by Barbara Hampton
“Everyone in Latin America sighs for `the revolution’ as if they were sighing for the Messiah,” says Orlando Sandoval, director of the University Student Center in Chile. In his country “the revolution” came quietly when Salvador Allende, a Marxist, was elected president in 1970.
"Everyone in Latin America sighs for `the revolution’ as if they were sighing for the Messiah," says Orlando Sandoval, director of the University Student Center in Chile. In his country "the revolution" came quietly when Salvador Allende, a Marxist, was elected president in 1970.
Many feared that those who really do sigh for the Messiah – the evangelicals – would have difficulty surviving under the Marxist-socialist government. So far, their fears have not been realized. Churches remain open, evangelists preach boldly on the street corners in urge cities, university student groups meet to pray and study Scripture together.
Allende has said that missionaries may remain "while they dedicate themselves to their specific task." Although that promise contains a warning not to get involved in Chile’s politics, most of the evangelical missionaries are mare than happy to stay out of the political arena. Back in the 1950’s some missionaries did support one revolutionary – Cuba’s Fidel Castro – only to learn the hard way that such support is not always wise.
Allende has made changes. Most of them affect the economic structure. The most dramatic of these has been the nationalization of key industries, particularly the copper and iron industries, RCA and Ford. Allende must implement changes cautiously. He was brought to power with a very narrow majority, supported by a shaky coalition of leftist groups. Reforms must be approved by the legislature. Through that body the people can indicate their approval or disapproval of the president. If changes are made in the church-state structure, or to limit freedom of religion – a long tradition in Chile – they may have to come gradually, but a change in policy by the present administration could bring them rapidly.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere in which Christians work and witness has changed. It is difficult, for example, for an American to get direct information about the situation because Christians in Chile are afraid their mail will be read. Hence, the information in this article comes second hand: from reading and from a conversation with a missionary on furlough in the United States. He asked not to be identified because he is afraid of potential reprisals against Chilean believers he worked with.
This missionary feels that the economic changes that Allende initiated are having religious implications. The indigenous churches in Chile are predominately lower-class, and even many of the ones begun by missionaries have taken hold among the dispossessed of Chilean society. The middle class, while growing rapidly, is still small compared to the lower class. The upper class has always had wealth as its security. With Allende moving toward his goal of a socialist state, however, that security has been threatened. Evangelicals have a better opportunity now than they have ever had before to discuss with these people that they can have real security in Jesus Christ.
Open persecution – more than fear of censorship of one’s mail seems a remote possibility. Allende seems to be taking every opportunity to reassert that religious freedom is still in force in Chile.
A Christian journalist from Chile believes that if persecution were to come, it "would undoubtedly work the miracle of purifying the Christian ranks." Writing in the Latin America Mission’s Evangelist, Eugenio Orellana comments: "Although the possibility in any case is devastating and terrible, it would oblige those who are going along with one foot in the church and the other in the world to make their decision." He thinks that the present situation during which Christians are watching and waiting and, in anticipation of harm, are drawing a little closer to the Lord is not enough to produce the strong Christian church Chile needs.
Surprisingly enough, many of the members of the large, rapidly growing indigenous churches (that is, completely Chilean, not associated with missionaries) – the Pentecostal groups – voted for Allende. They have been told that communism is not atheistic. "They swallowed it hook, line and sinker," our missionary informant reported, due in part to their ignorance of communism and in part to their low economic status. Naturally enough, they longed to see a change in the economic structure that pits a small wealthy elite against the larger underprivileged populace.
This situation highlights a great need in the churches. Pentecostals make up approximately 75 to 80 percent of the evangelicals in Chile. For the most part, they are not only uneducated but also suspicious of education. Very rarely is a Christian student at a university from a Pentecostal background. In some cases lay pastors speak from the pulpit with no preparation, feeling that the Holy Spirit will put the words in their mouths. Almost to a man these pastors reject the notion of seminary training. Allende could exploit the almost blind support of these people if it would serve his purposes to do so.
The need of the churches, then, is for biblically trained, discerning leaders who know how to direct their people to be salt and tight in their society, without becoming entangled in potentially disastrous political alignments.
Christian students at the universities are in a strategic position to meet this need. They will have the greatest opportunity to interact with people in the professional classes who face an uncertain future under socialism.
Samuel Escobar, a leader in evangelical student work, wrote that throughout Latin America more and more Christian students are "entering student politics and trying to be a light there, preparing themselves to be responsible citizens to bring about some needed changes in their countries. In the past established churches would forget them as worldly. But increasingly they are finding understanding, fellowship and prayer support."
However, the missionary from Chile felt that this generalization was perhaps not as accurate concerning his country as for other countries. Factors affecting the Christian student’s role there are the complexity of the Chilean political scene, the ease with which student groups are exploited by the Marxists who make up 50 percent of the student body and faculty in some places, and the way that political issues tend to overshadow men’s spiritual needs.
Rene Padilla, associate general secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Latin America, says, "We just don’t know where we are going. I suspect that most of the countries in the next few years may go to communism. This is a very strong possibility and we must know the mind of the Lord as to how to work under the new circumstances."
For now at least, the evangelicals of Chile have been called by God to lead the way in godly living under these "new circumstances," a Marxist revolution.
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