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From the darkness of the mine to the light of day

An interview with Chilean Presbyterian leader the Rev. Manuel Gajardo

January 27, 2011

Dennis Smith

Dennis Smith

COPIAPO, Chile

Editor’s note: On Aug. 5, a mine near Copiapo, Chile, collapsed, trapping 33 miners 2,300 feet underground. They were rescued, miraculously, 69 days later on Oct. 13. On Oct. 28, PC(USA) mission workers sat down with the Rev. Manuel Gajardo, a Presbyterian pastor in Copiapo and vice-moderator of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Chile. — Jerry L. Van Marter

Manuel Gajardo is the son and grandson of miners in Vallenar, a Chilean mining community nestled on the parched western slope of the Andes about 400 miles north of Santiago.

For generations Chile’s miners have extracted silver, gold, copper and iron from these ancient mountains. Like many children in his community, Manuel began working in the copper mines when he was twelve. He completed high school when he was 21. Then, still working for the mines, he began to study engineering at the local university in the evenings.

Manuel is also a third generation Presbyterian. His grandfather learned to read from a Bible bought from an itinerant Bible salesman in about 1900. His grandparents went on to organize the First Presbyterian Church of Vallenar in 1918.

Soon Manuel felt called to the ministry. He decided to set aside his engineering studies and go to seminary. He was ordained in 1985. His whole ministry has been spent in mining communities.

As often happens in Latin America, the churches he served have been too poor to pay him a living wage, so he continued to work in the mining industry, only retiring in 2009.

Gajardo currently serves as vice-moderator of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Chile, a mission partner of the PC(USA). The Presbytery of the Pines has a mission partnership with the Chilean denomination.

One of the three congregations served by Gajardo is in Copiapó, about 100 miles north of Vallenar. Copiapó is the nearest town to the San José mine where 33 Chilean miners were trapped for 69 days last fall. Most of the rescued miners live in Copiapó.

PNS talked to Rev. Gajardo about the role played by his congregation during the rescue operation and about the pastoral challenges facing his church:

Q: You have intimate knowledge of the mines, no?

A: “I began working in the mines when I was a boy. I know the conditions in which miners live. Not the best, I can assure you.”

Q: Tell us about mining operations in Chile.

A: “We have three kinds of mines in our region: the international mining corporations have very large operations. Then there are smaller mines, mostly owned by Chilean companies. San José is one of these mines. They have less access to safety equipment than some of the large international operations. Finally, there are individual miners who work on their own. These are the miners who live in the most precarious circumstances.

Q: What was the church’s immediate response to the mining accident in San Jose?

A: “After the accident, our church began to accompany the families at Camp Hope – after all, they are our neighbors — helping them stay in touch with family members, a sort of telephone ministry.

Q: And now?

A: “Now that they are safe, we have been very respectful of their privacy. They know who we are. They know that we have accompanied them during this crisis. We will wait until they want to talk. Right now, everyone wants to talk with them! There are experiencing an avalanche! That's why I said in the pastoral letter (see below) I wrote to our church after the rescue that the miners were prepared to live in darkness, prepared to live for days on end talking only with the mountain. Probably, they are even prepared for collapsed walls in the mine. But this avalanche is different — the media, the whole world, wants to talk to them. That’s why we have kept our distance until they want to talk. When they do, we will be available to keep them company and to listen to them instead of questioning them — that’s what everyone else wants.”

Q: Tell us about the church in Copiapo.

A: “Our church in Copiapó (the town where the miners live) burned down a few years ago. The PC(USA) helped us to rebuild. We have recently inaugurated the first phase of that construction. This is the space from which we can serve our community. We are located in a very poor neighborhood. The miners know where to find us.”

Q: How did the economic system that drives mining in the region contribute to the San Jose accident?

A: “The economic system in which we live is very aggressive. The mine owners don't invest much in safety, because they are seeking to maximize profit in the shortest possible time. We have many, many miners working for low wages. Unemployment is high and competition is fierce, even for low-paying jobs in the mines. Even a low-paying job in a mine with a poor safety record is better than working on your own. These are the conditions that led to the accident at the San José mine.”

Q:  How would you describe the church’s ministry with these miners going forward?

A: “Our church is faced with a long-range pastoral challenge: how to help miners and their families become aware of their situation so that they themselves become instrumental in changing it. Our task as a church is to educate and to accompany, because our members are miners. There is a living spirit of solidarity among our people, a willingness to reach out to each other and help each other out. Our educational task is to help our members place that spirit of solidarity in the larger social and economic context in which we live, so that we can begin to transform our world.”

Q: For example?

A: “We are also deeply concerned as a church to see that our government has granted permission to a Canadian company, Barrick Gold, to begin open-pit mining in Pascua Lama on the border with Argentina. This project will demand great quantities of glacial water. We are deeply concerned that this new mining activity in this highly sensitive environment will lead to the destruction of these glaciers. The water from these glaciers forms the rivers that give us life. Our church and many other groups have joined together to oppose this new enterprise.”

Q: What have you as a church learned from this experience?

A: “As miners, as citizens, as Christians, we have rediscovered the theology of creation as opposed to a theology of redemption that is concerned only with the salvation of the soul. In our Presbyterian concern for life we have discovered that, really, a theology of creation is far more important, because it takes into account the other person and the permanence of the Earth for future generations. Sometimes we seem to have forgotten that people were the last ones to come to this beautiful creation that God has made.”

Dennis A. Smith is a longtime Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission worker in Latin America and is currently president of the World Association for Christian Communication.

Pastoral letter from the Rev. Manuel Gajardo to the congregations of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Chile, Norte Chico Presbytery, and all people of good will:

“In His hands are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are His also...” Psalm 95:4

Brothers and Sisters:

“The One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion. . .” How much certainty there is in these words, how real they have been for us in these days of this Spring of our Lord who has given us the opportunity to experience a lesson that will not soon be forgotten: the story of “Camp Hope.”

First, it was the solitary women — mothers, wives, sisters, daughters — seeking in the desert their fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, or simply friends. This part of the story, like so many other stories, begins with women. Then come the solitary tents of those who deemed it their obligation to accompany these women. They arrived at the San José Mine with the only thing they had: their hope; the unshakeable certainty that “they” were alive somewhere inside that mountain.

Then symbols began to appear: flags, images of saints adorned with votive candles, pictures of loved ones — as the rescue effort began. There they stayed, day and night, praying, crying, and demanding justice, bearing the wind, dust and heat of day, the penetrating cold of night — for such is the climate of the desert.

And when all seemed to indicate that this would end as just another tragic chapter in the drama of the San José Mine — this time a mass grave lifting 33 crosses into the wind, repeating again the sad story so often told by the Chilean desert — from the depths of the Earth, our mother, our Pacha Mama, came the message that shook us all to the core: “THEY ARE ALIVE!”

This was the beginning of the media spectacle. Crowds appeared, disturbing the tranquility of the desert — from international journalists to clowns who came to entertain the children. From one day to the next, this lonely landscape became Babel, at one point gathering more than 3,000 people.

Remembering that our Atacama Desert recalls great tragedies, fatal accidents, miners — symbols of injustice — shot dead because of their way of thinking, injustice that, despite the years and the endless promises of politicians, has been conserved intact here like the mummies conserved by the arid Atacama air. When one says “Atacama Desert” one thinks of drama, exploitation, and death. But the God of Jesus Christ, our God, revealed to us that this time this land, so long watered with the blood, sweat and tears of miners, would bring forth joy from its depths.

The rescue of the 33 miners in the San Jose Mine, in addition to being a triumph of technology, science and perseverance, lifts up from this desert a lesson for all of humankind. 33 lives — each with the stories, families, triumphs and failures that are common to all of humanity — teaching us that these are lessons from which we must learn: how to live, how to value that which God in His infinite love gives us every day. God knows what we need; God knows what is best for us. Furthermore this proves that when people join together in favor of life, pooling their knowledge, talents, abilities and energy, life responds with life.

For 70 days in the San Jose Mine, the task was not to look for gold, copper, silver or oil, but life — and the Earth brought forth life, 33 living wellsprings, together with embraces, applause, shouts, laughter wet with the tears of all who were in the mine; the jubilation of horns, sirens, and bells of an entire nation joined by the whole world.

All of a sudden we realized that we are human beings and that we are capable of being moved to the last fiber of our being, because as each of the miners was rising to the surface being reborn from the center of the earth, each of us felt that we were emerging from the depths of our own being.

This was the celebration of life, so often sung by Violeta Parra in her anthem, “Gracias a la Vida.” During this time we have shared that which was experienced by our Lord’s first disciples on that beautiful Resurrection morning, so often remembered, so seldom lived as we have lived it today.

The desert, symbol of desolation and death, here at this small spot at the end of the world has become a tribute to life just like Golgotha and the cross of our Master. They must not to be made into a sanctuary or monuments or symbols to be adored, but rather to be transformed into life-giving actions. For a moment may our imaginations fly free and may we design something new, something that shows to all people that the miracle of life can be made permanent when people join together and live in solidarity.

By the grace of God, our brothers, “the 33,” survived the collapse of the mine. In some sense, they were prepared for this because this is the world they know. Now we must pray for them so that they can survive the avalanche of lights, TV cameras, interviews and spectacle to which they will be exposed. Let us pray that they hold fast to the God who rescued them from the depths of the Earth, and to their families who sewed and sustained the faith and hope that returned them to life.

Lord, you know all about miracles and hope. In this hour of their abduction, rescue them from their rescuers. Do not abandon them to the hands of spectacle, because you know, oh Lord, that the cameras will sweep away this tragedy, demonstrating the beauty and bounty of the rescue, without mentioning that this tragedy should never have happened in the first place. Free us, oh Lord, of having to live through all this again. Amen.

  1. The Rev. Guhardo is a sensitive and caring individual. His congregation is fortunate to have such a person leading them. My prayers are with these faithful people.

    by Betty B. Thompson

    January 31, 2011

  2. This pastor, Rev. Guhardo, has such wisdom and is a poet! Thank God he is guiding his congregation to help the miners after the cameras have left and is leading them to get involved in what is happening in their environment. I pray that they will also unite to make mining a safer occupation.

    by Mary Lysobey

    January 29, 2011

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