Mario H. Ochoa

Dialogue with the executive vice president of ADRA International

Attorney Mario H. Ochoa is the executive vice president of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International (ADRA), with headquarters at Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. His duties include program and project supervision, staff training coordination, contract implementation, and strategic planning worldwide. Prior to joining the Adventist Church's international relief and development ministry, Ochoa directed ADRA in his native Chile for seven years.

Ochoa was born in Santiago, Chile. He completed his secondary studies in Valdivia and earned his law degree at the University of Concepción. He taught courses in law and administration at Chile Adventist College while managing his own legal practice.

From the start, Ochoa's talents and dedication have allowed him to achieve several "firsts." He was appointed as the first attorney ever to represent the Seventh-day Adventist Church in his homeland. He was also the first ADRA director in Chile, a position he assumed when he was 24 years old, the youngest national director ever in ADRA's history.

While he was teaching in Chile, Mario met and later married Marta Cáceres. The couple have three daughters and a son, with the oldest daughter graduating from high school this spring.

Attorney Ochoa, you were not born in an Adventist home. How did you become an Adventist?

As a result of the influence of a group of Adventist university students in Concepción. Although I used to attend the Adventist church in my home town occasionally, I had reservations about joining the church because I felt that Protestants were passive on social issues. When I went to Concepción to study law, I was still a Catholic. But there I met Adventist friends who showed me that it is possible to integrate the proclamation of the gospel with serving people's needs. I was impressed by the commitment of these Adventist students to their faith as well as to their social responsibility in a highly politicized university.

Why did you choose to study law?

From an early age I was very involved in social issues in my community. I was aware of the problems that Chile was facing. I saw the misery in both rural and urban areas. The appalling differences between the rich and the poor particularly moved me. I could not understand why I was fortunate to be born in an affluent family while others were so impoverished. I saw in the legal profession an honorable and effective way of addressing injustice and changing social structures in my country. My father, who is also an attorney, was active in defending poor people's rights in my home town. He was also very important in my decision.

Were you encouraged to study law?

Many people, especially some well-intentioned pastors, thought that to study law was to move in the wrong direction of life that would get one entangled in the unsavory aspects of society. Other Christian friends would point out that to be a successful lawyer is to be a professional liar. But I knew that those concepts were not necessarily true. I was convinced that there's a balance, and that I could find it if I studied not only my law books, but also my Bible, thus maintaining a living connection with God. I loved law and I knew that I could use law to fight the wrongs and injustices in society.

Were there other factors that motivated you toward a legal career?

Yes. First of all, I wanted to show that one could be a Christian and also "use one's brain" without being a fanatic. Secondly, I wanted to be a lawyer capable of articulating Christianity in terms that educated, critical minds could understand and find attractive. Thirdly, I felt that a legal perspective could be valuable to my church in Chile.

What was it like going to law school in Chile at that time?

University life was then dominated by socialists, Marxists, and communists--many of whom were my friends and classmates. They believed that Protestants like me were ignorant, simple-minded people, incapable of deep thought. My classmates did not take Christian beliefs seriously; in fact, there was a generalized stigma about being a practicing Protestant.

I decided to read all the Marxist and socialist books I could find, so as to become acquainted with their premises and goals. Pretty soon my friends and classmates were surprised that someone could challenge their thought from a biblical perspective. They respected my views because I had studied theirs well and could challenge them knowledgeably.

How would you summarize the ideas espoused by many of your Marxist classmates?

Marxists believe that most social problems originate in the struggle between social classes. That struggle, in the context of historic materialism, explains the difficulties the poor face in society. They also maintain that social structures are imposed by the dominant class--the rich. Therefore the working class can't be truly liberated until the old structures are demolished and replaced by a new structure based on equality and social justice for all.

Curiously, both Christians and Marxists seek the betterment and empowerment of the individual. However, they differ radically in the motives and the means to achieve such a goal. The Marxist horizon includes only this present life, while biblical Christianity embraces both the present and the future life.

As an Adventist university student, did you face other challenges?

The most difficult challenge came at the end of my second year of studies. The final exams for six subjects were scheduled for a Sabbath. Unfortunately, I was able to arrange a switch for a different day for only two of the subjects and missed the other four. This meant that I had to repeat them, thus losing a full year of my career. Again, the support of the Adventist students was key in the decision to stand for my convictions, accept the painful results, and eventually serve the church full time.

What did you do after graduation?

I had been working for the Adventist Church in one way or another since I was 18 years old. Immediately after graduation from law school I was hired as the church's attorney. Then, in January 1974, I was asked to become Chile's ADRA director. This happened only four months after the military coup d'etat. It was an extremely difficult period for groups working for social development and assistance in Chile. I had to walk a very thin line.

What attracted you to work for ADRA?

The possibility of implementing the practical dimension of the gospel by helping people in need. ADRA's motto, "Changing the world one life at a time," is an exciting objective. ADRA allows Christians and other compassionate people to practice their love for God and for others in a tangible and most rewarding partnership.

Has your legal training and experience helped you in your work for ADRA?

It has sharpened my understanding of the legal aspects of our activities around the world. It has also allowed me to look at issues more objectively, trying to see the whole picture and evaluate the possible long-term effects of an action before making a decision. The most beneficial result has been the ability to bring a secular perspective to ADRA's religiously-motivated activities and, conversely, a Christian perspective into ADRA's involvement with the secular world.

What features of the Christian message and mission motivate you in your work?

The challenge of discovering or creating new avenues for carrying the gospel and practicing Christian love. When we are surrounded by self-centered individualism, can we accept others as our equals and serve them with integrity? Biblical Christianity motivates us to do so.

As an ADRA official you are exposed to so much suffering in the world. How do you maintain a positive Christian outlook in the midst of such enormous disasters and suffering?

These disasters, with their terrible toll of suffering, give us a momentous understanding of the time of the end and of the imminence of Jesus' return. They also give us a chance to serve now as channels of God's loving concern. As true followers of Jesus, we can't remain as passive witnesses to human suffering.

What aspects of your work bring you the most satisfaction?

The highest reward is to see people's suffering assuaged, lives changing for the better, harmony among individuals and groups achieved, and men and women moving closer to a deeper understanding of God.

What is ADRA looking for in a volunteer or an employee?

The range of skills that ADRA looks for is now broader than when the agency was first established. We need the talents of people that have training and degrees in general administrative skills, agriculture, health, mechanical engineering, planning, training, and public relations/communication. We also need grant writers, financial managers, and accountants.

If people reading this interview are interested in serving others through ADRA, what should they do?

Contact the ADRA director for the country in which they live, or write to Ted Wick at our headquarter's office: ADRA Volunteers, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904, U.S.A.

A closing word. What advice would you give to an Adventist young adult who is studying at a non-Adventist college or university?

Don't face the challenges alone! Seek the support of your Adventist peers or professionals, church elders, pastors. There is nothing more discouraging for a Christian young adult than to struggle with those challenges while lacking the understanding and support of those who share his or her religious convictions. Secondly, organize yourselves. Get together with other Adventist college/university students and agree on practical ways of encouraging one another. If possible, register your group officially at the university. Third, keep things in perspective. There is a rich, full and rewarding life for those who commit themselves to Jesus, no matter how loud or sophisticated the secular criticism may be against that decision.

Interview by Tamara L. Boehmke. Tamara L. Boehmke, a graduate of La Sierra University, is the director of news and information for ADRA International, Silver Spring, Maryland.