Solidaridad - Community Spirit

Photo: Danilo Caroca Salgado ( ECMAS_EN_EL_CERRO_LAS_CAÑAS_DE_VALPARAISO.jpg), Removed male figure,

The two photographs show the pristine condition of a building in Valparaiso prior to the fire on the left and destruction being wreaked by the flames on the right. Photo: Danilo Caroca Salgado ( ECMAS_EN_EL_CERRO_LAS_CAÑAS_DE_VALPARAISO.jpg), Removed male figure,

In 2010, I was working in Dublin, Ireland, earning a good salary and living a comfortable life. But I always felt something was missing - a thought niggled away at me, despite my efforts to push it to the back of my mind: I wanted to become a missionary! One day, to the dismay of my family and friends, I gave up my job and applied to join St Columban’s Mission Society as a lay missionary. My application was accepted, and after some training and preparation in Ireland, I received an appointment to go on mission in Chile, South America.

My mission began with the process of learning the language and immersing myself in the Chilean culture. One thing that soon stood out for me, something characteristic of the Chilean people, was their amazing community spirit, or solidaridad, as it is expressed in the Spanish language. I clearly remember an example of this during my time there.

I was working in Valparaiso, a port town on the west coast of Chile, renowned for colourful houses and steep, winding streets on the surrounding hills that sweep down to the sea. There are many houses built on the side of those hills, a few fine buildings but most shacks of chipboard and corrugated iron built by the very poor.

In April of 2014, a wildfire started on one of those hills. The intense heat and strong winds quickly spread the fire to neighbouring hills. Within a matter of hours, the flames had destroyed 3,000 homes and left 11,000 people homeless. The steep hills and precarious locations of many of the buildings made it difficult for the fire brigade and other emergency services to get near them.

However, as soon as the fires started to die down, crowds of people from neighbouring areas began mobilising, and offers of help and support appeared. Even in the poor neighbourhood where I was working, people came forward to help in any way they could and with the few resources they had themselves. They opened their homes to take in families that were now homeless and destitute. Other people, young and old alike, came from every corner of the country to offer their skills, money, medical assistance and anything else that was needed.

The government was slow to respond, but the people were not. I took a group of young people and volunteers from the parish where I was working to help in any way we could. We brought food supplies to many families that were still trying to stay and repair their burnt-out homes. We had to climb down ravines and up steep hills to reach many of them. None of the young people with me complained or gave up. They would sit patiently with the families, showing deep compassion as they listened to their stories. Through this experience, I got to know these young people so much more intimately than I could ever have done in our religious education classes.

Cross-cultural mission is a two-way street. Experiences such as these were the rewards that my change of career gave me. Experiences of community, solidarity, compassion, sacrifice. I am so grateful that I eventually stopped and paid attention to those niggling thoughts that beset me during my comfortable life in Dublin. I am so grateful, too, to the people of Chile for all they taught me about community, about solidaridad!

Kevin Sheerin, a former Columban lay missionary, lived and worked in Chile and Hong Kong.

Listen to "Solidaridad - Community Spirit"

Related links

The Far East - New Subscription

Code : 4



Annual subscription to The Far East magazine, published by St Columbans Mission Society 8 times per year. It features mission articles and photographs by Columban Missionaries from the countries where they work.


See all products