For It Is In Giving That We Receive
Long Phi Nguyen SVD
Since February of last year, I have been vice-rector and chaplain at Liceo Aleman del Verbo Divino, a school sponsored by Divine Word Missionaries in Los Angeles, Chile. At our school, we seek to help students develop intellectually, socially, emotionally, physically, and, of course, spiritually. Twice each year, we offer students the opportunity to participate in mission service trips, taking on projects, such as building houses for those who lost their homes in the 2010 tsunami.
Last July during the students’ two-week winter break, I accompanied a group of twenty junior high students on a mission trip to Puerto Dominguez, where two Divine Word Missionaries, Father Rafael Kpandja SVD from Togo and Brother Oscar Melendres SVD from Argentina are serving.
Their parish consists of thirty mission stations. Each of these small communities has its own chapel and gathering place for community activities. Because of the distance and shortage of personnel, Mass is only celebrated in these sites every month or two. Each community is served by a local coordinator who leads the community and organizes the pastoral activities, such as preparation for sacraments and leading the Liturgy of the Word services on Sundays when a priest is not available.
The town of Puerto Dominguez is located on the shores of beautiful Lake Budi, South America’s only salt water lake. The majority of the population are indigenous people, called Mapuches (people of the land). The mapuches have long struggled for sovereignty. While some have assimilated into mainstream society, most have retained many of their traditions and language within the Chilean population.
Although the natural beauty of the area is beyond measure, the Mapuche community lives in great poverty and on the edge of despair. Most rely on subsistence farming, but high unemployment and lack of health care lead to many social problems, including alcoholism and drug abuse. Many young people leave the community in search of jobs in the cities.
One primary school serves the entire area, and there is no school bus service or public transportation which children can use to get to school. Children who do attend school must walk for hours; many do not attend school at all.
The purpose of our trip to Puerto Dominguez was to involve our students in mission projects and activities, for example, building houses, visiting the sick, Bible sharing, organizing games for kids, or doing whatever we could to build up community. Our students formed teams and set off to work with local community coordinators, often walking great distances on muddy paths.
What most impressed me and the students was the hospitality of the Mapuches. When we came to their homes, they received us with a warm welcome. Zoila Blanco, a ninety-three-year-old woman, told me how good it was to see new faces. She welcomed us into her small home and offered us mate (a traditional herbal drink that is shared among several people). A common cup is passed among friends and the mate is sipped through a bombilla (metal straw). For an outsider, this seems a little strange at first, but it is a gesture of friendship and hospitality. In every house we visited, we were treated as honored guests. Men, women, and children shared family stories of good times and the struggles they have endured. They taught us words and phrases from their native language, and we learned to pray the Lord’s Prayer together.
Looking back at our mission trip to Puerto Dominguez, it seemed too short at first, and I wondered what we actually accomplished. Upon further reflection, however, I realized what an absolute blessing it was to listen to the Mapuche stories and to see how God blessed us through them. We received so much more than we gave. In our evening reflections, each student shared his or her experiences, and we all came to realize that our mission trip had changed us. We were transformed by the love, kindness, friendship, hospitality, and faith of the Mapuches.
Please join me and our students in praying for the community in Puerto Dominguez, and also pray for our students and me to grow in faith and be God’s instruments of love, joy, and peace.
Long Phi Nguyen SVD was born in Kien Giang, Vietnam. He came to the United States as a youth and entered Divine Word Missionaries through Divine Word College, Epworth, Iowa. He professed his first vows in 2000 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2007. He is currently the vice-rector and chaplain at Liceo Alemen del Verbo Divino School in Los Angeles, Chile.
Divine Word Missionaries Magazine, Vol. L V No. 1, Winter 2013, issued quarterly.