MAPUTO, Mozambique (BP)–In the aftermath of the worst train disaster in Mozambique’s history, God gave two Southern Baptist missionaries an opportunity to minister to the families of 600 dead and injured crash victims.
In the back corner of a makeshift mortuary, a small group bows their heads for prayer. Sobs fill the air and tears flow freely. As the pastor finishes quoting Psalm 23, he lovingly pats a bereaved family member on the shoulder. He wishes he could stay longer to console the hurting family, but he is needed for another funeral service — just a few feet from where he is standing now.
International Mission Board missionaries Gil and Lya Santhon move on to the next group of crying women and downcast men who stare hopelessly at a loved one resting in a modest, hastily made cedar box. This is the 20th funeral service of the day for the Santhons.
“There’s not much that we can do right now but console the families,” Gil says. “We try to do a short funeral and prayer service for whoever wants it. I’m guessing that by the end of the day, we will have done at least 30 funeral services and will probably do that many tomorrow, too.”
More than 200 people died and another 400 were hurt in the accident, which happened in late May when a passenger train crashed into the back of a freight train at a station in the town of Moamba.
The train developed a mechanical fault on a hill about 40 miles north of the capital, Maputo. The driver disconnected the passenger section at the back of the train, wedged four large stones under the wheels of the passenger train to keep it from sliding down the hill and drove the freight section down to the nearby station.
The stones apparently came loose and the passenger cars barreled down the tracks into the freight cars. Eyewitnesses said the collision resembled a large explosion. Dust from cement carried by the freight train filled the air.
Mozambican television showed footage of bodies piled next to the train tracks and soldiers and police searching for victims. Twenty-seven victims were crushed beyond recognition.
“I just came back from the mortuary where piles of dismembered corpses are being identified by family members,” Gil says. “It was one of the most grotesque scenes I have ever seen in my whole life. I tried my best to pray with some, hand out tracts to some and give a word of comfort … but the only thing we can really do now is pray — pray for courage.”
Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest countries, is no stranger to disaster. Plagued with severe flooding the past few years, many farmers have been forced to find work in South African mines. Many passengers on the train were miners returning home to visit family for the weekend.
The accident greatly affected the nation. President Joachim Chissano declared it a national tragedy and called for three days of mourning.
Lya Santhon grieves with the young wives who lost their husbands and the mothers who lost their sons in the accident.
“It’s so overwhelming. We feel so alone in this tragedy. I cannot even imagine how our friends feel,” she says. “Despite our grief, we are in constant awe of the way the Lord has taken advantage of this opportunity.”
In the days following the crash, the Santhons — who have served in Mozambique for 18 months — had more chances than ever to share the gospel. Lya compares the Mozambicans to a sponge, desperate to soak up any hope or peace that crosses their path.
“Most people we talk to are not saved. They don’t even know what we are talking about when we share the gospel,” Lya says. “So pray for us as we console families and let them know that God is here and loves them.”
Gil and Lya Santhon are native Brazilians and members of Northwood Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, Fla. They are serving in Mozambique through the IMB’s Masters Program.