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What grabs us about Chile

February 23, 2006

Eric Kirkegaard - Chile

The last couple of days we have been thinking about what grabs us about Chile, what are the things that are different, exciting, compelling. Often the most interesting journeys are the ones that we take within the confines of our own souls, the provocative challenges to our thinking.

Greetings from a different kind of down under!

Yesterday I was walking out of the grocery store with a Menards-like home center just across the way, thinking again how strange it is to find so much sameness halfway around the world. Some years ago a friend coined the phrase Generica to describe the transformation of American towns into generic replicas of one another with the same confluence of stores, fast-food restaurants etc. At home it seems that much of the unique character of place is smearing. So what a shock to find the same big business smear here, two Americas away. Our bank card and credit cards, drivers license, etc. all work seamlessly here... Chile is a very cosmopolitan country, albeit perhaps slightly tilted toward a European sensibility. Food is not at all spicy, hot dogs and roast chicken are ubiquitous. Where are we?

Well, as I stepped out the door with all of these thoughts swirling through my head I was startled to hear the sound of a Shofar - a ram's horn bugle used to call Jews to high holy days. The sound is of course quite unique. Here was the wonderful horn blowing that reminded me of the opening of Godspell. What on earth! I scanned the horizon to see a man riding an old bicycle holding the horn in one hand and steering with the other, blowing that horn with gusto as though he were calling out to all present to prepare the way of the LORD. These are the surreal moments of which foreign pilgrimages are made. My mind was spinning, my heart answering the call as I noticed the styrofoam cooler bungee-corded to the back of the bike. This was no call to prayer, it was a call to come and buy ice cream! Ah... on that high-ninety degree-day God once again exhibited a rich sense of humor.

There is a steady mix of sights and sounds that remind us that we are "not in Kansas anymore". We listen to the traffic going by on the streets outside and a couple of times a day, mixed in with the trucks, buses and cars, is the sound of horse hoofs. Horse carts (and ox-carts in the mountains) are plentiful. They are quaint to us, but a sign of an economy that doesn't permit many people to have motorized vehicles with which to do business. In the poor suburb of Santiago where we were working with a new church start, the horse carts were particularly numerous. Interesting for us to think of a horse cart as substantially cheaper to maintain than a car... I don't think that would be true in Wisconsin. Interesting to watch the heavily loaded horse cart sharing the road with the brand new Mercedes sports car. Interesting to see signs on the highways that prohibit walking, riding bikes, horse carts, and push carts. ...wonderful thoughtful challenges to perceptions.

Economics is always eye-opening. A couple of weeks ago Laura went into a shop in the shanty town to buy some snacks for the girls. The only money that she had was a $10,000 peso bill (the equivalent of a $20 bill). They didn't have change in the whole shop. Laura quickly added a number of items to what she was buying and they had to scrape together and borrow from other regular customers enough money to make change. We have been told that minimum wage for a Chilean would only earn them $5 dollars a day. This in a country where a 1,000 square foot home on a postage stamp of land might cost $100,000. Anything electronic is twice the cost of what it is in the US.

Cars, we understand, are also substantially more than in the US. And a night in a hotel during summer season can easily exceed $200. In the churches I don't think that I have ever seen anything larger than the equivalent of a $2 bill put in the offering plate. For many it is the 20 cent coin that they bring forward as a cherished offering. Perspective.

We are also challenged with other inner assumptions. I have been startled with the racial profiling for which I am guilty (I'm not sure that it's racism so much as confused assumptions). There have been many immigrants to this country. Perhaps most profoundly startling is the very large German immigrant population. I cannot count how many times I have encountered a blond-hair blue-eyed person that I expected to be a good Wisconsinite or European only to have them open their mouths and witness to being very clearly Chilean, probably for many generations! It is a very interesting inner journey to realize how deeply ingrained our assumptions are. These observations are cause for further embarrassment when I consider that this is a culture (like most or all) that has deep racist tendencies. Light skin, blonde hair, etc. is considered more desirable and more powerful than dark skin... The roots of the racism are similar to our own: the land owners and business people (once the indigenous people had been forced out) were all European colonialists. Until only the last few decades the land-rights and power stayed within these colonial families. I have heard from some that this was one of the things that President Allende was trying to reform in his short lived presidency before the coup and dictatorship.

Those power-roots are hard to pull up, hard to transform. We hope that some of the work that we've been privileged to be about at the Shalom center, simple work of trying to emphasize that everyone is equal, begins to make a small difference. It only takes a spark...

Tomorrow we head to the annual convention of the Iglesia Pentecostal de Chile. It begins with a parade of tens of thousands of church members who come from all over the country. We get to be at the beginning of the parade as foreign guests. Then a greeting from me to the assembly, a worship service that we pray stays under control and doesn't last all day (a danger for this spirit-lead church) and then our official work here is basically done.

Monday we head off to start a week of vacation. First to the south to the lake region. Berit is very excited to go and see some volcanoes (inactive!). Then we'll head back to Santiago and take a day trip to finally go see the ocean. Can you believe we've been in this narrow country (at most 110 miles wide) for 5 weeks and have yet to see the ocean! Ah, but the mountains have been fabulous.  Soon to home and we will share the stories and pictures in person.

Love and blessings,

Eric, Laura, Berit and Elsa
Eric Kirkegaard served as a Short-term Volunteer with the Pentecostal Church of Chile.  He helped out with the children's programs of a new church start near Santiago with Pastor Jose Donoso, and was involved in a children's camp at the Shalom Center under Elena Huegel's leadership and attended part of the annual meeting of the Pentecostal Church of Chile.



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