A Chilean Adventure

by Ruth Koontz

If someone were to ask me what my favorite possession is, I would probably say: "my atlas." I can spend hours looking at the names of towns, rivers, and mountain ranges all over the world. Actually, it is even more entertaining to visit these places.

Last February, I joined the Bethlehem Covenant mission group on a trip to Chile, led by Dave Swanson. Though it was my first time to South America, it was the fourth time the group from Minneapolis had gone there to strengthen the bonds with some of the newest Covenant churches in the world. I was lucky to be able to visit the Rancagua church and the Osomo church, built by the previous groups, and to work on this year's project at the Bethseda Covenant Church in Concepcion. Oswaldo Troncoso, pastor of this church, is also the President of the Chilean Covenant.

Previously, these Covenant churches were part of the National Federation of Chile, an independent group of churches. They decided to look for a North American denomination with whom to affiliate. Henoch Fuentes, a son of one of the pastors, went to Bible School in the United States and scouted for a denomination to join. He found Cuyler Covenant Church in Chicago, where Spanish is spoken, and he went on to North Park Seminary. He sent the news to his father and the other pastors that the Covenant was the right name to give their churches. Henoch, now the pastor of the Elgin, Illinois Covenant Church, was in Chile visiting relatives when we arrived. He was part of a welcoming crew that made us feel at home the moment our airplane landed.

Our number-one interpreter, Marge Ramgren, called me the token young person. I was able to take off a quarter during my senior year at the University of Minnesota to go south for the winter. Given my major in Architecture, and my love for and many classes in Geography, a journey to Chile to do construction is my dream vacation. It also satisfies my gypsy blood.

The average wage of a Chilean is about $100 a month; a teacher can make up to $200. Prices in the stores are about the same as in the US, but the cost of housing is amazingly cheap, allowing poor families to obtain shelter. In Rancagua, the city was building three-story brick apartment complexes so poor people could get out of their shacks. The Chileans are feeling better about their economy lately and have shown increased confidence in borrowing for big items, such as cars. Group members said that, in the last four years, they have noticed an increase in cars, tourists, and McDonalds.

Rancagua is located just south of Santiago in a warm climate that is perfect for growing fruits and vegetables. Major companies have fields and research plants there. Much of what we see in our produce sections during the winter comes from Chile.

We went to a wedding in Rancagua and witnessed a demonstration of the Chilean knack for staying up late. The wedding started after 9:00 pm and the reception ended at 5:00 am. We left at 2:30 am to get a little sleep before a seven-hour bus ride to Concepcion.

The next day, we headed south through a valley between the Andes and a smaller range bordering the narrow country of Chile on the West. The jagged edges of the mountains framed the sides of the Pan American Highway. While we rode and chomped on grapes as large as thumbs, the scenery and climate changed from being like California to a cooler, wetter climate like Washington state.

Pastor Troncoso and his wife operate a rooming house in Concepcion. They were able to keep the whole group in their pink home halfway up a hill. Mrs. Troncoso fed us too well. We enjoyed her barbecues. Everyone was expected to eat multiple helpings of meat, along with a variety of salads and the ever present pan, the local bread. After eating, we would climb the hill to work off the food, to look at the empty mansions which, strangely, no one wanted to buy (an eerie sight), and to seek an elusive statue of the Virgin Mary.

Our job was to help build a kitchen onto the church building and three new classrooms onto the education building. The first floor of the addition, built before we came, was made of concrete and brick. Our task was to build the second floor with wood. Horse drawn carts brought wet boards to the site. I was told by a Chilean friend that the wood is sprinkled with water daily so that it would not bend. We soon learned that, despite this effort, each piece of wood took a few twists along its length. The architect for the project was a woman slightly older than I, who had drawn the plans for the project as part of her school work.

Mario, the welder, brought excitement to the work day. He had his nose in everybody's business — keeping him from his own work. Mario would give tips on how to hammer and he would fly down the ladder to help direct the movement of materials. He was both a nuisance and a joy to have around.

The best part of the trip were the two days Dave let me off work. I spent this time with a family who wanted to show me the sights of Concepcion, the neighboring towns, and the harbors. The mother, Norma, her son, Rodrigo, and her daughter, Patty took me in as if I were a family member. Only Rodrigo could speak English; but that did not matter to them. I joked — using the five words of Spanish I knew — that my dictionary was my bible. It was certainly well used.

We drove to the beach for a swim in the cold Pacific Ocean, to small fishing villages with yellow, red, and blue boats out in the harbor, to the Naval Base to see an old sailing boat from an early Chilean battle, and to a suburban shopping mall filled with North American stores and restaurants. It meant so much that my "family" came to the airport to send us off. They hugged me and thanked me many times for coming with them, even though it was their unending hospitality that made me feel welcome.

From now on, when I look at a map of South America, I will not merely see the topography, I will see history, ministry, and, especially, the faces of all of the people I met who took a special interest in me. Chile is truly one of my favorite countries.