By Amaury Tañón-Santos
One year ago, just weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and other neighboring Caribbean islands, the Synod’s Mission & Ministries Commission decided to set aside funding and time to encourage the congregations and presbyteries of the Synod to consider ways to partner with Puerto Rican Presbyterians in what is still a very long process of recovery. During the 2018 Fall Synod Commission meeting, commission members had the opportunity to engage in some conversation about our regional and church-wide strategies to support Puerto Ricans in this process.
In the days directly before the Synod Commission gathered, I had the privilege of hosting a visit of the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, recently appointed Associate for Puerto Rico Recovery, and David Myers, Senior Advisor for 2017 Hurricane Recovery, both with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). We have been in conversation for quite some time now to make sure they were aware of the support and plans of folks from our Synod, and for me to learn the developments of PDA’s plans and partnerships alongside our sister Puerto Rico mid-councils. Edwin and David wanted to visit our synod because they wanted to have a glimpse of the discernment many are engaged in around recovery, presence, and support of Puerto Rico Presbyterians.
Our first stop was with the Bedford Presbyterian Church in New Hampshire (Presbytery of Northern New England). Bedford Church was one of the first congregations to reach out to the Synod on discerning their readiness to visit Puerto Rico. Support for PDA and other organizations around recovery efforts is part of the way this congregation expresses their witness to Jesus Christ. Having a significant knowledge base – for planning, construction, and experience – it was also refreshing to hear their clear articulation that the purpose of a visit is not only to provide skills and labor but also to be present with a community, whose needs notwithstanding, had a story to tell. For the folks in Bedford Church, being welcomed into that story continues to be a transformational experience for their faith witness.
Edwin and David also met with the Rev. Leslie Latham of the Puerto Rico Partnerships Taskforce, Mission Coordinator Margaret Mitsuyasu, and me. This was the first face-to-face gathering of the Synod’s taskforce and PDA staff. One of the things that was clear from our conversation is that Puerto Rico’s recovery process will indeed take a long time. It was also clear that the most effective methods for supporting this recovery work will be through partnerships with organizations that are closely connected to and with affected communities, that have the means to provide necessary resources for the manifold services required in this process, and that are committed to the long-term nature of this recovery process.
The Synod Commission also welcomed Edwin and David for an hour-long conversation on PDA’s engagement in and with Puerto Rico Presbyterians. We learned that, after what was a difficult time getting organized, Puerto Rico Presbyterian mid-councils, PDA, and other related partners have been active during the relief and now recovery efforts. It was inspiring to learn how each of the more than 70 congregations and the three presbyteries in Puerto Rico have been significant partners with their communities – providing food and water, medical and psychological support, educational support to children, and of course a spiritual presence. These and many other forms of support respond to the gospel’s call to be “salt of the earth and light to the world.” PDA, in conjunction with the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and the Board of Pensions (BOP) are finding ways to provide respite to pastoral leaders of these congregations and the elected leaders of the presbyteries. PDA has disbursed well over 1 million dollars to support relief efforts for communities around congregations, for the rebuilding of church sanctuaries – many of which have been centers for community organizing and support – and to encourage recovery strategies. PDA is also funding a Disaster Recovery Coordinator for each presbytery who will serve as primary contact on efforts that support recovery in their area. The overall takeaway from our conversation was the reiteration of a truth we already knew: the process of recovery in Puerto Rico will take a long time, and Puerto Rico Presbyterians will need all the support possible.
The Synod of the Northeast is committed to long-term support. Many groups are organizing their presence in Puerto Rico through PDA’s Call Center or through other trusted partners. Among them, Rev. Leslie Latham, who was recently elected moderator-elect of the Synod Assembly, and Joanne Tunison, an elder from First Presbyterian Church of Elmira (Presbytery of Geneva) are organizing two back-to-back work trips to Lares, Puerto Rico, at the end of February and beginning of March. To learn more about how to get involved, read their invitation letter here. Those who are interested in joining that trip can reach out to them at PRmission19@gmail.com.
The Puerto Rico Partnership Taskforce continues to work on your behalf and will continue to communicate with you the many forms our partnerships are taking and the ways PDA is encouraging leaders, congregations, and presbyteries to join in this effort. Stay tuned to your email and to our Facebook page for more information. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to reach out. I look forward helping you in your discernment about support to Puerto Rico.
The Rev. Dr. Amaury Tañón-Santos is the Synod Networker and the staff support person for the Puerto Rico Partnerships Taskforce (PRPT). For more information on the PRPT’s work or the Synod’s other connectional endeavors, you may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.