Passion and Resurrection in Penco
By Linda Unger*
April 27, 2010—When the Rev. Oscar Espinosa Parra pauses to chat on the sand of Penco, Chile, and the blue waves roll rhythmically from sea to shore, it’s hard to imagine this ocean as anything but peaceful. Yet, the evidence of its power to destroy as well as to soothe abounds in coastal towns like this one after the February 27 earthquake and tidal waves came roaring through.
Abandoned buildings, fishing boats tossed onto shore, shipping containers tossed into the sea, mangled cars, broken windows, cracks in the earth, cracks in the walls of schools, homes and churches are now typical of places like Penco and Talcahuano. Dichato, another seaside town and vacationers’ favorite, was practically leveled by the tsunamis. Most of the estimated 450 dead in the disaster were in these towns.
“It’s still shocking to recall it,” Espinosa, a Methodist pastor, says of the catastrophe that struck southern Chile at 3:30 on a Saturday morning. He describes his personal odyssey to General Board of Global Ministries executives Thomas Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Dakin Cook of Mission Relationships, who visited Chile to assess damages and needs.
“We awoke so abruptly and didn’t know what was going on,” Espinosa continues. “The first thing I heard was my daughter screaming for her little boy. And things wouldn’t stop shaking.”
The 8.8 magnitude earthquake was among the most massive ever recorded and while many of the people who, like Espinosa, live by the water expected the ocean to turn violent, there was no official warning that a tsunami was imminent. Nevertheless, Espinosa rushed to get his wife, three daughters, grandson and 90-year-old mother to safety.
“The tragicomedy was that I had to take my mother out of the house in a wheelbarrow. We crossed the entire town that way,” the pastor says. But what he encountered as he did so was not amusing. “I saw the townspeople—semi-clothed, barefoot, with their children and elderly, all screaming.”
It wasn’t until the family reached the tsunami escape route at the foot of a hill near Espinosa’s church that they felt the earth settle down, at least for the moment.
Hours later, the pastor and one of his daughters returned to their home to look for food for his grandson. They discovered that the tidal wave had come over the back wall of the parsonage property and flooded the grounds and entered the house. It left a water mark on the building at 23 inches. Espinosa’s office was destroyed and his farm animals drowned.
While they were still in the home, another tidal wave washed over the wall, and the two managed to flee ahead of it. This was the most damaging tsunami, Espinosa says, because it was less anticipated than the two that preceded it. “It destroyed everything in its path,” he says.
While Espinosa's home has been drying out since the earthquake, the pastor and his family have been living in the church hall. Mattresses line one wall and there are a television and a long table for meals. A folding wall separates their living quarters from a brightly painted community room.
Like a number of his colleagues, Espinosa has had to be a “pastor for his family members and a pastor for his congregation,” says Bishop Mario Martínez Tapia of the Methodist Church of Chile (IMECH), commenting on the role of those pastors who also are survivors of the disaster.
Espinosa has not forgotten his flock or his neighbors. “All around us are people who lost everything, including those who lost their lives,” he says. And there are those who, though hurting, too, brought consolation and solidarity to others. The youth group of nearby and badly damaged Los Angeles Methodist Church, for instance, brought food, clothing and shoes to survivors in Penco.
“This experience has helped us to grow in confidence and to show that even in times like these, Christ is always with us,” Rev. Espinosa says. “We have hope and faith that we will rise up from the rubble and help others to rise, too, all to the glory of God.”
* Linda Unger is UMCOR’s staff writer.