Married lay missionaries in Chile learn that trusting in God’s plan can turn worry into an opportunity.
Being raised in a one-stoplight town in north Florida did not prepare me for life as a Columban lay missionary in an inner-city ghetto in South America. With murders happening only blocks from our small house in Chile, only God can give someone the strength and courage to endure the fear. Or can God take the fear away all together?
My wife, Anna, and I spent the last three years as missionaries in the barrio of Puente Alto in Santiago, Chile. More than 200,000 Chileans lived in the neighborhoods that surrounded us, packed together in dilapidated, three-story apartment buildings and small, poorly built duplexes.
With so many people in such a small place, tensions run high. Puente Alto suffers from many of the same problems as the inner-city areas in the United States: gangs and violence are out of control; trash and emancipated street dogs litter the streets; drugs are a part of life; teen pregnancy is the norm.
In Puente Alto, people avoid leaving their homes after 10 in the evening. Every house is a fortress, with barred windows and doors and gates topped with spikes. They keep out the robbers, but they also keep victims trapped in their homes during fires. At night, it’s not uncommon to fall asleep to the sound of gunshots.
As Columban lay missionaries, Anna and I were given the daunting task of helping coordinate our parish’s youth groups. We were just learning Spanish, the parish was huge (eight chapels with more than 300 adolescents), and we were trying to settle into our new lives.
On top of these overwhelming duties, people were barraging us with horror stories about our new neighborhood. Anytime we took public transportation to our house, someone would say, “What are you doing here? It’s not safe for you here.”
We would then explain that we were living in this neighborhood, working here, and their jaws would drop. People told us about the murders, the gangs, all the violent acts that took place right outside our front door, trying to get us to understand what we were getting into.
A Culture of Violence
We quickly saw the effects of the violence in our youth groups. A different teen was mugged every week. The kids carried little cash, but that didn’t matter. Thieves would wait to catch them alone, stick a knife to their stomachs and force them to hand over whatever they had.
The kids were shaken up, and so were we. They came to the youth groups to talk about the problems that surrounded them and to help them cope with the daily violence. After a month or so of this, I became a little edgy. I felt like I was always looking behind me, trying to figure out who was following me. At night, my heart raced a little faster, and I tried to avoid poorly lit areas. I walked faster.
When I came across a group of teens loitering in the street, I immediately crossed to the other side. While what I did was practical, safe and smart, I soon realized my fear was useless. This realization came from something Anna said after an incident.
We had attended a Catholic youth rally during Holy Week in downtown Santiago. About 40 young people chartered a bus and attended the event. It was a typical youth event: high-energy, fun, music, dancing and singing. The kids seemed to be filled with the Spirit.
Regrettably, the event ended after midnight. It took a good hour to gather our youth together and another hour to make it back to Puente Alto. It was past 2 in the morning when we began our journey home.
We saw two young women, who lived close to us, to their doorsteps. We dropped them off without incident and continued our brisk walk to our home.
We turned a corner and then another, trying to make our way to a main street. Before we knew it, however, we found ourselves in a dark, unlit backstreet. The streetlights had been knocked out with rocks. This typically means drugs are being trafficked. Sure enough, a group of about 10 young adults stood in a circle in the middle of our path.
They saw us, and we knew it was pointless to turn around. We walked hand in hand right past them, holding our breath, waiting to be questioned, mugged or beat up.
Surprisingly, no one said or did anything. They let us pass without incident. As soon as we made it back to the house, we locked our doors and breathed a collective sigh of relief. We fell asleep talking about our close encounter.
‘God Is In Control’
A couple of days later, my wise wife brought up the subject up again. “You know what, David?” Anna said. “There’s really no point in being afraid. It’s one thing to be practical, avoid shady areas, try to stay in groups, not travel so late at night if possible. But being afraid is pointless. God brought us here to Chile, and we have to trust Him. We have to believe in His plan. All we can do is pray and always remember that God is in control.” What she said made sense. I prayed for faith and courage. I prayed to always feel God’s accompanying presence.
And, amazingly, the fear began to pass. I tried to always retain a faith in God’s plan, and I left things in His hands. I decided to head out into the streets, to get to know the people in the community—all the people, not just the church-goers.
Basketball was my in. While soccer is still the most-important sport in Chile and all of South America, basketball has been catching on. I went to every neighborhood I could think of, and I brought along my ball. In every area I went, I met people who played. We competed, we talked, and I learned a lot about their lives.
Most of the people I met were good people on the right path. They were teens finishing up school, trying to plan their lives. They were young men who were working jobs in construction or security, trying to make ends meet for their families.
But there were rougher individuals as well. I met drug dealers, gang members and juvenile delinquents. Basketball brought us together. They shared with me their personal, often tragic, stories. I listened to them, empathetically asking them questions. I also answered their unending questions about life in the United States. We shared stories, we laughed together, and we became friends.
A year went by and then two. The apprehension I felt was a distant memory. Leaving God in control liberated me and having faith in His plan helped assuage my initial trepidation.
This is not to say the violence in the community didn’t affect or sadden me. Every murder, mugging and robbery made me feel an incredible sadness, especially for the people who lived in Puente Alto permanently—especially the mothers and fathers who had to worry about their children.
But our faith saved us from dwelling on our fears and insecurities. Still, we did have first-hand experiences with violence: we were on a bus robbed at gunpoint; a mother murdered her three children only blocks from our house; a Columban priest and I attended the funeral of two teens who had been killed in broad daylight during a gang dispute.
No Silent Night
Overcoming my fears enabled me to do something I never would have been able to do otherwise. It was our final Christmas in Puente Alto, and we were going back to the United States in a few months.
As Anna and I prepared for Christmas Eve Mass, a neighbor began hollering frantically at the door. She told me that two other neighbors were brawling, one of whom was a young friend of mine. After I ran to his house, two neighbors and I managed to take control of the situation, physically detaining the two fighters.
This calmed them for awhile, but the two men were drunk and not easy to reason with. The one man was a known drug dealer with gang contacts. My friend ran to his house in search of his firearm, yelling threats the whole way. The drug dealer said he was going to get his friends together. Things were turning from bad to worse.
Instead of running away in fear, I said a quick prayer and then pursued my friend. I had to restrain him and talk sense to him as he tried to find his gun. It wasn’t easy, but, thank God, something got through his inebriated skull. I then tracked down the drug-dealing neighbor, assuring him that my friend wanted a truce.
It took an hour for everything to blow over, but the situation eventually stabilized. I missed my last Christmas Eve Mass in my parish.
Our lives were forever touched by the warm Chilean people whom we came to know. I am thankful for the gift of faith and courage I received. I believe we did God’s work with the youth of Puente Alto.
David and Anna Draper are Columban lay missionaries who met while attending the University of South Florida in Tampa. They joined the Columban lay missionary program in 2003. They now work in a parish in Alto Hospicio near Iquique in northern Chile.