Mario Veloso: Dialogue with an Adventist poet from Chile

Mario Veloso is an Adventist Christian by commitment, a church administrator by vocation, and a poet by that indescribable beat within his heart. A Chilean by birth, he received his first education in his homeland and later studied in Argentina and the United States. He holds master’s degrees in history and in divinity from Andrews University, and a doctorate in theology from Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires.

When he was 14, Mario left home to begin his secondary education in a public school in southern Chile, where his father had already preregistered him. But he was in for a disappointment: a bureaucratic error had left out his name among the registered students. He had no alternative except to go back to Pitrufquen, his home town, and register at the local Adventist school.

A disaster? No, says Veloso. It was a miracle that set him out on the journey to Adventism and the discovery of his life’s vision and mission. As a Seventh-day Adventist worker he has served the church at all levels, including youth director and secretary of the South American Division. He also founded the Latin American Adventist Theological Seminary. Currently, Veloso serves as an associate secretary of the General Conference. As such he is involved in the placing of missionaries in various parts of the world, in working with administrative and theological committees, and in crafting policy for the world church.

Veloso is a writer and an accomplished poet. In addition to many articles, he has published several books including El compromiso cristiano (The Christian Commitment, 1974), Comentario do Evangelho de João (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1982), Livre para amar (Free to Love, 1984), and Cristianismo y revolución (Christianity and Revolution, 1987). The University Press of Chile has published four books of his poetry: Regreso (Return, 1987), Ciudades del hombre (Cities of Men, 1988), Una palabra (One Word, 1992), and Al sur de la distancia (South From a Distance, 1995). A fifth one is under preparation. Mario and his wife, Lucy, have a daughter and a son, both of whom are physicians.

Your journey to Adventism began by accident?

No, I’d say providential guidance. While attending that Adventist day school, I learned of an Adventist boarding academy and college. Since my first experience was positive, the following year I moved to the boarding school. There a group of close friends helped me understand and appreciate Adventism. Two factors impressed me. First, the consistency of my friends—they lived what they professed to believe. Second, the Adventist beliefs, particularly the understanding of Bible prophecy. I found both very attractive. So during that first year at Chile Adventist Academy, at 15, I was baptized.

When did you begin writing?

As I was completing my elementary school, I began to read literature, write a few poems, and dream of becoming a writer. I didn’t tell anyone about it; it seemed too presumptuous. My first serious effort at writing was a novel about a person who moves from the city to a farm and goes through a series of shocking experiences as he tries to adjust to a very different environment. I was reflecting my own situation, since we too lived in a city and regularly visited a farm my father owned. I completed that writing experiment when I was 14.

Did you receive any encouragement?

Not really, but I did have a model. One of my teachers, Altenor Guerrero, was a poet, and I admired him very much. Although I never told him about my dreams and my first attempts at writing poetry, I looked up to him as an ideal person.

Why do you write poetry?

For two reasons. First, because it allows me to express myself freely. Poetry does not require you to address specific subjects, nor does it restrict you with constraining rules. Any experience or impression, fleeting or insignificant as it may be, can lead to a poem. Second, poetry lets me experiment with language. As you seek to communicate, poetry forces you to explore the whole range of expression, trying to find the most concise and effective way of conveying a feeling or an experience.

In your formative years as a poet, who influenced you the most?

For a boy growing up in Chile during those years, the influence of Gabriela Mistral was unavoidable. Born in North-Central Chile, she was writing and publishing widely. Mistral received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1945, the first awarded to a Latin American writer. Later I became acquainted with the work of another Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who received the Nobel Prize in 1971. While Mistral’s strength was in her content, Neruda taught me that expression is equally important in poetry. Vicente García Huidobro, a Chilean poet residing in France, also showed me the possibilities of using language with total freedom.

Did you also read poets from other cultures?

I was already in college when I discovered Walt Whitman. He impressed me tremendously with his ability to express himself as a person. His Song of Myself, even in translation, allows the reader to get in touch with his soul and to experience nature with him. I was also impressed by Letters to a Young Poet, by the German writer Reiner Maria Rilke, which led me to look for his poetry. I learned much from him, and even now I go back to his poetry with pleasure. Ezra Pound also fascinated me strongly. I realize Pound was emotionally unbalanced, but his use of the language in its fullest range is admirable. Whenever I can, I try to read poetry in the original language. I’m now reading a Russian poet in a bilingual edition, using my limited understanding of the Russian language and comparing it with the translation. It is fascinating to see how the thoughts and feelings of the poet are conveyed into another language, and how the music of poetry comes across in the translation.

What leads you to compose a poem?

The impulse springs from a life experience. A specific incident can impress us in various ways and can also be expressed in different modes. I can narrate it, analyze it, or convey it poetically. Frequently this poetic experience resonates with my own religious understanding. That is why I consider David the ideal poet, the one I most admire. Like no other writer, David was able to put together life, poetry, and his experience of God in a single piece in the Psalms.

Under what circumstances do you generally write your poems?

Usually when I’m traveling—either waiting, or flying, or working in a city away from home. The experience of seeing other people, sensing a new environment, and making contact with a different culture makes a strong impression on me, and a poem begins to be born.

How has your poetry been received in literary circles in Chile?

To my happy surprise, rather well. In addition to positive reviews, I have received favorable letters from readers. The Chilean Writers’ Society has invited me to become a member. Whenever I visit Chile, the society organizes a meeting in which I read some of my poems and talk about the literary scene in the countries I have visited. Currently, the editors of Chile University Press are evaluating what could be my fifth book of poetry published by them.

Are they aware of your religious convictions?

Yes, and they respect them. A few months ago I talked to the literary critic who teaches literature at the University of Chile and who wrote the introduction to my book Una palabra (One Word, 1992). She told me that after reading my poems, she sensed that it is impossible to separate my religion from my poetry.

Please tell us about the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Chile.

We have about 80,000 members in a population of 12 million. Although our church is numerically small in comparison with the Roman Catholic Church and the Pentecostal Church—the two largest in Chile—we are well known and quite influential. Our educational work is respected. We are the only Protestant church that operates a government-recognized university: Chile Adventist University, which offers several programs, including a master’s in public health. The work of ADRA is well appreciated, particularly its relief ministry during our frequent earthquakes.

Are there any significant developments in our relations with other religious bodies in Chile?

The most notable is the growing number of Pentecostal leaders and members joining our church. Having discovered that our doctrines are thoroughly grounded in the Scriptures, Pentecostal bishops and pastors are asking us to offer them special seminars. Many of them have been baptized, and we have encouraged them to continue pastoring their congregations. If current trends continue, Adventist membership could double in the near future.

Our world church membership is now nearing nine million. You have travelled widely, and you are a shrewd observer of church trends. Where do you see the Seventh-day Adventist Church going as we approach the 21st century?

The dramatic growth of our membership is a miracle. Along with growth, there are problems. One such problem is a growing tension between two contrasting visions for the Adventist Church: between the one that is politically motivated, seeking power and an accommodation with the rest of society, and the one that is motivated by the mission of the church and is radically committed to its fulfillment. This tension between compromise and mission is likely to increase in the future, but as we approach the end of time, God’s promises will not fail.

How would you characterize the attitude of Adventist young people toward the church?

There are countries in which Adventist youth and young adults have a strong identification with their church. They are deeply involved in its internal activities and in its outreach, frequently occupying leadership positions. At the other extreme, there are also places in which one can see a distance between the youth and the church leaders. And there are in-between positions. Young people are always driven by something that is authentic. Our challenge is how to respond properly to the needs and expectations of Adventist youth. I am hopeful, because I know that under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the idealism and commitment of our youth will continue to grow as a very positive force for the church in accomplishing its mission.

I Am

I was just a boy—silent, sad,

and lonely.
I took long walks in the wheatfields.
My blood absorbed
their rays of light,
shimmering across the countryside.
I heard the music of the river
and felt the calling of the roads.
In the summer evenings,
walking alone,
I ate the simple pilgrim’s bread.

Left behind was the sleeping stubble

of the field I never inherited.
Wheat, light, and country roads—
all are memories.
But another Wheat and another Summer
filled with light are mine now.
I’m a pilgrim in this world.
The roads keep calling me,
for I am a messenger of the Cross.

Your Hand

Your hand has lighted a candle

that no wind can put out.
My poor house, I know,
has broken windows,
and the old roof
has let the rain come in.
Hurricanes have left my body
naked in the field,
and cruel hands
have torn my flesh and bones.
The nights were dark and icy.
The claws, sharp and vicious.
But your hand, oh Jesus,
has lighted a candle
that no wind can extinguish.
I was sad, but I trusted you.
I know your hand cradles the dawn.
Your pierced hand has opened a window
that lets me see a New World,
the glorious New Kingdom
that you are preparing
and soon will appear.

Five Loaves of Bread

Our pain never ends; it expands.

It tears our body with nails of steel,
confusing our mind and making it spin.
Fear strangles us.
There is no inner peace, no trust,
no intimate friends.
Our own selfishness rules.
For how long will this hellish power
continue to rule the earth?
For how long will the agony
of eating other’s bread
feed our bitter envy?
How long, o Lord, how long!

I have five loaves of bread.

Here they are, Master.
Will you transform them
into bread that satisfies all?

Mortal

I am not eternal:

just a flower of time
and water
from which life
is slowly dribbling.

Soft plume

of a vaporous cloud;
for a brief second
it balances itself
and then descends as rain.

Each day my rose

drops its petals
one by one.
When the last one falls
on the friendly soil,
I will fall sleep.

Darkest night,

lifeless stump,
dry fountain.
Nothing.

No more dreams or songs,

no more joy or tears,
no more wishes, time,
or memories. Silence.

But when Dawn comes

I will live again,
full of light and vigor—
forever.

Interview by Humberto M. Rasi. Humberto M. Rasi is director of the Education Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and editor-in-chief of Dialogue. Interested readers can write to Dr. Mario Veloso at the editorial address of this journal.