A Tribute to Helmut and Other Heroes: ¡PRESENTE!

From the Gettysburg P.O.
by the Rev. Michael L. Cooper-White, President

It was a privilege to be among those offering brief comments at a local interfaith community 9-11 commemoration spearheaded by Gettysburg College students.  In my remarks, I recalled another 9-11 in another nation that found itself stunned by a sudden attack upon its leaders and bedrock institutions.  On September 11, 1973, the democratically-elected government of Chilean president Salvador Allende was deposed in a brutal military coup staged by General Agosto Pinochet Ugarte and other high Chilean military officials.  The coup was strongly supported by the United States’ CIA and the administration of President Richard Nixon.  During the reign of terror that ensued and endured for more than 15 years, thousands of ordinary Chilean citizens were snatched from their homes or workplaces.  Many were never heard from again, while the corpses of others were found floating down Santiago’s Mapoche river.  Before he could be brought to final justice and convicted of torture, multiple murders and other horrendous crimes against his own people, Pinochet died under house arrest in 2006 at 91 years of age.

Just as occurred in the wake of the terrorist attacks in our country a decade ago, so in the aftermath of the Chilean coup nearly forty years back, ordinary citizens rose to the occasion with courageous and heroic actions and advocacy for those who were most threatened.  While imprisoned in Santiago’s soccer stadium, folk singer Victor Jara kept on singing and playing his guitar until his soldier captors cut off his fingers.  By the hundreds, heroic ordinary citizens sheltered those who were being persecuted, provided legal aid to the falsely accused, and helped many gain asylum in embassies of nations willing to receive Chile’s refugees, whose only “crime” in many cases was belonging to the wrong political party.

Marching at the head of the parade of justice-seekers and champions forFrenz-September-2007-046-(1).jpg civil and human rights was a feisty German Lutheran pastor who, to his amazement and against his desire, had been elected bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile a short time before the coup.  All Helmut Frenz ever aspired to be was a faithful parish pastor and missionary for a season in South America.  But when the coup came, he found he could not remain silent and quietly tend his flock, the majority of whom supported the putsch.  Time after time, he risked his own life and the safety of his large family by sheltering dozens of terrorized men and women who turned up at his doorstep.  Together with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Santiago, Bishop Frenz founded the Committee for Peace, which rapidly gained international acclaim for its defense of human rights.  A few years after the coup, Frenz was awarded the Nanssen Medallion for his courageous work with refugees, an award deemed of the stature of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Upon receiving the award, he uttered the statement for which he is perhaps best remembered: “I try to identify myself with the poor and those who are suffering in our world, because I find that in giving myself to them I encounter Christ the Lord.”

On Holy Cross Day this year, word came of the rather sudden death of the Reverend Helmut Frenz, who was my first bishop during the year I served under his leadership as an intern/vicar with the Chilean church in 1974-75.  My Chilean sojourn in that era remains among the most formative experiences of my life, and surely the capstone of my theological education and ministerial formation.  A few years ago, upon my first return to Chile in over three decades, I spent a delightful evening with Helmut Frenz, his family and also my director supervisor, the Rev. Esteban Schaller, now retired in Santiago. 

In my remarks “down the hill” on 9-11-11, I recalled those days in the aftermath of Chile’s coup.  As families and friends of the dead and “disappeared” would gather, a roll call would be sounded, which included the names of the departed.  After each name was called, those who had been brutally tortured and then murdered would be “re-called” into the community by a loud chorus shouting “¡PRESENTE!”  (“Present” or “Here”)   Juan, Maria, Felipe.  ¡PRESENTE!  Osvaldo, Hector, Graciela.  ¡PRESENTE!

So now, even as I grieve the loss of one of God’s greatest in his generation, I salute my friend and father-in-the-faith Helmut Frenz.  PRESENTE, Helmut.  I know your impish grin will bring special joy to all those gathered in the larger life of God.  ¡PRESENTE y ADELANTE!

NOTE: For readers who wish to learn more about Helmut Frenz’s courageous ministry in Chile, see my translation of a portion of his autobiography, Mi Vida Chilena in “A Bishop Saving ‘Singers’: Tales of Torture in Pinochet's Chile,” DIALOG Journal Vol. 47, Issue 3.

Posted: 9/23/2011 8:35:20 AM by John Spangler | with 0 comments

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