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Relationships aid relief


From left to right: Juanita, César Flores, Eduard Klassen, and Carlos Gallardo consider damage

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Devastation in the city of Concepción.

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A boat tossed far inland by the tsunami.

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June 17, 2010
-Deborah Froese with files from Titus Guenther and Linda Espenshade

Winnipeg, Man. — Although Mennonite Church Canada does not operate as a relief organization, its priority of forming a global church has nurtured relationships that played a vital role in bringing aid to Chile following a devastating series of earthquakes that began on February 27, 2010.

Titus Guenther, Associate Professor of Theology & Missions at Canadian Mennonite University, has served as a Mennonite Church Canada Witness Special Assignment Worker to Chile on a number of occasions. He visited again from April 18 to 27, 2010 on special assignment with Witness and Mennonite Mission Network to connect Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) representatives César Flores (Bolivia) and Eduard Klassen (Paraguay) with Chilean Anabaptist church leaders. Together, they discussed potential MCC earthquake relief assistance. 
Through previous mission assignments by Guenther, relationships with Chilean Anabaptist pastors through IMPaCT (International Mennonite Pastors Coming Together – an annual event led by Mennonite Church Canada), and the extensive ministry of Associate Witness worker Omar Cortés Gaibur, Mennonite Church Canada has established relationships with three distinct groups of Anabaptists and Mennonites in Chile.  These include the Union of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Chile (UBACH), the Evangelical Mennonite Church and the Puerta del Rebaño congregation in Concepción.  All three church bodies had congregations affected in the hardest hit region from Talca to Concepción and surrounding areas. All provided immediate response to their affected congregations and surrounding communities.

As a result of these relationships, Mennonite Church Canada partners were able to provide MCC with valuable information for determining appropriate relief aid and distribution.

Guenther reported that although they witnessed great devastation during their tour of the affected region, in some areas much of the debris had already been cleared away.

“We saw some fishing boats and shipping containers in odd places kilometres inland, far from where they normally belong,” Guenther said. “In one city 24 entire blocks of irreparably damaged buildings had to be bulldozed leaving a flat open space.  An estimated total of 500,000 buildings will need to be demolished before rebuilding can happen. Whole settlements of temporary wood structures are being set up for families who lost everything. Amidst this situation, we heard stories of persons whose homes had collapsed or been swept away going to worse hit areas in order to offer what assistance they could.”

“In reality, God has shown us great mercy because, really, very few people died [in the horrific earthquake],” said Carlos Gallardo, Pastor of Puerta del Rebaño in the hard-hit Concepción area and a previous IMPaCT participant.

Even smaller Mennonite churches operating in situations of chronic poverty were able to provide immediate responses, Guenther said. They sent truckloads of goods that were shared beyond Mennonite circles with the coal-mining town of Lota, about 500 km. south of Santiago. Still others, like the Puerta del Rebaño congregation of Concepción, provided free medical and pastoral counsel. One Mennonite congregation in Santiago sent a youth group to an orphanage near the earthquake epicentre bearing toys and treats.

The presence of Guenther, Flores and Klassen has encouraged churches in their efforts.

“Just your coming and being with us already changes things for us,” said Pastor Mónica Parada of the Puerta del Rebaño congregation of Concepción. “Things are somehow different as a result of your visit.”

UBACH’s president, Raquel Contreras, visited Baptist congregations in the most affected provinces prior to Guenther’s visit. She said that their plan was to first restore homes before the winter rains, and then repair damaged church buildings.

Despite the cooperation and quick response, Guenther reported that churches are aware of the long and arduous road ahead. Work continues on restoring services such as electricity, water and garbage removal, as well as bridge and road repair.

“We invited all sister churches to fill out reconstruction project forms in order to apply for Mennonite Central Committee’s relief funds” he said.

“We are grateful to God that many lives were spared and physical injury was minimal despite the devastation to whole communities and congregations,” said Tim Froese, Mennonite Church Canada’s Mission Partnership Facilitator for Latin America. “It was inspiring to see aid facilitated by multiple church relationships in the affected area, the depth of experience and availability of Titus in Chile, and the collaboration, resources and expertise of MCC working together. When church partners respond to emergency situations as they did in Chile, we see a fine example of what it means to be the global church.”

MCC has committed $150,000 for earthquake relief. MCC does not have program or personnel in Chile, so these funds are expected to be channeled through churches, identified by colleague Anabaptist organizations including Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Mission Network. The funds will predominantly be used for building and furnishing houses and trauma programs.

Mennonite Church Canada is accepting donations.