By Pamela J. Nielsen
VALPARAISO, Chile — Strong winds whipped up choking dust and ash April 21 as a joint Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile (ILC-Chile) and LCMS disaster team climbed charred, steep hillsides, stepping over the twisted metal and concrete remains of a massive fire in this historic port city and neighboring Viña del Mar.
The raging inferno destroyed the homes of some 15,000 people the week after Easter, leaving 11 hillsides scorched bare.
Just 12 days earlier, 1,000 miles to the north, a magnitude 8.2 earthquake struck near the port city of Iquique. The “liar earthquake” — one in which buildings are knocked loose from foundations but still stand — left some 3,000 families homeless and countless homes severely damaged.
The ILC-Chile — an LCMS partner church with seven congregations, two schools, five pastors and some 400 members — had already mobilized before the fires broke out, organizing several trips to Iquique to visit with victims and assess the damage in that area where there is no Lutheran presence.
Faced with dual disasters miles apart, the small church body is undeterred in responding, having learned first-hand about best practices in disaster response after the 2010 earthquake in southern Chile and at the first LCMS-sponsored Latin American Lutheran Disaster Conference in Santiago, Chile, in 2013.
The Rev. Juan Pablo Lanterna, 25 years old with only six weeks behind him as the newly ordained pastor of Holy Spirit Lutheran Church and School in Valparaiso, described the first efforts of the church.
“We formed a mercy team; we wanted to be there in the place with the people who are suffering,” Lanterna said. “We used the crucifix and talked about the theology of the cross, that Christ is present in the middle of our suffering.” Lanterna gratefully recalled his days in the seminary where he learned about the theology of mercy and read the LCMS Mercy booklets written and edited by LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison.
The Rev. Omar Kinas knows all too well what Lanterna faces. In 2010, he was the new seminary graduate called to do mission work in the earthquake region. Now four years later, as the pastor of two mission congregations that formed out of the relief efforts in Talca and Constitución, he has come to help.
“The important thing for the church is to be able to bring the mercy of Christ. Of course there are the material things that you can bring, but it is more important to bring Christ.”
Starting with the 2010 disaster, the hallmark of Chilean disaster response is that teams of laypeople with various skills — including construction, social work and counseling — are always accompanied by a pastor who provides spiritual care for both the disaster victims and team members.
The Rev. Alejandro Lopez, pastor of the church in fire-ravaged Viña del Mar, was part of the initial team that made several trips to the earthquake region in the north.
“We put in our bags many things that we could bring to help the people [and] we didn’t bring clothes for us,” said Lopez, “because we came to walk with them, suffer with them and give consolation to them.”
The dual disasters afforded retiring director of LCMS Disaster Response Rev. Glenn Merritt one last time to mentor and instruct the two men who will carry the mantle of LCMS Disaster Response into the future — the Rev. Ross Johnson and the Rev. Michael Meyer, new director and manager, respectively, for LCMS Disaster Response.
Following visits to both disaster sites, the Chilean pastors met with the LCMS team. Together they began planning an organized and realistic disaster response that will be coordinated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina. Currently the plans include:
- students from Concordia Seminary Buenos Aires, Argentina, participating in a 10-day, hands-on Chile mercy trip.
- planting a church in the Valparaiso/Viña del Mar disaster zone.
- monthly pastoral visits and catechetical work in the earthquake region.
“When someone passes through a disaster, it is great to feel that our brothers in another part of the world have care for us and they understand the mercy of God in the same way we understand the mercy of God,” said the Rev. Cristian Rautenberg, president of the ILC-Chile. “I say thanks again to the LCMS, because through the leaders of LCMS Disaster Response, I am not alone.”
For pictures from the recent Chile disasters, see the photo spread in the June Reporter centerfold and visit photo.lcms.org.
Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate executive director of LCMS Communications.
Posted June 3, 2014