How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church
In the Company of All Who've Said Goodbye

Community in the Deep Down Dark

Rosa came home from her first day of tenth grade yesterday and told us that one of the first books she will read for English is "Lord of the Flies."  I was immediately flooded with memories--I also read the book in high school and it made a lasting impression.  The premise of the book is probably familiar:  a group of English school boys are shipwrecked on an island and have to fend for themselves for a while.  Bit by bit they abandon the niceties of civilization and revert to a more primitive social order where the strong prey on the weak.  The book is a parable that challenges readers to consider where compassion and cooperative human activity comes from.  Is it "natural"?  Or is it something that society imposes to control and contain our "real" nature?  

These questions weren't just theoretical to me as an adolescent--they felt deeply personal.  Would I do the right thing even if I wasn't required to do so?  If I was in charge of making the rules, what rules would I make (if any)?  Those are pretty adolescent questions but I still wonder about them.  I'm particularly fascinated by the attempts people have made over the years to find "test cases" where people have to create community on their own.  "Survivor" doesn't really count but the case of the trapped Chilean miners has a lot to teach us.

A little over four years ago, on August 22nd, 2010, the whole world cheered when a rescue team drilled into a collapsed mine in Chile and discovered all 33 men trapped in the mine were alive.  Do you remember watching?  The miners had been trapped for 17 days before they were discovered but it took almost 2 months of work to bring them to the surface.  There was so much goodness in the story of their rescue--international cooperation, the immense love and loyalty of the miners' families who camped out at the surface of the mine and the incredible fortitude of the miners themselves.  I was particularly captivated by the stories of the community the miners created underground.  They organized themselves, worked together and sustained each other.

Now, four years later, their story is in the news again.  First, there was a truly incredible World Cup ad featuring all 33 of the miners, standing together on the site where they had been buried four years prior.  The miners each scoop up some of the dirt at there feet and but it in metal containers as one minor explains that they are sending the dirt to the Chilean soccer team as a reminder of what Chileans can do.  "For a Chilean, nothing is impossible!" shouts the miner.  "We do not care about death!  Death has not beaten us before!"  You can see the video here.  It didn't enable Chile to win the World Cup, but it is really powerful.

A new book by journalist Hector Tobar tells a more complex story about the miners.  The book, entitled "Deep Down Dark:  The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle that Set Them Free" is due out in October but a lengthy excerpt was published in the New Yorker magazine back in July.  Yesterday, as I was running I listened to a stunning interview with Hector Tobar about the book, produced for the New Yorker's "Outloud" podcast.  Now I can't stop thinking about it.

According to Tobar, the miners organized quickly once they realized they were trapped.  They gathered in a designated safety room that had some limited food in a locked cabinet.  Although some men initially helped themselves to the food, the group quickly agreed to a strict rationing system--initially, one tablespoon of tuna and two cookies a day.  There was almost no conflict between the men during those first 17 days before the drill broke through.  Despite the fact that many of them were strangers to each other, they quickly developed a strong sense of solidarity. They sang the Chilean national anthem together.  No one fought, no one stole food, no one left the group.

After a couple of days, they started praying together.  One miner who was an evangelical Christian became the group's "chaplain".  He led them in prayer every day before they ate and told them stories from the Bible including the story of the prophet Jonah's captivity in the belly of a whale and the story of Jesus feeding thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish. 

Soon, these prayer gatherings became a time for men to apologize for things that had happened during the day and to ask for forgiveness from each other.  They apologized for snapping at each other, for not being more helpful.  Eventually, the men who had raided the food cabinet early on even confessed to the group and asked for their forgiveness.  

In the interview, Hector Tobar says, "That idea of bowing before God was definitely essential to their survival, especially for those first 17 days."  One miner who kept a diary through the whole experience was not at all religious prior to this experience.  He wrote that he had always thought of church as a place people go to expiate themselves of sin.  Religion, he thought, was for people who were worried about hell.  The prayer gatherings of the miners showed him that faith in God can be a source of strength.  It can give people the hope they need to sustain life.

Things started to change once the miners were discovered.  Rescuers sent down newspapers and letters from family members and the miners realized that they were famous.  They started to dream about the money they might receive for interviews and book contracts.  Soon they were arguing with each other about who should negotiate deals and who should act as a spokesman.  Once they received Mp3 players, a number of them stopped attending prayer services preferring instead to listen to music on their own.  The evangelicals and the Catholics started to argue with each other over some of the religious symbols the Catholics had received.  Their solidarity started to fall apart.

The story of the miners is almost the opposite of the one William Golding imagined in "Lord of the Flies".  When they were cut off from the world, the miners found the resources they needed to survive in their faith and in solidarity with each other.  It was the intervention of their rescuers--and the anticipation of what life after their rescue would be like--that divided them.




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