Got news? Bible studies (plural) in mine?

I don’t know about you, but I had assumed that the spiritual leaders of the trapped miners in Chile would be Catholics. That was true of some, but not all.

I guess I was — in an earlier post — guilty of tunnel vision.

In other words, I didn’t take into account the religious changes sweeping through Latin America. Then again, it is more than possible that lots of other folks in the mainstream press missed an interesting angle on this story, too.

Anyway, I had not heard of the Rev. Marcelo Leiva, a Baptist pastor, and miner Jose Henriquez Gonzalez until today. A Google News search indicates that I am not along, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

However, I do read the Baptist wire services pretty carefully, which is how I ran into this story today. Here’s a key chunk of it:

… (The) traumatic ordeal has forged many new friendships — perhaps none more important than the ones between the miners and those ministering to them and their families.

Marcelo Leiva, a Baptist pastor, and Jose Henriquez, one of the miners, had never met before the mine collapse. Instead, they have communicated in handwritten letters and in a single, brief phone conversation. A half-mile of rock has separated them. But despite the physical distance, the two Chilean evangelicals developed a special friendship.

Henriquez has been an encouragement to his co-workers as they struggled to stay positive during their confinement. An evangelical Christian, he held daily Bible studies for the miners as rescue efforts developed on the surface.

When Henriquez requested an evangelical pastor to aid the miners and their families at the site, Leiva, of Vallenar Baptist Church in Vallenar, Chile, was contacted. The pastor arrived at Camp Esperanza (Hope) about two weeks ago.

As you would expect, Baptists will be Baptists. Thus, there is an evangelistic angle to this story, as well. That received it’s own story a few days ago.

I’ll cut to the chase.

When the mine collapsed, three of the miners — including Henriquez — were Christians. Since then, two more of them have made professions of faith.

“It was Jose who made the request that an evangelical pastor come to minister to the miners and their families,” said Bryan Wolf, an International Mission Board (IMB) missionary serving in Vallenar, Chile.

Now, did anyone else raise their eyebrows while reading that?

You see, while these stories are part of a feel-good media festival, these Baptist Press stories raise an interesting question — one I had not thought of before.

There were only three Christians buried down in that mine? Or were there only three evangelical and/or Baptist believers down there? This is Chile, after all. It’s hard to believe that there were that few men in the mine who were active in their Catholic parishes, men who were in a sacramental relationship with the Catholic faith.

I know that, in this case, we are reading stories from a denominational wire service. This is not the Associated Press.

Still, I wonder if there were faith-centered tensions down there, under all of that rock. Previous stories mentioned a “spiritual leader” among the miners named, 62-year-old Mario Gomez, the group’s oldest member. The Vatican sent 33 “mini Bibles,” and 33 rosaries down the small hole that served as a literal and spiritual lifeline to Gomez and the other miners.

So I’ll ask: How many Bible studies were being held down there? Were there tensions between the believers? Was there spiritual unity among the diversity? Maybe there was both?

Sounds like a story to me, maybe even a complex story, at that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Frank Lockwood

    One time, I got a call from a Baptist pitching a story about the arrival of the Gospel — for the first time in history — in a tiny village along the Amazon River. ‘These people had no Bibles. They’d never heard about Jesus,’ I was told — something along those lines.

    So what’s the name of the village, I asked. It was Santa-Something-Or-Other. The town was named after a New Testament character or a Catholic saint — or both.

  • tmatt

    Frederica Mathewes-Green once saw a t-shirt for a missions group in post-Soviet Russia. The caption: Preaching the Gospel where it has not been preached before (or words to that effect).

    The image? The Moscow skyline, full of onion domes and crosses.

    This after a century containing more Christian martyrs than anywhere else in history, for one culture in such a short period of time.

  • Frank Lockwood

    I was reading El Mercurio, one of the Santiago papers, and noticed that one of the first guys to be rescued was wearing what appeared to be a “Jesus” t-shirt.

    Doesn’t mean he’s a Christian, of course. For all I know, he’s an Armenian.

  • Rob Marus

    Terry, did you see the story on the very subject you raise that The Guardian did a couple of days ago?

  • Pamela Zohar

    Baptist Press? Then only the Baptists were ‘Christians’. Every Baptist knows that Catholics aren’t really Christians. In that mindset, many Protestants are ‘Christians’ (though not all) but certainly Catholics (whether Roman, Orthodox or other) are not. It’s a different world out there. I wouldn’t really consider the Baptist press to be ‘mainstream media’; it’s more of an in-house thing. It’s Baptists talking to Baptists: of course the Christians in question were Baptists.

    Where I grew up (mostly Church of Christ and Baptist), the Roman Catholic church was the Whore of Babylon and the Pope was the Antichrist. Personally, I think the rhetoric has actually backed off of that position quite a lot in the past fifty years, though.

    (just for the record, I grew up in the church of Christ, and in their theology, only members of the church of Christ were actually ‘Christians’. My mother used to say I should not make friends with Baptists, because they were too liberal in their Biblical interpretation.)

  • Marie

    As a denominational wire service it is not surprising that the story use terms as defined by that denomination. In some denominations Christian = Protestantism, or some other qualification that often excludes groups such as Catholics and other groups that don’t conform to whatever criteria set by that faith. While arguments for excluding faiths from Christianity often fall apart when examined closely, it is not surprising or, in my opinion, even poor journalism for a specialized press service to use terms as defined by its audience.
    The question may be whether or not excluding Catholics from the Christian family is a Baptist view point or not. If it is not a universally held opinion in the Baptist community then its use in the article is invalid.

  • Bobby

    It’s Baptists talking to Baptists: of course the Christians in question were Baptists.

    Perhaps. But my reading of the story makes me think that the pastor was (is) Baptist and that the miner was (is) a different kind of evangelical. Baptist Press recently wrote about Josh Willingham, the Washington Nationals’ outfielder, and while Willingham is a Church of Christ member, the BP story never identified him as such. Instead, the piece seemed to write around that and describe him in general Christian terms.

    I don’t know BP’s style, but my (admittedly limited) impression is that Baptists are identified as such and others are identified in a less specific way given the Baptist audience.

  • tmatt


    I saw that. My questions are not about what was happening at the surface, but what was happening IN THE MINE.


    Obviously, you have not read Baptist Press. We are in the era in which some of the most serious ecumenical relationships are on the RIGHT, between Baptists, Catholics, Anglicans, etc. That’s why the language in this piece fascinated me. Trust me, Baptists today know the difference between practicing Catholics and cultural Catholics, etc., etc.

    So, my curiosity was real. Still is.

  • sabrina

    This is from the Catholic press:

    Many of the miners, who had last been above ground Aug. 5, came out of their rescue capsule making some gesture to God, kneeling in prayer, crossing themselves and voicing prayers.


    Bishop Gaspar Quintana Jorquera of Copiapo spent time with miners’ families, sharing in celebrations with those already out of the mine and encouraging those awaiting their loved ones’ return. The bishop also celebrated Mass at the camp … An image of Our Lady of Candelaria, patron of Chile’s miners, which had been a fixture at Camp Hope, was to be moved back to its place in Candelaria Church in Copiapo in a procession Oct. 14

    None of the Catholic press mentions strain between Catholics and Evangelicals within the mine or without.

  • Brett

    In a way, the story seems to reflect the same kind of omissions that the secular press makes regarding religion in general. They don’t reflect deliberate choices as much as they reflect unexamined assumptions about things.

    When a secular media story errs regarding a matter of church history or of a particular church’s polity, the error often seems to spring from a reporter who assumed he or she knew the facts about that matter and so didn’t bother to check more thoroughly. After the passage of the health care reform act, many news stories carried House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s thanks to the religious organizations which supported the bill. I was surprised to learn this included my own denomination, since more of its members in Congress voted against the bill than for it. It turns out that the stories and the speaker referred to work by the secretary of one of our general agencies and classed that as speaking for our denomination. But only our legislative assembly can speak for our denomination, a fact that reporters assumed themselves past when they failed to check into the matter.

    In this case, the unexamined assumption may be that certain strains of Christians are Christians while others might not be. Terry rightly points out that a lot of dialogue is going on between traditional-minded groups across some very old dividing lines, but those discussions might not be known by everyone within those bodies. So an particular reporter or particular report might reflect the older assumptions rather than the new understanding.

    Either way, my thought is that the writer at hand did the same thing that so many writers in the secular press do all the time: Write out of his or her worldview to such an extent that mistakes are inevitable and often egregious.

  • Pamela Zohar

    Ecumenical or not – it’s ‘Baptist press’. Perhaps the editor slipped up, or perhaps he/she was quoting someone’s statement, but to much of the rank and file of Bible-believing Protestants of the evangelical (small e) persuasion, ‘Christian’ = Protestant (and generally excludes both LDS and JW) and Catholic is Catholic. Not that they generally state that in public, of course.
    Which I suppose is what you are curious about in the BP’s story.

  • tmatt


    Very well stated. Excellent.


    My experience among Baptists today does not support your assumption. I think many things have changed in the past quarter century there.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There are Baptists and there are Baptists. Some Baptist clergy won’t even meet with Catholic or Orthodox clergy in our city. Other Baptist clergy are super-ecumenical and are involved in every ecumenical activity here. The big difference seems to be between those who consider themselves “American Baptist” and those who go under the “Southern Baptist” heading (the split going back to the Civil War apparently). And the farther right you go in Baptist and “Evangelical churches the more likely you are to run into those who do not consider Catholics to even be Christian and the Catholic Church to be the Whore of Babylon.
    In the inner city public high school I taught Social Studies in for decades most of the Protestant kids were from strong evangelical or strict fundamentalist churches. And they all were shocked to find out our texts considered Catholics Christians.
    And that is part of the problem in Latin America not reported much in the news media here when they report on evangelical growth there. Some, maybe much, of the evangelical success down there has been through using lies (Catholics aren’t Christian) and bigotry (the Whore of Babylon and Catholics hate the Bible canards– among others).
    For its part, the Catholic Church has sometimes been too involved in political movements while their people have hungered for God and Faith, but were left experiencing one of the worst starvations of all–spiritual starvation.

  • tmatt


    I think you would be surprised. You don’t need to stay in “American” Baptist territory — mainline Protestant Land, in other words, to find people who understand the variations in devotion and commitment within the world of Catholicism.

    I have heard VERY conservative Baptists simply say things like, “I know there are very committed Catholics who are active in their faith and I consider them by brothers and sisters in Christ and then there are other Catholics who are simply Catholics in name only.”

    But overseas, in places where Catholics are the majority and evangelicals/Pentecostals are the tiny minority, I would imagine things will still be ultra-tense. I have seen the same things with Latino Catholics and Latino coverts to evangelical/Pentecostal churches here in USA.

  • Julia

    It has never been my experience that evangelicals/Pentecostals distinguish between Catholics in name only and Catholics who practice their faith. It’s the religion itself that marks Catholics as not Christians.

    I’ve experienced that directly, both as a young person and shortly after 9/11 at a huge ecumenical event that was held at a Catholic shrine. Not knowing that I was Catholic, people were speaking frankly in front of me and even disparaged their host, our bishop – a rather well-known practicing Catholic.

  • Brett

    Julia — at the risk of going off-topic, I’m certainly sorry that you encountered that kind of behavior from my fellow evangelicals. Let me assure you that there are many who would not make distinctions in that way.