Seeking Transcendence in Chilean Churches / Jason Goroncy

Photo by Jason Goroncy.

Photo by Jason Goroncy.

 One thing I often like to do when I’m travelling is to visit places of religious worship, whether such be Buddhist, Baha’i, or Hindu temples, or Muslim mosques, or Jewish synagogues, or Christian houses of worship. Among other reasons, this is partly because understanding the cultus (i.e., those convictions and values embodied in ritual and ceremony) of a place is a window into better understanding its broader culture, and partly because I’m fascinated by how such strange creatures as we are constantly seek to orient our lives around, from, and towards things transcendent. We are, after all, homo religiosus, as St Augustine taught so long ago. One way that this is manifest is in the erection of little shrines around the country – a phenomena prevalent in every part of the world I’ve visited.

Last year, I spent some time in Chile. It’s a country where about 61% of the population describe ‘religion’ as being either ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’ in their lives, and where somewhere in the order of 70% of those over the age of 14 identify themselves as ‘Christian’, the majority of whom (60–70%) are Roman Catholic, with around 15% identifying as ‘evangelical’. 90% of evangelicals tick the box that says ‘Pentecostal’. The remaining 10% of Protestants are a smorgasbord of mostly Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Methodists. While the numbers are debatable, Mormons claim to be the second largest religious group in Chile, after Roman Catholics. There are only around 17,000 Jews, and 3,000–4,000 Muslims in the entire country.

During my time there, I visited a number of churches, both Catholic and Protestant. One Sunday, for example, I was in Santiago and spent time at the Primera Iglesia Bautista de Santiago, a large Baptist church with strong links to the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States. It was an interesting experience, although I must say that an hour of 80s-style rock ‘n’ roll – even when led by a delightful worship leader, as it was – followed by a sermon that goes for over an hour can be hard work on the crowd, even on those who are used to it. It’s made no easier when it seems like all the important stuff is happening ‘up the front’, as it were. Still, it seemed that most people like it this way. Open Bibles and the provision of a detailed sermon outline indicated that here were people wanting to be schooled in Christ. That said, judging by the queues for the loo after the service it also seemed like many were literally busting to get out of there. I know I was. And yet, at the same time I very much welcomed this connection with my Baptist sisters and brothers.

A few days later, I visited a number of Roman Catholic churches, mostly in Santiago’s inner city. These were near empty on Sunday morning, but during the week these cold, dark, dusty, and musty buildings were frequently occupied by somewhere between 40–100 or so people who were praying, mostly at the various side chapels, a couple of which in each place were clearly more important – or more interesting, or more something else – than the others. People stood to pray, knelt to pray, sat to pray. I was struck by how expressive much of this prayer was, and how that expression so significantly corresponded with other forms of physical activity I observed in other public places. Apart from the sidelines of sporting fields or the endless checkouts of shopping malls, such out-in-the-open demonstration of one’s religion is rarely seen in Australia, where we tend to keep our religion more private, and where public displays of such are likely to attract the unforgivable accusation of ‘hypocrite’, or ‘wanker’.

On the day the church marks as Pentecost, I attended two church services in San Pedro de Atacama, the popular gateway town to the world’s driest non-polar desert. The first was at the Ministerio Iglesia Apostolica Internacional. Here, a small, friendly, and welcoming congregation of just under 20 devoted worshippers meet each Sunday morning in a small and minimally-adorned room on the edge of town. It was there that I heard the Call to Worship. It was loud enough to raise the dead, which seems to be the point of the Call. Here too, there were no song sheets or data projector to be had (what a relief!), and a sole (and soul) musician strummed a nylon-stringed guitar, simply. It was beautiful.

For two-and-a-half hours, these humble and decent folks loved Jesús nuestro Señor together through some very loud singing and prayers, through constant sharing of potato chips, through the reading of Holy Scripture (they stood for the Gospel reading. The preacher read the full text, and then the congregation all read it together), and through an impassioned 20-minute sermon on Matthew 13.45–46, during which time the kids and two women departed to a house up the street for Sunday School. It was unclear who ‘the’ pastor was, as most adults seemed to take various leadership responsibilities. Together, they prayed as if ‘God’ might be able to hear them. They prayed like people desperate to find a rare pearl in a dry field of weeds and dust. They prayed as if their entire world depended on these two hopes. They prayed like they lived – expectantly.

Within seconds of the sermon’s final ‘Amen’ being pronounced, congregants who were able were on their knees praying – led by the preacher, loudly. I wondered if some of the men here imagined that God was deaf. Then, as if ex nusquam, there was the mysteriously-coordinated return of the children and their teachers. I wondered too about Karl Barth’s warnings about giving ‘no opportunity for enthusiastic rhapsody’, but it was not my task here to make that call, no matter how delighted I was to see the reunion of child and adult in the congregation – a true Gospel moment in any community given to seeing the face of Christ in the other. (And anyway, if Uncle Karl was serious about that then he should never have written IV/2.)

This was followed by yet a different movement – by hands being gently laid upon one another in an act of blessing. It felt like participating in something simultaneously ancient and new. Gift.

Overall, the gathered seemed to go through an enormous number of tissues, wiping eyes and blowing noses that had been stimulated by some very emotional worship.

Did I mention that it was beautiful?

Not yet worshipped out, an hour or so later I attended Mass at the magnificent Iglesia San Pedro de Atacama, probably the second oldest church building in Chile. It is made principally of mud and algarrobo and cacti woods, and bound together by llama leather. To worship there is like worshipping inside of the world. It was first constructed during the seventeenth century, and has undergone various modifications and additions since. Here, two priests adorned in Pentecost red, a few nuns, and an impressive music group, led a packed cathedral in worship. I was grateful for the moments of silence here, silence shared with so many devoted people seeking connection with things transcendent.

And as the handsome priest placed a wafer on my tongue, I found myself joining them. It was as if the entire week – indeed my entire life, including all those worship events – was simply the prelude to this moment when the Body of God might be consumed.


Jason Goroncy teaches at Whitley College in the University of Divinity.