard to build up the community and improve the lives of the people. This past year we invested a lot of money in improving and repairing the parish facilities for the people. We had been robbed twice earlier this year. So we made great efforts to rebuild. The buildings were not only for parish activities such as catechesis but also for various social groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Child Daycare Facilities, Adolescent Pregnant Mothers, Children at Risk Learning Skills, Bakery Workshops, etc, all meant to give people new skills and hope to improve their lives. We were proud to have accomplished so much. The one step forward was our human efforts to build up the people.

What are the two steps back? Normally, we interpret these as set-backs. Definitely, what happened to us was a great set-back. However, I would like to think the two steps back as God’s grace revealing a truth that was overlooked. One can call it a ‘divine review’. The events of that night left me angry, frustrated and impotent to change anything. These emotions temporarily overclouded my view of the community. Our human efforts meant nothing. Yet God’s revelation came to me. It was pointed out that once the mob realized people were in the parish building they decided not to attack it. Also, they did not enter the main church, the parish house, the lay mission house or the center for the elderly on the property. No one was hurt.


San Alberto Hurtado SJ
San Alberto Hurtado SJ

During the next few days, the community showed a sense of solidarity. One person immediately donated a refrigerator. Several donated their time to repair some of the damage. In our emergency parish council all our pastoral agents expressed their pain. They also expressed their sense of ‘we will not be defeated!’ We originally had planned a parish celebration on 16 September for Chilean Independence Day, El Dieciocho, ‘The 18th’. Some thought we should cancel it but nearly all expressed the desire ‘We must go on’.

The parish celebration would be turned into a parish benefit to raise funds for repairs. Our sister chapel community, Padre Hurtado, named after Chile’s first saint, San Alberto Hurtado SJ (1901-1952), cancelled their own celebration to join ours. Other groups and communities expressed their desire to help out. In this ‘divine review’ God showed me that in spite of the harsh stark reality of La Pintana, the faith and courage of the people cannot be defeated. They continue the struggle to move forward. And that is God’s grace, the two steps back that allow us to take a step forward again with renewed faith.

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