It is hard to understand how truly devastating and distressing life was for Chileans under Pinochet’s dictatorship. In order to bring a human, real face to what I have learned about only from history books, I had the opportunity to hear from Columban Father Bob Mosher about his work in Chile as well as how that experience translates to his work on the border in El Paso, TX.
I asked Fr. Bob what stuck out to him when he reflected on his experience to which he replied, “If you read the novel 1984 by George Orwell, Chile under Pinochet was a similar reality.” Government surveillance was only the tip of the iceberg,. Fr. Bob went on to explain the torture that was experienced by Chileans as a means of “controlling the population through fear.”
The Church responded during this dark time, through an initiative called the Vicaria Pastoral Social, by lifting up the stories from torture victims and their families, and by providing psychological, spiritual, and legal support for them to deliver justice when possible.
Fr. Bob’s experience working within the parishes of Chile and with the Vicaria gave him and the parishioners hope in a time of darkness:
We spoke easily and frequently of “liberation,” then– a word that carried such concrete hopes and implications, and was at the heart of Jesus’ message, bringing Good News of freedom from all kinds of slavery– spiritual, economic, social, political. The task of the Church could not be understood as limited to helping people merely cope with suffering. We felt in harmony with something wonderful that God was doing among us… in a climate protected from the fear and darkness of our natural environment.
Even as the darkness of the Pinochet era subsided with the Plebiscite of 1988, Fr. Bob and the work of the Columbans sought to continue helping vulnerable communities. Working within the urban poblaciones, rural and poor communities, Columbans in Chile sought to bring attention to the widening gap between the rich and the poor in the country in spite of its transition to democracy. There was also a focus on the environmental concerns in Chile at this time. While teaching a course entitled Great Religious Traditions and the Environment at the Catholic University of Chile, Father Bob focused on ecological problems facing the nation; for instance, the hydroelectric dam dispute in Southern Chile.
Father Bob is back in the U.S. working in El Paso, and there is no doubt that his experiences during this painful s time in Chile brought him guidance in his current mission to help migrants on the border:
I am able to share with people about the source of peace and love that God is for people who turn to God during the darkest times of their lives, both collectively and personally. This finds a deep resonance among people who have likewise coped with intense violence and politically oppressive governments in their own countries, before coming to the U.S.
Father Bob’s wealth of knowledge and experience dialoging with people who have sought to escape repressive regimes and violence has been a blessing at the Columban Mission Center. There, he brings the same message that he brought to the people of Chile under Pinochet: God is the light of the world and brings hope in a time of hopelessness. Truly understanding the plight of Chileans targeted by the government in the 1980s as well as migrants who come to the United States to escape violence, poverty, and political unrest sheds a new light on our brothers and sisters seeking opportunities and safety in the United States.