Elena Huegel – Chile
The sun was just dipping behind the Sentinel, a massive rock formation in the Andes Mountains of Chile, when we hiked back into camp. Three young women accompanied me, and as we watched the sunset turn the rock coppery pink, we compared the paths of our lives to the trails we had covered that day.
I began working with Carolina, now twenty-one, when she was thirteen. We remembered the day I asked her to participate as a member of the Christian Education Committee of the national church. Many adults did not feel that a young teenager could handle the responsibility of preparing workshops and educational materials. However, like the music of the waterfall we heard as we walked along the mountain path, Carolina’s voice on the committee has made us acutely aware of the dreams and needs of Chile’s young people, especially young women; the teens we work with across the country hear themselves reflected in the voice she has given them within the national church. After two years of struggling to find the resources to go to college, Carolina is thrilled to be studying family counseling and human relations.
Magyolene, at the age of 25, is in her last year of college where she is studying agronomy. Though men dominate this field, she has excelled both in the practical and theoretical aspects of her studies. Today we have spent many hours identifying trees and plants and recording our discoveries on a map of the Shalom Center, an educational project of the church. I have given her an opportunity to gain valuable field experience and have helped her in developing her thesis: an in-depth investigation of the healing properties of the oils extracted from the leaves of the Ruil tree, an endangered species that grows only in the coastal area of the seventh region of Chile.
Two years ago, Anita at the age of 20, was going to quit college. She was overwhelmed by the doubts caused by her low self esteem and the many demands in her life: working, studying, and living far from home. I gently but firmly supported her, taking plenty of time to simply listen to her in her struggles, until Anita gained the courage to finish college. Having had the privilege myself of a higher education, I believe that it is my responsibility to accompany and encourage other young women in the pursuit of their goals and dreams. That evening, while looking over the path I have traveled in my life and talking to these young women, I was reminded that I must continue to reach out to those who are coming along behind me in the same way that many hands have helped me over the obstacles blocking my way.
One of the ways in which my work has encouraged other women in their development has been by modeling the desire to keep growing myself. When I started the long process of working toward my master’s degree in Peace Education and Conflict Transformation, I began to share with different women the excitement, challenges, and opportunities of opening oneself to new learning opportunities. In the process of my own studies, I have walked alongside a 45 year old mother in finishing her high school degree, a 27 year old teacher in beginning her own graduate studies, and a 20 year old young woman in starting her courses to complete a degree in elementary school education.
Besides modeling a constant search for learning, as a missionary I try to help to create safe spaces where people can learn that conflict, even between men and women, does not necessarily have to be a disastrous problem nor does it have to result in violence, but that it can also be the opening to new opportunities. In Chile, as in most of Latin America, the obvious and subtle patterns and rules of “machismo” are the sources of some of the deepest conflicts within families, communities, and the society at large. The levels of child abuse and domestic violence are very high reflecting the unresolved issues and systemic violence of a society recovering from the terror of a dictatorship that enforced a code of silence and disregarded basic human rights. As we hike through the Shalom Center, we have reflected on our personal and collective histories, searching for pathways toward healing and reconciliation and envisioning new ways to build our communities.
I am helping to develop the Shalom Center, a place where people can experience a renewed relationship with God, themselves, others, and nature while surrounded by the beauty of the Andes Mountains, and where group and individual processes are promoted through experiential learning in three educational areas: peace education or conflict transformation, environmental education or the care and conservation of the earth, and Christian education or the spirituality of peace builders. As this project has grown, we have been able to organize cross-cultural delegations bringing people of all ages from the United States and Chile together to build bridges of understanding. Chile and the United States share September 11th as a date of national pain and tragedy. The military coup in Chile, which was fully supported by the U.S. government, began on Sept. 11th 1973 with the bombing of the presidential palace in Santiago and the death of the democratically elected president. I realize that as Chileans and Americans share the tragedy and violence of their September 11ths, they can also learn from their stories of hope and courage. I am committed to learning how best to facilitate these cross cultural journeys so that people can experience healing through unity, diversity, and freedom.
There is no doubt that these are violent times for the world. At this precise moment while I write, the United States is involved in a war, and American troops are invading yet another city in Iraq. I wonder if my friend Naba is safe. We studied together at Eastern Mennonite University in June of 2004 shortly after she was appointed to the Ministry of Education under the new government in Iraq. As we shared our stories, I admired her courage, sense of humor, and clarity of thought in such confusing times. While many of the internationally renowned peace builders of the past 100 years have been men, women play a key role in conflict transformation as weavers of relationships. Women hold the multigenerational threads that weave the bright colors of diversity into the new tapestry of healing for our global community. I do not necessarily think that the world would be a better place if women had all the power that men now hold. We, too, can foster hate, revenge, intolerance, and greed. However, I do believe that the wisdom of women that values relationship and community as essential to the wellbeing of humanity must become part of the weaving of peace for the tapestry to be complete. One of the primary objectives of education is to empower women of all ages to become committed peace builders not only locally but globally.
Pentecostal Church of Chile
Elena Huegel is a missionary with the Pentecostal Church of Chile (IPC). She serves as an environmental and Christian education specialist.