Trapped! Faith helps families of miners

Fr. Alvaro Martinez
October 8, 2010

Columban Fr. Alvaro Martinez visits the now world-famous Chilean mine of San José to speak to the trapped workers and their families.

On August 5, 2010, an accident occurred at the San José Gold and Copper Mine, some 30 miles north of the city of Copiopó in northern Chile. It left 33 miners trapped over 2,000 feet down, beneath countless tons of rock.

The mine literally swallowed these men, and initial rescue efforts were frustrated by a second roof collapse. Renewed operations succeeded in establishing contact with them, raising hopes amongst a world audience that their rescue may be imminent. The massive rescue operation is unprecedented in history.

Walking the town’s streets, you can sense the tension and longing, as every single inhabitant, be they relative or miner, listens to the pounding of the gigantic machinery inching through the rock closer to the trapped men. The thundering brings anxiety and expectation in equal measure.

This natural disaster also highlighted deficiencies in Chile’s health and safety precautions for miners in addition to the underlying precarious working conditions of the individuals and families who work to produce a significant amount of the country’s wealth. The majority of Chile’s export-earnings comes from mining, especially the extraction of copper.

As part of my work as a Columban missionary, I present a weekly program on Catholic television, Los Caminos de la Iglesia” (The Way of the Church). Our team went to the mine in order to interview the trapped men and their families from a faith viewpoint.

Since the disaster, a whole town has grown up at the pithead, a giant camp-site made up of family members, friends, rescue workers and the media. They call it, Esperanza, or Hope. Walking the town’s streets, you can sense the tension and longing, as every single inhabitant, be they relative or miner, listens to the pounding of the gigantic machinery inching through the rock closer to the trapped men. The thundering brings anxiety and expectation in equal measure. The families of the men live in tents, where they’ve set up the basic facilities for washing, cooking and eating. Restroom facilities have been made. Even a school has been improvised, so that the missing miners’ children can attend classes even though they are 30 miles from the nearest permanent settlement. All of this heightens the intensity of an enforced community lifestyle.

To this tension has been added a strange ingredient – celebrity status! Press and television channels from all over the globe have converged on the site, many offering lucrative contacts for “Exclusive” stories once the men are out. The temptation of instant wealth resulting from an agreement with a major world network could have negative consequences, for instance, provoking rivalry and envy between the men, or placing on them the strains of instant celebrity. In one interview, I raised the matter with a relative, suggesting that caution might be in order once the men were freed. The reply was uncompromising. “No, we have to look after our future!”

It is hard to hear such words. Still, I suppose it is inevitable that a history of dangerous working conditions, coupled with a life of poverty and the stress of camp life, will combine to bring out the best in human nature and some of its dark side as well.

Faith was a recurring theme in my interviews with family and friends. Miguel explained, “I’m not a churchgoer, but the day they found that the kids (as they call the trapped men) were alive, I blew up with joy, I shouted thanks to God and the Virgin for giving us back the kids.”

Overall however, the story is inspirational, a glass far more full than empty. The 33 souls are inspirational, buried alive for so long, but showing such steadfast faith in God and Our Lady. They are showing a nation that confidence in God and the loyalty of a family can sustain us in the most terrible of moments. The unending vigil of the loved ones and the way in which the men rapidly organized a survival routine of work and prayer a mile underground is inspiration to all.

Faith was a recurring theme in my interviews with family and friends. Miguel explained, “I’m not a churchgoer, but the day they found that the kids (as they call the trapped men) were alive, I blew up with joy, I shouted thanks to God and the Virgin for giving us back the kids.”

I spoke to Alonso, whose cousin Carlos is one of the trapped men, and questioned him as to what had gone on inside the miners’ refuge that had so sustained them. Apparently, one of the men had been quite devout, and he had been sparking lights of hope and faith in each of his companions. In fact, one of the men had always maintained that he didn’t believe in God. Soon after telephone contact had been made with them, he spoke to a cousin, shouting that, “I’ve found God…….now I know God exists.”

All of this got me thinking. Isn’t it fascinating to see the different ways in which God makes himself known to us? He lives in all of us, but chooses His own time and place to make Himself present to us. A humble miner, trapped underground, turns out to be a light in that darkness for his comrades. A convinced atheist finds out that God exists. Family loyalty revives the faith of an entire country. Often, a person´s faith isn’t dead, only dormant, waiting for the right spark to ignite it. Just like Jesus said when faced with the body of Jairo’s daughter in Luke 8:52, “Don’t cry, the child isn’t dead, only sleeping.”

Columban Fr. Alvaro Martinez lives and works in Chile.