Students among first to help in Puerto Rico after hurricane

By the Rev. Tom Wall

We sat in the sanctuary of Iglesia Methodista El Aposento Alto in Maunabo, Puerto Rico, as Pastor Johanna pointed out with great delight that the church now had power 115 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

The members greeted the announcement without fanfare, knowing full well that most of the community still did not have power and most likely would not until at least May. Power lines still hang limp from poles, across the fronts of homes and along the side of the roads. The reality for most people in this, the hardest-hit area of Puerto Rico, is that the recovery is going very slowly. Sometimes it seems that progress is stuck in park. No power means no clean water. Everyday activities are tedious, if not impossible. Some have lost their homes, and some homes have been rendered unlivable.

The Methodist Student Network, the Wesley Foundation at the University of South Carolina, has a mission trip planned each January before classes begin, but we had not planned to go to Puerto Rico. We began to get the sense that God might be calling us to respond to the devastation and suffering when several from our ministry shared their experience of going to Puerto Rico over Thanksgiving. We began talking with others who might join together to form a team and decided to go in faith, not yet having raised any financial support.

The Methodist Student Network and representatives from Honduras Outreach, Simpsonwood United Methodist Church, Atlanta, and Rural Mission formed the team; friends, churches and USC stepped forward to provide the finances.

We soon discovered when we arrived that while many people were resilient and hopeful, there were so many others who were suffering from deep grief and depression. Some who had relatives on the United States mainland had left to stay with them, weighing whether they would ever return, and many who remained were living with family or friends. Others were living in what was left of their houses often with just a blue tarp over their heads.

In the month after Hurricane Maria, the members of Iglesia Methodista El Aposento Alto, who hosted our team, had been preparing and delivering hundreds of meals to members of the community. Pastor Johanna had visited several hundred families to see how they were doing and what needs they had. She had also catalogued the needed repairs and had prioritized the projects. A number of other Methodist churches were also involved.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had interviewed many homeowners, but no money had yet been provided to begin rebuilding or repairing. It was now required to rebuild using concrete and blocks instead of traditional wood and tin. A number of people were waiting as they appealed their FEMA grant, as it was not nearly enough to rebuild. Puerto Rico was already in the economic doldrums even before Irma and Maria hit and now it was much worse.

As the Puerto Rico Conference and the United Methodist Committee on Relief were still having deliberations about how to proceed, the local church in Maunabo was ready to go to work. All they needed were some partners who could bring volunteers and resources to start the repair and rebuilding.

Our team was the first for the local church to try as a kind of test run, or model, for working with the many mission teams that hopefully will follow. We had on our team great expertise that could guide the week and the future process. Laurie Willing, the director of Honduras Outreach (and mother of an MSN alum), and Anderson Mack, from Rural Mission, had much experience in working with mission teams and could advise on best practices as this enterprise began. The MSN student team members had gone on numerous mission trips and had wisdom to offer.

Just a few minutes away from Maunabo, in the seaside community of Patillas, the Methodist Women of Puerto Rico had a camp/retreat center where teams like us could stay. The camp, set just 30 yards from the lovely but battered beach, had everything needed. While there was no electricity, we bought generators to make the camp functional for teams. We did some repairs to the building and the roof, as well as some rebar work to rebuild the perimeter wall. The church members took turns cooking lunch and dinner and delivered it to the worksites, but breakfast was prepared in the camp kitchen.

We heard many accounts of the killer storm. Each person whose home we worked on had some unnerving experience. Maria was living in a side room of her mom’s house. As the hurricane winds increased, she held onto one of her windows to try to keep it in place. After several hours of struggle, she gave up and let go. Her arms just gave way. Soon after that she lost her other window, and then the roof and the walls. She fled next door to her mother’s house. Maria lost everything. Now she and her teenage son are living with Ester, her mom, in a small space. When we arrived to begin work she came out to greet us and join in the work. This happened on each of the three home sites, but some elderly homeowners, unable to work, instead kept the group supplied with delicious Puerto Rican coffee.

When Lourdes lost power at her house (as well as the side and part of the roof of her house) the respirator that her father used would no longer work. As a result, over the next several months, his condition deteriorated, and he suffered several respiratory attacks, which eventually killed him. He died when we were there.

One home’s repair was completed by the time we departed; however, the other two are still to be finished, but there are materials and tools left behind to complete the projects in the near future. The church members who worked with us have skills, but not always the time or resources, to complete the work.

Not only did the buildings receive repairs, but also a structure for continuing the work began to take shape. We left behind the beginnings of a well-stocked “tool shed” with materials, tools, equipment and generators to use onsite for local workers and future mission teams. In addition, several hundred portable water filtration devices were bought, and church members were trained to go door-to-door to distribute and teach people to provide for themselves clean, potable water.

Perhaps the most significant building was that of the relationships between and within the church, community and mission team. We discovered our common bond of Christ’s love that called us together in this difficult time. Strangers became friends, and friends became family. We learned once more how the body of Christ is so beautifully equipped with a diversity of gifts and perspectives to allow such work to begin.

The work in Puerto Rico continues. The struggle is draining; the hardships are challenging. It will take hope and perseverance for healing and recovery to win out.

We went in faith and left in faith sure that it is God who is faithful and able to provide.

Wall is campus minister for Methodist Student Network.

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