Experiential learning forged new roads of understanding, commitment and bonds of friendship for Minnesota Lutherans who spent last Thanksgiving in Chile. 

Trinity and Christ the King Lutheran churches of Owatonna and Mankato, respectively, are core supporters of the Educación Popular En Salud (EPES, Popular Education for Health) Foundation, a Chile-based organization founded in 1982 to promote health with dignity for the poor through education, empowerment and mobilization. EPES, since 2002 an independent nonprofit, began as a program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile and maintains close ties to the Lutheran church as an ELCA Global Mission-supported ministry. Owatonna is also the birthplace of EPES founder and ELCA Global Mission Personnel in Chile Karen Anderson, who grew up attending Trinity.

Eight days of firsthand and on-site experiences not only reinforced the Minnesotans’ commitment to EPES, but also opened their eyes to the possibility of new ways of doing things at home. That end result surpassed the expectations of Trinity members Paul Floy, trip coordinator, and Melanie Nelson, a long-term EPES supporter who spearheaded the visit. 

Nelson has helped bring multiple American groups to serve with the nonprofit. “People are returning to their homes with a new understanding of marginalized populations and the challenges they face,” she said. “We hope they have been inspired to share the EPES story and become advocates who help support all of [its] amazing programs. Every member of this group returned with a sparkle in their eyes.” 

Ten people from Trinity and 10 more from Christ the King formed a diverse, multigenerational group that spent Nov. 18-26, 2017, in Santiago and the Concepción Province on an accompaniment trip coordinated with EPES.  

“We hope they have been inspired to share the EPES story and become advocates who help support all of [its] amazing programs. Every member of this group returned with a sparkle in their eyes.”

Although the congregations are just 45 miles apart, most in the group barely knew each other prior to the trip. More than 5,000 miles away from home, they came to know each other and the Chilean people they served with very well, painting murals, planting trees to prevent fires, marching with thousands to decry violence against women, and hearing inspirational testimony about resilience and the determination to overcome adversity. 

The issues EPES focuses on—violence against women, tobacco control, environmental pollution, natural disaster emergency relief, obesity, among others—are common everywhere. But its approach to these issues, centering on community participation and assessment, captured the imagination of the Midwestern visitors.  

Popular education 

Through EPES, the group engaged in the experiential learning that gives the organization its name and is at the heart of its methodology. The delegation visited the EPES’ center in Santiago, where they participated in workshops on nutrition, justice and violence against women, allowing them to reflect on the nonprofit’s approach to the promotion and recovery of health at the community level.  

When Patrick Patterson, a pastor of Christ the King, noted that the term “popular education” was “a concept foreign to me,” Floy pointed out that “it’s also pretty foreign to the American culture.” 

In his 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire introduced a value-added dimension to the concept of hands-on learning by employing it as a tool to be used for societal transformation. EPES harnesses Freire’s popular education (translated as “education for the people”) ideas to create a comfortable setting that encourages community reflection on pressing issues and to map a route for improvement—in this case, on the right to dignified health.  

EPES’ popular education strategy includes using board games related to specific issues, ice breaker-activities, skits, dance, mural-painting and, most recently, a song (Nunca Más, Mujer, or “Never Again, Woman”) that stirs awareness of violence against women.  

The song lyrics, created in a workshop on musical composition and feminism, were incorporated into an anti-violence mural created collectively by the Minnesotans, health promoters from local organizations and EPES staff outside a public health clinic in Santiago’s El Bosque district. 

In addition to painting the mural, the group distributed information from a stand erected near the clinic. Alongside the stand was a banner with the slogan “Nunca Más, Mujer,” upon which participants invited women who passed by to write out their experiences, in repudiation of gender-based violence.     

On Nov. 25 the Minnesotans, EPES staff, Chilean church leaders and a Western Iowa Synod delegation marched with thousands of Chileans in Santiago to mark the International Day for the Elimination for Violence Against Women.  

“I had never seen a definition of popular education before, but now I’ve seen it in action,” Patterson said. “I’ve seen that it means drawing out what people know, not just telling them what they need to know from the pulpit. Often in churches we tell people what we have to offer—we have this meal and that worship service. I think we need to spend more time listening to what our communities really need.” 

Returning home inspired 

For EPES, evangelism looks different from what some Americans may be used to, Patterson said. “They aren’t evangelizing [to] people in the typical sense we in America would think of—knocking on doors and telling people about Jesus,” he said. “They are showing people about the love of Christ through their actions, and they don’t even have to say that they’re doing it on behalf of Jesus. [People] know that.” 

During their visit to Concepción, the delegation learned about EPES’ work in Penco. It’s active in the city’s Villa Montahue neighborhood, which was built for families who lost their homes after natural disasters. Today, with EPES support, residents are developing a program to prevent uncontrollable forest fires. Together with area kindergartners, the Minnesotans planted quillay, a native tree, outside a school.  

Floy expected to apply what he learned from this trip in his ministry. “[EPES works] with people to take ownership of the situation and arrive at their own conclusions,” he said. “That’s really powerful for building an organization. We will bring that concept home to whatever we do.” 

Floy first came to Chile to visit EPES five years ago. “This second time really brought into greater focus the amount of work being done to help people identify a problem and find a way to solve it,” he said. “We heard someone say, ‘We may not change everything in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we should not try.’ Change often happens over years, even a generation.” 

Echoing his words, Amanda Weinkauf, a pastor of Trinity, said, “Often we feel like problems are so much bigger than us. It’s easy to say violence against women is too big for me, but that is why you bring a whole community to work on the problem. … I want to [return home] with some really inspired and excited people who will ooze the generosity and love they felt in Chile to the rest of the congregation.”   

Maxine Lowy
Maxine Lowy is a journalist and translator who lives in Santiago, Chile. Her focus is on issues related to human rights, justice, historic memory and gender.

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