by Leslie Latham
In the months since the winds stopped howling and the waters receded over the island of Puerto Rico, Presbyterians have responded to the plight of those who have been affected, an astonishing 40% of whom still don’t have power, and an appalling number who still lack access to clean water and sufficient food.
In spite of bureaucratic roadblocks (and seeming apathy) on the part of our nation, congregations and presbyteries throughout the Northeast have put their faith into action. Park Avenue Church (Cayuga-Syracuse), First Rahway (Elizabeth), First Spanish Church (Boston), Not So Churchy (New York City), and New Life Church in Atlanta, GA have each established relationships with congregations in Puerto Rico. Additionally, First Tonawanda (Western New York), and First Elmira (Geneva) have raised funds to send to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), earmarked for the island. Príncipe De Paz (Monmouth), has created its own relief fund, from which funds are being sent directly to families of current and former members, all of whom have been greatly affected by Hurricane Maria. The Synod's Puerto Rico Partnerships Taskforce has been very glad to assist and support these partnerships in whatever way has been needed.
Several presbyteries—Elizabeth, New York City, Boston, and Northern New England—have also sent significant funds to PDA or directly to judicatories in Puerto Rico, and the Presbytery of New York City is working with local agencies to help resettlement efforts for those who have been able to relocate to the continental United States.
Let me tell you one story. On December 1, First Presbyterian Church in Elmira (Geneva Presbytery) held a fundraiser. Felix Perez, the church’s mission organizer, has family in Puerto Rico and, therefore, knows the need very well. Felix is one of those connected people we all want in our congregations. He knows everybody everywhere, and has the ability to raise funds, not by manipulating, but by yanking a bit on your heartstrings when he tells you stories. Felix's team rallied a huge crew of volunteers, including Joann and Ron Tunison, who have been to the island many times, and pastor Rev. Betsey Crimmins, who has spurred their mission efforts for more than two decades. Together they set a five-figure goal, all of which would go directly to aid the people they know and love in Puerto Rico. While by the end of the night they had not yet reached their very ambitious goal (having “only” raised $5,000), more was flowing in thanks to an ongoing silent auction and television coverage.
Early arrivals for the chicken and biscuit dinner were Nadir and Joan Figueroa, whose 15th floor apartment in San Juan suffered water damage when their hurricane shutters proved inadequate against Maria’s winds. Joan’s sister lives a short walk from First Church and has offered them sanctuary while they wait. A steady stream of well-wishers in both Spanish and English flowed by their table, and the couple seemed deeply moved by what this community, itself hard-hit by job losses and a fractured economy, was doing for their fellow islanders.
What can the members of the Synod of the Northeast do?
First and foremost, keep praying, privately and publicly. Keep our sisters and brothers in mind.
As further information becomes available, we will publicize how you can help with more direct aid.
If you're interested in forming a partnership with a Puerto Rican congregation or presbytery, contact Synod Networker, Amaury Tañón-Santos by email for assistance in making the necessary connections.
When it's possible for us to send workers to help with the cleanup, we'll publicize that as well (right now, it would be more of a hindrance than help, as there is inadequate food and clean water for those who live there).
Lobby your representatives to act humanely toward the US territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Make sure you "like" the Synod's Facebook Page, watch for email newsletters and updates, and check our webpage often for updates and stories. We will be featuring budding relationships between our Synod's communities and congregations and organizations in Puerto Rico to inspire you. We have been blown away by the camaraderie already generated.
We are so grateful for all that Presbyterians in the #synodne have already done! God’s blessings be upon all those in Puerto Rico, and upon you as well.
The Rev. Leslie Latham is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tonawanda (Western New York) and a member of the Synod Commission's Puerto Rico Partnerships Taskforce.
Photo Credits: First Presbyterian Church of Elmira, Ron Rehner photographer.