It was the branch council of the Javiera Carrera Branch that provided my first exposure to the remarkable faith, grit, and character of our Chilean brothers and sisters. Our two youngest sons, Darin and Spencer, accompanied me as I traveled late one evening to the scene of this horrific fire less than twenty-four hours after it had happened. With only an approximate address and no GPS assistance to guide us, we arrived at the charred scene an hour later than planned. The odor of burned rubble was noticeable as we walked the final two blocks to the site, which one day earlier had been a beautiful chapel. The only remnants of the building were a collection of chairs that had been removed from the cultural hall, three paintings with charred frames that came out of the Relief Society and Primary rooms, and a piano, all of which had been carried from the fiery inferno at great risk of life.
As we approached the apparent foundation and blackened remnants of the building, a dim light was coming from an old mechanical storage area. We could see three heavily damaged and fragile block walls still standing but without any roof overhead. Steel debris was dangling from what had been the ceiling. Inside this partially enclosed space, we found the branch president and his assembled—and complete—branch council. At that moment my boys and I sensed just how significant this physical and emotional loss really was. We will never forget the rank odor and stillness of that night.
These eight branch leaders, representing the branch presidency and the priesthood and auxiliary leadership, had met that evening in the charred remains of their meetinghouse to discuss their plight and develop an immediate plan of faith and action. Those plans included where they would meet on Sunday for church and how they would sort out recovery details while preserving their normal meeting schedule. Sunday would be fast and testimony meeting, and the council decided that with about seventy-five chairs that had been saved from the fire, they would be able to hold a sacrament meeting outside.
The most important principle, however, for my boys and me to learn came when these eight members of the branch council knelt in prayer and invited us to join them. We all knelt together on the soot-covered concrete floor. Then, in a language completely foreign to my sons, President Patricio G Latorre Orellana offered a humble prayer of thanks and supplication to the Lord. It was one of those rare images that cut and paste themselves permanently into the journal of your heart.
In that prayer offered by candlelight in the open air of an uncovered mechanical equipment room, President Latorre asked Heavenly Father to bring peace to each council member’s heart and to bless them to be able to forgive the terrorists who had so brazenly entered and destroyed their beautiful chapel. The prayer contained nothing about capturing the terrorists or punishing them; rather, it was all about these pure Chilean hearts having enough spiritual maturity to forgive those who had despitefully used them. As this humble prayer was being offered, we each experienced a peaceful feeling as though God the Father and Jesus Christ were right there teaching us and allowing us to share in this powerful point of beginning to our mission experience and life in the Chile Santiago South Mission.
As all joined in “amen” at the end of the prayer, I recognized that there was a much more important reason for me to be there that night than to just participate as a supportive new mission president. I was there to learn principles of faith and forgiveness that would help me through the next three years of our service among the faithful Saints and missionaries of the Chile Santiago South Mission.
The principle of forgiveness was taught to me more effectively that chilly July winter night in Javiera Carrera, Chile, than at any other time before or since.
We knew the Church would be able to provide the faithful Saints with physical, emotional, and temporal help, but we immediately became aware of just how much these pure Chilean people would be able to teach us about what really matters and about how a loving Heavenly Father listens to the humble and sincere prayer of those who love Him and who love and honor the name and mission of Jesus Christ. They were in serious need, and they knew they could count on Heavenly Father’s help.
We shed tears of gratitude with them that night. They perhaps thought we were shedding tears of sorrow for the loss of the building, but our tears were tears of gratitude for the lessons we were being taught under candlelight about faith in Jesus Christ and in His matchless love for all of God’s children.
Darin, then twelve years of age, and nine-year-old Spencer, both grew that night in their own faith because of what they saw and felt. We processed the events of the evening and started to see that the hand of the Lord would teach us all by our individual trials and adversity. “The Lord did visit them with his Spirit, and said unto them: Be comforted. And they were comforted” (Alma 17:10).
We returned as a family to the Javiera Carrera chapel site three days later for the branch’s scheduled sacrament meeting. It was once again a cold July day, rainy and overcast, but the warmth of the experience will never be forgotten. The meeting was held on the grass, dirt, and pavement adjacent to the burned-out building. The steel chairs were placed on the grass, and the piano was well located so it could be heard. There was no pulpit or sound system, but a table had been borrowed in order to administer the sacrament. My wife and I, along with our son Scott, occupied three of the chairs, and our other three children sat next to us on the grass. We arrived about twenty minutes early, but there were already more than one hundred people assembled. Remember, this was a branch with fewer than thirty-five active members typically attending.
By the time the meeting was to start, more than two hundred people were there for the fast and testimony meeting. We were overwhelmed with the depth of reverence and the happy countenances of those who attended. They came in full support of the faithful core of people who normally attended Sunday services and who had experienced this direct loss. Among those who came were neighbors, friends of active members, and many not of our faith who had genuine empathy for all that had been lost.
A sacred, peaceful feeling permeated the meeting. During the blessing and passing of the sacrament, we felt a sublime reverence that we will never forget. It was a feeling of “be still, and know” (Psalm 46:10) and of “I am with you alway” (Matthew 28:20), which made the experience powerful for our children and us.
As people bore testimonies, we experienced a feeling of gratitude for the Savior’s matchless love. Everyone in attendance experienced a level of understanding and trust that established a powerful and undeniable witness that Jesus Christ is our living Savior and that God the Father loves each of us. Several spoke about patiently enduring and reaching out to provide spiritual support to others during good times and during times of need.
The testimonies were simple yet profound. They came from those of our faith and from those who had never even been inside the destroyed meetinghouse. Words of appreciation, encouragement, and forgiveness came from less-active members as well as from the most faithful members of the branch.