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A letter from Dennis Smith in Argentina

September 2011

Dear friends:

“Gold and silver can still be found in these hills,” said Rev. Manuel Gajardo, my host and moderator of the Presbytery of Chico Norte in Chile. “In my grandfather's day, life was more simple. Miners were satisfied to scrape out a living based on their deep knowledge of the land. They mined enough gold and silver to trade for life's little luxuries, like coffee, sugar and tobacco. You learned to decipher the colors of the soil, the taste of the rocks. Copper ore leaves a slightly sweet taste; silver ore is acidic, like lemon. Back then, education was free. For election day, people dressed up in their Sunday finest; they participated in these civic celebrations with great dignity. These were the days before the consumer society. Today it seems like even candidates are bought and sold.”

The Water and Life Committee of Chigüinto Presbyterian Church

The Water and Life Committee of Chigüinto Presbyterian Church

One of the special joys of my new assignment as PC(USA) regional liaison for Brazil and the Southern Cone is the opportunity to regularly visit, encourage and learn from our mission partners in the region.

Manuel took me to visit the Presbyterian congregation in Chigüinto (pronounced Chee-GWEEN-toe), a community tucked away in a long, narrow valley in the Andean foothills. These are the borderlands of the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth. The valley floor—less than a kilometer wide—is watered by a stream fed by snowmelt and Andean glaciers. People still mine, but they also cultivate vineyards. Water is the most precious resource here—the stuff of life itself.

To get here we drove across the southern edge of the desert. This has been an unusually rainy year here—about 1.5 inches of rain has already fallen! In the years when rain falls, long dormant seeds in the brown sand burst into riotous bloom—a graphic reminder of the link between water and life.

Añañuca flower in Atacama desert

Añañuca flower in Atacama desert

Life in Chigüinto is now threatened by a huge mine being developed by Barrick Gold Corporation, a Canadian company. The Pascua Lama mine is high above Chigüinto on the Chile-Argentina border. Industry sources say that the open-pit mine will yield hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold and silver, plus significant amounts of copper. (Gold is currently selling at $1,800 per ounce.) But the mine threatens local glaciers and other scarce water sources.

Chigüinto Presbyterian Church has served this community since 1906. Remote mountain communities like Chigüinto pride themselves on their community spirit and fierce independence. The church building is adjacent to the town hall and the community center, illustrating the key role this congregation of a few dozen members has played here for generations. The Roman Catholic majority send their kids to the Presbyterian Sunday School and Vacation Bible Schools, where they learn of God's love for them in Jesus as well as the Scripture stories that teach the values that have held this community together.

This local congregation has a Committee for Water and Life that relates to the Presbytery's Commission on the Environment. Their symbol is a flag composed of adjacent white and green triangles; the upper white triangle represents the snow-capped Andes, the lower green triangle their life-giving valley. Members of the Committee told me that they have taken leaves from local plants in for testing; they already show more than 10 times the permitted levels of poisonous heavy metals.

Water and Life Committee presents flag and creed

Water and Life Committee presents flag and creed

One of the tasks of the Committee for Water and Life is to reach out to similar community organizations in neighboring valleys, as well as to scientists, journalists, representatives of the private sector, and government officials. Another task is to work with local children to help them understand the links between their Christian faith and their concern for the environment. Here is a creed two local children presented to me as I shared a meal with the Committee:

I believe in God, who made these mountains and protects the environment.
I believe in God, who calls the Church to care for people and for all of nature.
I believe in Jesus, who cares for people, heals them and teaches us to believe in God.
I believe in Jesus, the fountain of life.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, who protects our planet from pollution and abuse.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into nature:
        as water grows plants
        as the wind gives us breath
        as the Earth gives us a place to live
        as fire gives us warmth.


Under the Mercy,

Dennis Smith

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 280
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, Argentina, p. 303

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