The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. —Matthew 4:16
We followed the shuffling steps of the miners deep into a Bolivian mountain, stepping carefully among the supports and rails that ran in a straight line down the center of the tunnel. Those tracks would be busy later in the day, supporting heavy carts the men would load with ore as they brought it up from the excavation work taking place some 20 levels below. An occasional fluorescent tube buzzed over our heads and bathed the rock walls around us with an unnatural brightness. We ducked under one last tangle of exposed wires—cables that carried the high voltage needed to power the lights, elevators, and machinery of the working mine—and entered a vaulted room that was hollowed out of rock.
In that cold, dim, and dusty cave, some 300 yards within the heart of the mountain, the contrast hit me: Just a few minutes earlier, we’d been squinting under a bright mid-morning sun, seeking shelter from the heat. Now, I shivered a little and zipped my jacket up to my chin as I thought about how familiar I’d become with these kinds of contrasts and surprises since our team arrived in Bolivia.
A handful of us had come laden with luggage and equipment to Oruro, a city in the eastern part of Bolivia, to capture a story for Celebration of Hope. Oruro is situated high up in the Andes, but the landscape consists of wide plains bent by the curvature of the earth, punctuated here and there by mountains seeming to sprout from nowhere.
The altitude and thinness of the atmosphere meant even the mildest hikes left me panting for breath. In the middle of the day I could feel the sun scorching the back of my neck, but as soon as it dipped below the horizon, I was reaching for every layer I’d packed. In the city, we’d sit in traffic, choking on exhaust fumes and hearing a cacophony of car horns. But a 20-minute drive would take us to places where the only sound was the wind whipping by our ears. Upon one of those windswept plains, thousands of pink-winged flamingoes stood in swaths of ankle-deep water. It seemed everywhere I turned there was another surprise, another contradiction.
In the mine, we stood near the narrow open elevator shafts meant to carry dozens of men at a time down into the darkness. Then our guide, Hilario, motioned for us to follow him toward an unlit tunnel nearby. We switched on our iPhone flashlights and followed him inside. And there I came face to face with one of the most startling contrasts yet. Set into an alcove carved into the rock wall sat a life-sized statue of the devil. His neck was draped in colorful streamers and beads. Around his feet sat bottles of alcohol and other trinkets.
Hilario explained that many people in Bolivia believe that El Tio (a local name for the devil, literally translated as “the uncle”) has dominion over anything underground. Many of the miners would stop at the statue each morning to offer a sacrifice or a prayer for safety before climbing aboard elevators that would take them below.
As I stood there, in one of the most physically and spiritually dark environments I’ve ever experienced, I remembered how we’d spent the previous afternoon atop one of the highest peaks in Oruro where there sits a massive statue of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus. Named the Virgen del Socavón, or Virgin of the Mineshaft, it is the largest statue of its kind in the world.
We’d gone from the peak to the pit.
My heart suddenly heavy, I looked over at Hilario. He smiled at me. The light attached to his miner’s helmet pierced the darkness all around. Hilario is a believer, and we learned earlier that he’d spent nearly every day of the last 20 years in these tunnels, preaching to and praying for his fellow miners. I looked to my other side and saw Pastor Betzaebl and her husband, Walter, who run a nearby church that has a heart specifically for the men of this mine. In them, the greatest contrast of all came into focus.
These brave men and women are the light in the darkness.
Standing there in that cave, I was reminded that even in the darkest places we can imagine, God sends his light. We saw this truth again and again. Each time we came across what felt like impenetrable darkness, we found light breaking through in the form of people who are the embodiment of hope, joy, grit, bravery, and love.
I’m so excited for the next few weeks. Throughout Celebration of Hope we’ll tell stories of amazing men and women who are facing impossible circumstances, but who are trusting God’s limitless power to allow them to be lights in the dark. In addition, we will come alongside them through seed packing, the Willow Creek 5K Run for Refugees, financial giving, and prayer to make sure we’re doing all we can to see God’s light go into every dark place. Because it only takes a little bit of light to chase away the darkness.
By Nick Benoit, a creative director at Willow Creek South Barrington