Tocopilla, Chile earthquake rocks UM church in California

December 04, 2007

By Rebecca Jackson

St. John’s UMC, Rohnert Park


The 7.7 magnitude earthquake in Chile on November 14 was “felt” as far away as California – its aftershocks extending to Rohnert Park, California, where St. John’s UMC is a Sister Church to the small United Methodist church in Tocopilla, Chile.


With literal aftershocks

occurring almost daily, the people of Tocopilla are very nervous about what the future holds. Half of the residences and other buildings in the town were destroyed or damaged by the massive quake, although the little church itself suffered only minor damage: a large wooden cross fell off an interior wall, some ceiling panels cracked and fell, and some non-structural cracks occurred around the ceiling.


Kathy Eastman, a member of St. John’s, grew up in Tocopilla, and during a trip there six years ago discovered that she has a niece, Pamela Eastman, who still lives there. With Pam’s help, Kathy organized a relationship between the two churches. Every February, Kathy travels to Tocopilla to deliver school supplies, books, gifts, and money for the growing church.


Growth of the church

The Iglesia Metodista de Tocopilla was started in an old house many years ago. In about 1998, the house was replaced with a structure housing a Sanctuary, two classrooms, a kitchen, and 1.5 baths. In 2000, church volunteers from the nearby town of Iquique helped the Tocopillans finish what they could, but left most of it unfinished. The church in those days was attended by 10-12 youth from Iquique but only on Saturday and Sunday; the rest of the week it was unoccupied. In 2003, Kathy visited with money and supplies from St. John’s, and a young couple was hired to minister to the congregation on a regular basis. They stayed for one year before leaving to return to seminary.


At that point the congregation of St. John’s claimed the Chilean church as a Sister Church, and began supporting it with money and supplies. In 2005 an UMVIM group, headed by Kathy Eastman and Pastor Mike Turgeon, traveled to Tocopilla to help finish several church buildings. They put up a ceiling in the dining hall, painted the kitchen, rebuilt the bathrooms, installed doors to keep the wind out, rewired the buildings for electricity, and enclosed a space between the roof and outer walls to keep pigeons out.


The Chileans were so inspired by the work that Iquique again sent volunteers – this time to finish the walls and floor in the dining hall and tile the bathrooms. A full-time pastor and her husband were hired to minister to the 30-45 children and more than 20 adults who had come to form the congregation. They serve the children breakfast on Sundays, as most of them arrive at church without being fed.


With continued support, the couple plan to extend their ministry to the people in the neighborhood and start programs for domestic violence. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, the church also has been distributing cleaning supplies and other necessities to the town’s residents – and has granted use of a building that it rents next door to the church to relief personnel and surveyors, to serve as their base of operations and sleeping quarters. The church plans to repair the cracks in its own building, which were cosmetic, only after all the town’s residents have been housed again and life has become more stable. Worship services are still being held each week.


St. John’s UMC is seeking monetary donations that can be sent to help the residents of Tocopilla as they work to rebuild their town and homes. Please contact the church office at (707) 584-9780 or e-mail, if you can help.