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FIRST-PERSON: Life and death in the Valley of Camarones

CODPA, Chile (BP)–The Aymara Indian’s crushed skull and his twisted legs were all that could be seen protruding from beneath the wrecked SUV that lay above us on the Andean hillside. “There has been an accident,” a policeman told us. “Three people are dead. Can you help us recover the bodies?”

We were on our way to Pachica, one of 142 pueblos in the Chilean province of Camarones, to encourage new Christians and share Christ with Aymarans who have never heard the Gospel. There were 11 of us on this mission trip sponsored by LifeWay, in partnership with a Chilean ministry called “Manantiales en el Desierto” — which means Streams in the Desert. We got out of our vehicles and began the somber climb to the site of the crash.

The rugged mountains, steep ravines and serpentine dirt roads carved out of volcanic rock make passage through these Andean foothills slow and treacherous, especially when, as the police explained, 14 people are crammed into one vehicle, traveling at night.

This pass is particularly devilish, climbing 600 feet in altitude through a series of switchbacks and hairpin curves. Apparently, the driver of the SUV, nearing the top of the mountain, failed to navigate one of the turns. The vehicle slid back and rolled over the edge, plummeting more than 120 feet before resting upside-down in the rocky ravine. Amazingly, 11 people survived, including a 2-year-old.

The dead evidently had been thrown from the car and suffered fatal injuries, with one — an 81-year-old man — pinned beneath it. We later read his name in the newspaper and learned that his daughter also died in the crash, along with an unrelated traveler on his way to a job. We climbed the jagged rocks, helped place the bodies on stainless steel litters and carry them to the road below.

The body of the elderly man required the assistance of nearly a dozen people who tilted the SUV just enough so two of us could free his corpse. As I thrust my hands under the man’s arms and another grabbed his legs, I saw his round face, closed eyes and eerily peaceful smile and wondered whether he had been sleeping at the moment he plunged into eternity.

The policemen thanked us for our help while a photographer from the newspaper in nearby Arica snapped pictures. A few hours later we were in Pachica, and then Esquina, sharing the Gospel with school kids, adobe craftsmen from Peru, and a candle salesman — all of whom found new life in Christ.

Of course the tragic accident reminds us of the brevity of life. James writes that we are “a bit of smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes” (James 4:14). And any preacher worth his salt will share an experience like this to remind unbelievers of the precarious state they are in apart from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

But seeing the Aymara Indian’s face brought home to me three other simple truths:

First, life is brief for all people, not just unbelievers. When Christians stand before the judgment seat of Christ we will give an account, not of how long we lived, but of how faithfully we served. On the long dusty ride to Pachica after helping the police, I prayed to be more mindful of my life’s ticking clock.

Second, our choices have consequences in time and eternity. The driver of the SUV, who survived, will spend the rest of his life agonizing over his failure to negotiate a hairpin turn. The families of the dead are grieving still today. And the survivors are confronted with the mystery of why they made it, and what it means. The three who died, of course, passed into eternity without a chance to say goodbye or make their peace with God.

Third, God is evident in all things if only we look. Seeing the bloodied face of the Aymara Indian man, I thought how God created, loved and sustained him for 81 years. Did he know this? Coming upon the scene of the accident as we did, at the moment we did, gave us a God-ordained opportunity to help the officials who would deal directly with the injured and the grieving. But there’s more.

Two days later we were in Taltaca, a small pueblo on the other side of the mountain from Pachica. We met an Aymara woman named Veronica and six members of her family. She told us she had just read in the paper that her sister-in-law, along with two others, had died in a car wreck across the mountain. She showed us the newspaper, which said some English-speaking tourists stopped to assist the police. Looking at the photographs, she recognized that those tourists were us.

We asked for the chance to tell her about Jesus and she eagerly agreed. That afternoon Veronica and six members of her family trusted Christ, passing from death into life (John 5:24). If ever the imprint of God’s finger on human destiny was clearer, I have not experienced it.

We hugged Veronica and the rest of her family and said our goodbyes. The dust from our wheels hung briefly in the air and then vanished in the fading sunlight as Veronica and her family waved to us. While the eternal destiny of the three crash victims is known only to God, I took comfort in knowing that through Christ’s death, eternal life came that day to the Valley of Camarones.
Rob Phillips is director of communications for LifeWay Christian Resources.

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