Footprints in the Sand

By Gilda Comayas
Columban Lay Missionary, Chile


Gilda (middle)



We live in an ‘upside-down’ world where societies give more attention to things such as how to make more money, how to be powerful and how to live a very comfortable life, while there are so many poor people who are abandoned, suffering from hunger and war with no houses to live in, trying to survive it all.

At present, I’m working in a desert place called Alto Hospicio, which is north of Chile. Here, people try to live within their limited means to survive. Most of them come from neighboring countries like Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. They migrated to Chile hoping that their lives would change for the better.

There is an area we visit called ‘La Toma’, a place for undocumented settlers. There are already around a thousand families in this area hoping that the government can grant them a piece of land. Some have been staying here for three months waiting for advice or support from the government.

Many have set up their own houses. But sadly, since there is no guarantee that the government will grant them the land, there is a possibility that what they have built will only be demolished and their hard work wasted. What also melts my heart is that this place used to be a garbage dump site. Children have gotten sick because of the unhealthy surroundings. On a very cold day, it would be difficult for those who live in tents or in temporary houses with walls made out of cartons and plywood, and for those who sleep on the ground with thin cushions. But they still remain in this place because they don’t want to go back.

Their struggle to survive in the desert is almost as difficult as trying to find water, in a manner of speaking, as this place is the driest desert in the world. Their small income is not even enough to pay for house rent nor pay for food, not to mention provide education for their children. With no water and electricity, life here is difficult. But they have to bear all these and cling to the hope that one day they will have their own place they can call home.
Many undocumented settlers in Chile live in 'La Toma', similar to  the one above.
I know suffering is part of life. To survive through it is to find meaning in suffering. Sometimes, from the heart of suffering, we can draw out our inspiration and means of survival. But it is not easy to say to them that everything will be alright because I didn´t have the same experience as they have. Even if I put myself in their shoe, it will still be a different feeling.

Living in this reality where they have to face their struggles and sacrifices on a daily basis reminds me of the story of “The Footprints in the Sand”. In the story, a man dreamt that he was walking with the Lord along the beach and, as he looks back, he realized that at his most challenging times, when he needed God the most, there was only one set of footprints. Eventually God reassured him that during those difficult times God was carrying him, letting him know that when he was in most need of God, He was nearest him.

I realize that mission is not just about showing people verses from the Bible, telling them everything is going to be alright and then just leave. It is about accompanying others and be witnesses of God, reassuring them that He is always there through people who are willing to give their time and effort to help, no matter how small. This is all part of the great journey we have with God.

Our team in the ministry is composed of a Columban priest, a deacon, nuns and us, lay missionaries. We do our best to help them in our own little way. When we visit these communities, we listen to their struggles and needs and try to give them spiritual assistance. Since the place for the settlers is still new, we’re planning on celebrating mass every Sunday with them. Maybe in the future, we can also begin to organize some formation, activities, workshop or livelihood programs that can help them. I hope, by the God’s grace, we can fulfill these plans.
Gilda, holding a guitar, during a mass in La Toma
I believe that with prayer and doing something worthwhile, we can make a difference. I consider this as a big challenge in my journey as a missionary. But I let life´s events come freely and welcome the lessons they convey. I let go knowing that God will give me the strength and inspiration to fulfill my mission.

(This article first appeared in Laycom, June 2016)

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