On September 20, 2017, two weeks after Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean and brushed Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico full on. For two days, winds of up to 155mph battered the island, and 40 inches of rain fell. One man said he and his family sheltered in a closet at the center of their house for many hours. They came out for a few hours while the eye of the storm provided a lull, but then they had to go back in the closet for another six or so hours for the rest of the storm.
In the aftermath, help came from many quarters. FEMA, of course, offered assistance with recovery. Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian operation headed by Billy Graham’s son Franklin, gave money to help churches recover so that they could become gathering places for the communities still without power and other resources. The Red Cross came. Many others. UCC Disaster Ministries continues to work there. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has been running recovery efforts focused on homes. Our group worked through the Disciples program.
Over 18 months after the hurricane, many homes are still unlivable. Roofs torn off, wiring fried, water issues, windows and doors blasted by the hurricane, paint stripped because the storm was like two days of power washing your house, etc. One person told us that there is enough work to last 10 years. Three weeks before we came, a report came out saying that there are still 100,000 buildings with blue tarps on the roof.
Many people who had the means to leave Puerto Rico moved to the mainland. People in the professions—doctors, teachers—left in droves and, of course, took their children. 400 schools have closed. Houses are abandoned. We frequently drove past one house that was full of dirt from a landslide and just left that way.
So here we come, 25 people from UCC and Disciples churches in the Pacific Northwest, ranging in age from 16 to 70s or older. Our trip was put together by the Pacific Northwest Global Ministries team. Global Ministries is a combined effort of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Our co-chairs for this region are the Rev. Mary Olney-Loyd, who has preached here; and the Rev. Rick Russell, whom we are happy to claim as a Prospect member and moderator and all-around wonderful person. Our leader on this trip was Randy Crowe, who was camp director at N-Sid-Sen in Idaho for many years, loves to laugh, and can fix or build a whole lot of things.
First morning, we’re all geared up, ready to go. Chalk board full of houses, each with their own task list. Jose: “You are not here to paint and build. If that happens, so much the better. You are here to bring hope and love.”
After 18 months of trauma and broken houses and power outages and dead trees and things still not being fixed, people are feeling forgotten, not heard, not valued. Jose helped us to see that whether we knew how to build entire houses from scratch or could maybe just wield a paint brush, our presence in the homes of these people meant that they were not forgotten, they were valued, they were seen and heard. Even if our Spanish wasn’t that great and we couldn’t always understand them.
Puerto Rico has been through trauma with this hurricane, and people are still dealing with PTSD. Suicide rates have spiked as people lost hope and gave up. So when Jose said our job was to bring hope and love, I realized that maybe just by being there, we were making some kind of difference—even people like me, who don’t know much about building repair. Just walking alongside people makes a difference.
Nuts and bolts of the work we were doing: painting sealer on roofs that had been repaired after the hurricane. Painting walls. Fixing window cranks that the hurricane stripped—Norma had not been able to open and close her windows properly all this time. Rehanging doors so they closed properly. At one house that Rick’s team was working on, rewiring, installing a ceiling, painting.
The people we met were not powerless, but they didn’t necessarily have the means to make these repairs themselves. And if it weren’t for volunteer teams such as ours, these repairs wouldn’t get done. So at the home of Julio, my team got the water off his roof and then applied two coats of sealer. And Julio made us a couple of fabulous lunches. (Everything there was about bananas—plantains, banana pancakes, fried bananas, raw bananas. Banana trees all over.)
At the home of Norma, her brother-in-law came out in the morning and brought coffee. Her sister hung out and talked with us, practicing her English. And Norma, who is waiting for a liver transplant and who is also a chef, made these fabulous spreads at lunchtime: rice, chicken, banana pancakes, and more.
[Rick to talk about the house where his team worked?]
On Thursday afternoon we knocked off work at our various house sites early and drove an hour or so down out of the mountains to the city of Bayamon, where the Disciples headquarters is located. There we met Miguel Morales, the General Minister for the Discipulos de Cristo de Puerto Rico. And he told us a couple of stories that I want to share.
After Hurricane Irma, the Disciples in Puerto Rico put the word out to collect food and medical supplies to ship to the US Virgin Islands, which really got clobbered. They collected 80 pallets’ worth of materials at the Disciples headquarters and more at a Disciples church in the southern city of Ponce. A few days before they were scheduled to load these pallets onto ships, the ports closed because Hurricane Maria was on its way. They made sure the pallets were well wrapped, and then everyone hunkered down for the hurricane.
Of the 105 Disciples churches in Puerto Rico, 90 sustained damage. And the day after the hurricane passed, those pallets of food and medical supplies were opened, and the churches started serving meals and tending to the people.
In the city of Ponce, the pastor of the Disciples church was concerned about his neighbor, who did not attend the church and who lived in a flimsy house. The pastor invited the neighbor to weather the storm inside the church. The neighbor said he wanted to stay in his house to protect it against looters. The pastor said, “Why don’t you weather the storm in my office, which has a window looking out on your house? Then you can keep an eye on it.” So the man stayed in the pastor’s office—and watched as his entire house was blown away. He lived in the pastor’s office for another two weeks until alternative housing could be found for him. That pastor, meanwhile, used to be a chef, so the day after the hurricane, he started serving meals for over 100 people per day.
On Wednesday evening, our group attended a midweek service at the Disciples church in a town called Orocovis. The service was more evangelical than what we’re used to. There was a praise band and a choir of four women with mics; the words were on screens overhead so we could sing along. We were warmly welcomed, and about six pews were reserved for our group right up front. During prayer time, people could come forward and have deacons lay hands on them and pray for them. One woman came forward along with the rest; 3-4 people surrounded her. And one of the women there stood behind this woman and held her hands out, as if she knew the woman was in great anguish and might fall over. Sure enough, the woman receiving prayer let out a shriek of pain several times and doubled over, sobbing. She didn’t fall, but someone was ready to catch her if she did. Eventually the woman being prayed over stood up, calmed down, and went back to her pew.
This whole week was about being the church, about coming alongside people who have known trauma and anguish, who have felt alone and neglected, who could use some love and hope. The Puerto Ricans are doing this for themselves. The Disciples church is doing this with and for its people and communities. And for one week, we got to bring love and hope and some paint to our encounters with the people we met there.
When Jesus died on a cross, the center fell out of the lives of his disciples. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, didn’t know how to move forward. He went backward instead—back to fishing, which he did before he knew Jesus. And Jesus showed up, said, “Here’s where to fish,” said, “Come have breakfast—it’s fish and bread,” said, “I’m still here, still with you,” said, “And there’s still work for you to do. Feed my sheep.”
The people of Puerto Rico lost their old lives, their former ways of being, their homes, and more. They, too, are living into that time of “now what?” Of trying to figure out how to move forward. And they’re doing it. Jesus is still there with them, still finding ways for them to have houses that work. They are still feeding each other bread and fish—and a lot of bananas. Puerto Rico is rising. It won’t be the same as before, just as the disciples were not the same after Jesus died. Puerto Rico is discovering and creating its resilience, figuring out how to heal and move forward. And for one week, we got to be a part of that.
Thank you to all in this congregation who helped to make that trip happen. I would go back in a heartbeat. And I’m carrying with me that we are always called to bring hope and love, wherever we are, wherever we go. There are always those feeling traumatized, unvalued, unseen, unheard. We get to walk alongside, to stand behind ready to catch each other when we fall, to show up with some paint. Let us be rising, too—like Puerto Rico, like the risen Christ, like the disciples who follow him to this day. Amen.