Living in a country experienced with earthquakes, Methodists in Chile knew how to react when the big one came along.

As she felt the tremors of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake early on Feb. 27, Gloria Millar realized that she was too close to the sea and evacuated her home in Penco, a coastal town just seven miles from Concepción, which was devastated by the quake.

The Rev. J. Daniel Pacheco and his family left the parsonage in Lota, five blocks from the water, and spent the rest of the night in the hills.

In Chillán, 40 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter, the Rev. Osvaldo Herreros herded his family beneath a doorway in the parsonage as the ground shook.

The Rev. Nelson Rivera and his wife, Verónica, are camping in the countryside near Los Ángeles, only 112 miles from the epicenter, because their parsonage sustained damage.

Now they and their fellow citizens are assessing damages, looking for food and water and praying for guidance.

In Santiago, the Methodist Church of Chile, assisted by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, is mobilizing for action, even though the extent of the damages from the earthquake, which is responsible for more than 800 deaths, is far from clear.

In a March 2 situation report, Juan Salazar, president of the Methodist Social Ministry in Chile, noted that communications remained a problem. “Even after three days, we haven’t heard from our teams that are working in the area, and we don’t know how they are,” he wrote.

Salazar is part of the InterChurch Emergency Committee Chile 2010 planning strategy for relief efforts. A team was expected to travel south from Santiago on March 4 to assess needs.

With contributions from UMCOR and Church World Service, the committee hopes to purchase and deliver food supply boxes, hygiene kits and bottled water to 1,000 families.

Each food box holds a four-day supply of noodles, flour, lentils, sugar, cooking oil, rice and canned fish. The hygiene kit contains two types of soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrush, toilet paper and bleach.

‘Felt like three hours’

“This was a three-minute earthquake that felt like three hours,” said Herreros, who was at home with his wife, his mother and a 4-year-old grandson in Chillán. “We are used to earthquakes which we experience often, but this one was very intense and too long.”

His parsonage behind the sanctuary received two significant cracks and damage to a bathroom crossbeam. In the sanctuary, the ceiling over the altar fell in and six-foot-high brick fences surrounding the church collapsed.

“The Sunday after the earthquake we had a meeting that we called the ‘Mary and Martha meeting,’” Herreros added, “because part of the congregation prepared the liturgy, devotional and service, while another group cleared the area of the sanctuary that we can still use.”

In Lota, where Pacheco oversees two congregations, at least 1,500 homes were destroyed by the earthquake. Only one church member was seriously injured, but many other congregants were left homeless. “They are lodging in the house of a relative or in tents,” he reported.

One of the poorest towns in Chile, Lota was among the areas plagued with looting. “Before the military arrived, we joined the neighbors to defend our sector from these vandals,” Pacheco said. “The army brought order because it was chaos.

“I say there have been two earthquakes,” he added. “The second one was vandalism.”

In Penco, Millar was grateful when the army arrived and imposed a curfew. “Now we can sleep feeling safe,” she said. “We are now together in my mother’s house and have gathered all the food we can to face this time. We don’t know how long this situation will last. We are helping each other.”

Picking up the pieces

The congregation of the Methodist Church in Los Ángeles is trying to pick up the pieces after the earthquake destroyed the sanctuary and Sunday school rooms.

For Sunday worship, church members gathered in the street in front of the fallen sanctuary to thank God that no one in the congregation was lost. A special service is planned in the city square at the end of this week.

“It has been very hard, very hard,” Rivera said. “We are trying to get up on our feet again, to keep moving forward. The important thing is that God saved our lives and we think he will also provide the means to rebuild the sanctuary and parsonage.”

The pastor said he already has a sign that God will provide: a small amount of money from a box used to hold the children’s Sunday school offerings was found in the rubble.

It may be a matter of history repeating itself. The church in Los Ángeles, which replaced an earlier sanctuary destroyed by the 1960 earthquake in Chile, was built by a United Methodist Sunday school group from a U.S. church, Rivera said.

Donations to the relief efforts of UMCOR and the Methodist Church of Chile can be made online to Chile Emergency Advance #3021178. Donations also can be sent by check to UMCOR and dropped in church offering plates or mailed to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Please indicate in the memo line of the check that it is for the Chile Emergency.

Linda Bloom serves as a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York. Humberto Casanova contributed to this report.

The important thing is that God saved our lives…

– Nelson Rivera

A UMNS photo courtesy of Nelson Rivera

The altar of the Methodist Church of Los Ángeles, Chile, stands amid the rubble caused by the recent earthquake.