LONDON – The rescue of 33 miners from a collapsed mine in Chile was a miracle that even atheists could not deny, said one of the rescued miners to hundreds of Christians on Sunday.
It was standing room only at All Saints Woodford Wells, in north London, as Jose Henriquez took to the stage to testify about the God who saved him and the 32 other miners who were stuck deep underground for more than two months last year.
To have even survived the first 17 days before contact was a miracle in itself, he said. With only a few cans of tuna and biscuits for food, the men joined in obligatory fasting – sometimes up to three days at a time – just to make the food last.
When it became evident that only a miracle would get them out alive, it was Henriquez – known as the "pastor" of the group – that the men approached to guide them in prayer.
The miners came from different denominations and some were atheists, but all 33 took part in the prayer meetings.
"We had one desperate prayer cry and one purpose together. We all were praying 'Lord open up a door of escape. There's no other way unless you do it,'" he said.
The prayer meetings soon evolved into Bible studies, with Henriquez preaching from memory and the men singing worship songs together.
It was as the men continued to pray daily that the presence of God started to be felt more powerfully, Henriquez recalled.
"In the beginning there was such chaos and desperation. We all reacted in so many different ways. But through praying God changed our hearts and we came together in one purpose. We began to lose our fears and gained hope."
The first big test of faith came when the first drill missed them. But rather than giving up, it only spurred them to pray harder that God would help the rescuers locate them.
When the second drill came down, it glanced off a rock at just the right angle to enter the chamber the men had gathered in, said Henriquez. "Everyone, even atheists, agreed that it was a miracle," he said.
After that, the men prayed twice a day. Food, medicine, and messages from family were sent down the shaft. But it was when they each received their own small Bible that the change in the men became even more profound.
"The Bible study and preaching of the word began to change lives as it always does," said Henriquez.
The extent of the change was so apparent that the miners' wives started to testify that their husbands were no longer swearing at them but instead trying to preach to them. By the end of the ordeal, 22 of the miners received Jesus as their Saviour.
"Nobody can deny what they lived down there. We are witnesses of the power of God and what He did down there," said Henriquez.
"Many had bad relationships with their wives, but they began to cherish them and realize how precious it was."
"When I visited the men in hospital, they all said thank God that he did this. All of them experienced a real relationship with God down there.
"I learned to be more tolerant and more patient. Everyone learned lessons from God down there."
It is the unmistakable presence of God that inspired the men to refer to him as the "34th man" in the mine.
Henriquez explained: "We began to feel the presence of this friend, of this invisible miner. We couldn't see him but he was down there with us. We weren't 33 down there but 34 and we were all very clear about that."
The television cameras captured the moment Henriquez and the other miners emerged one by one from the rescue capsule wearing T-shirts saying, 'Thank you God', some getting down on their knees to pray. It was their way of expressing their gratitude for what God had done, he said.
After experiencing God so powerfully, Henriquez is travelling the world to share his testimony and tell others about the living God who answers the prayers of those who cry out to him.
This particular accident, Henriquez believes, is being used by God to reveal his love and invite the world back to him.
"There are so many accidents that happen every day. We know that thousands of people die every day, but this particular accident for some reason God took hold of it in a very special way," he said.
"I haven't come here just to have fun. I have come here because my heart is so grateful to give testimony to this God of mercy and God of grace.
"The only reason I am here is because there is a living God who is alive."
Henriquez's message for people in Britain last night was to seek God today.
He added: "Please do not wait to have to suffer an accident in order to find God or seek him."
Henriquez will make the final stop of his England tour at St. Mary's & St Matthews Church in Cheltenham on Feb. 1.
The tour was organized by Church Mission Society.